George Orwell once wrote, ”International football is the continuation of war by other means.”
Following a period of time tantamount to that of the Cold War, the rivalry between Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA has once again hit fever pitch. With the former just recently throwing down the gauntlet with a frankly stellar effort, attention has now shifted over to developer EA Sports Canada to see just how well its latest iteration in the FIFA series compares.
Surprisingly then, with FIFA 17, it’s safe to say that a lot has changed. From an engine upgrade to Frostbite, the inclusion of a narrative campaign in ‘The Journey’, and a plethora of gameplay tweaks and rewrites, this year’s entry very much feels as though it’s a direct response to Pro Evolution Soccer’s re-ascension to the top of the footballing pyramid. In fact, it’s sort of kick that the series has been needing for some time now. Firstly, the most distinguishable shift associated with the upgraded engine is undoubtedly the lighting, likenesses, and animations. Utilizing the strengths of Frostbite – which powers the likes of Battlefield and Battlefront – FIFA 17’s lighting is simply stunning. The floodlights of each stadium now accurately descend on the pitch during late kick-offs, player shadows feel more dynamic and purposeful, and the likenesses are a tier above what we’ve seen in previous iterations. For better or worse, Gervinho’s glistening forehead has never looked more pronounced.
Related: FIFA 17 web app now available
Speaking of animations for a moment, the improvements are wholesale; the way shirts hug the different muscles of the torso, the celebratory moves, the nuanced way passes can be executed, and the manner in which players can scamper through bouts of pressure – it’s all beautiful. Homoeroticism aside, even slide tackling carries a lot more momentum and follow-through than ever before. From a gameplay standpoint, it makes you really consider your options because if you commit, your inertia may carry you too far and take you out of the tussle entirely.
Conversely, the more realistic animations do make way for a more finicky sense of control; once players get a little too close for comfort, or even when you’re trying to burst through a small gap in-between a gang of alert defenders, the movement transitions can at times feel clunky and slow. It adds a level of unpredictability that’s been sorely lacking for years but it oftentimes feels as though it’s the luck of the draw despite what play you’re actually trying to orchestrate. In that sense, the argument of scripting that’s been raging for years has seemingly been put to rest but with it will now come a slew of complaints that the game’s unbalanced or just downright too erratic. In the online realm especially, you can bet it’ll be the source of much strife.
With that level of unpredictability does come many moments of excitement, mind. The sheer amount of rebounds alone can attest to that. At its core, FIFA 17 rewards gambling in your build-up play; taking shots from an angle, squared passes from the byline, quick transitions from defense to attack, playing off the shoulder of the last defender while a through ball is enroute – they’re all effective avenues for success and thankfully so. In truth, despite the inconsistency, there is also merit in methodically constructing a play with short, varied passes, because space does appear in time and with that, opportunities, too. Set pieces have also been totally revamped and aside from the penalties, it’s all positive. Corner kicks can now be taken zonally, or by controlling a single player in the mix within the box, free kicks within shooting range are now viewed lower down and behind the player, and free kicks from further out are now taken from a horizontal view so you can plant it at the six-yard line with ease.
FIFA 17 stars feel more individual
Beyond the points of contention mentioned, when it works, it really works. For the most part, every player feels more self-aware and situational, shifting their positions and temperaments depending on what the opposition is doing with the ball. Taking a leaf out of Pro Evolution Soccer’s ‘Player ID’ system, certain stars do feel more individual beyond just stat boosts in key areas. For instance, Zlatan Ibrahimović has a tendency to use his physicality and outmuscle defenders when his back is to goal, and he’s always on the lookout for a flick or back-heel to bring others into play, too. That said, there are instances where you’ll attempt a lobbed wraparound through-ball that you would’ve been able to pull off in previous years but in FIFA 17 will have you on your backside in no time. While not on the level where the game is systematically mimicking a player’s’ real-life tells and tactical propensities, it does feel more distinctive.
Aside from the engine overhaul, the second biggest addition to this year’s FIFA is ‘The Journey’ – a cinematic, rags-to-riches campaign that puts you in the shoes of young fledging Alex Hunter – a Marcos Rashford-type character with the steely, indifferent gaze of Anthony Martial – who embarks on a momentous climb from ‘jumpers for goalposts’ to Wembley stadium over the course of a storied season. And to be honest, surprisingly, it’s actually rather good.
Taking you on ‘Journey’ with Man Utd youngster
Despite the acting feeling as though it’d be right at home on a Christmas special of Eastenders, it’s readily apparent that there’s been a lot of time, and most importantly, heart poured into it. From diverse, likeable characters to true-to-life appearances from some of the sport’s biggest stars, this isn’t just some run-of-the-mill career mode playbook, rather something that’s a bit more substantive. It’s a breath of fresh air, really. Even the little touches – ones that extend beyond the moment-to-moment gameplay – such as Alex’s mannerisms, his little interactions, and the audible gestures he makes in times of triumph that you don’t see from other players in exhibition mode make everything feel a lot more personable. And that’s no mean feat, because, despite the supporting cast being relatively spry, Alex himself is rather dull – a concession that’s inevitable when the protagonist needs to be a blank slate for the players to project themselves onto.
As one would expect from EA Sports Canada, the presentation in ‘The Journey’ is flawless; sharp editing, a decidedly cinematic feel, a surprisingly robust cast of players, (includes the likes of Harry Kane, who plays more than a bit part) and enough story beats to compensate the inevitable lulls in the by-and-large drill-centric gameplay, it’s safe to say that the inclusion of ‘The Journey’ is this year’s biggest accomplishment. Without delving into spoiler territory, the fifteen-hour campaign (which lasts a single season) does a commendable job at replicating a young player’s career trajectory and never truly tapers off to a point where you’d consider packing it in and leaving Alex Hunter high and dry. What’ll prove most interesting is just how EA Sports Canada treats the mode in the years to come. One thing’s for sure, though, it’s the sort of fertile ground that’s ripe for expansion.
As for the game’s standard career mode, there’s the sort of iterative updates we’ve come to expect year on year. With FIFA 17, you can now customize yourself more than ever before, with the creation of an avatar to parade the touchline being the chief cosmetic addition. Moreover, there’s a keener focus on handling your club’s finances with revamped systems in place for you to juggle and keep yourself in the black. After all, last thing we need is another Leeds United situation. On top of new leagues such as J1 and the Brasileirão, and you’ll even have the ability to drop Wayne Rooney – an act that’s nigh impossible in real life despite how he plays. In that sense, perhaps it’s not very realistic.
Build a winning squad with FIFA 17 Ultimate Team
With regards to the all-consuming Ultimate Team – EA Sports’ behemoth mode that replicates the childish wonder of getting a holographic Merlin football sticker back in the ’90s – it’s a matter of refinement rather than revolution this time around. The addition of squad building challenges tasks players with creating a squad around certain criteria and the weekly league-based ‘FUT Champions’ feature will undoubtedly satiate long-time players but for everyone else it’s little to change your view. The often-ignored Pro Clubs has gotten a little bit of love, too, with better customization options and fine tuning to the way your player grows.
At a base level, FIFA 17 is a lot like Mario Balotelli – a precociously capable player punctuated by missteps along the way. The ability is there, the application not always, but there’s often signs that something good could be on the horizon. It’s safe to say that this is FIFA’s biggest upheaval in years, and when it works, it’s fantastic – when it doesn’t, it can be downright galling. Thankfully the addition of ‘The Journey’, the engine shift to Frostbite, and the strides towards a more unpredictable, methodical representation of The Beautiful Game render FIFA 17 a game certainly worth playing. Of course, while other players in the game, primarily that of Pro Evolution Soccer, are racing ahead in the gameplay stakes, much like Balotelli, you can never quite rule out FIFA to come out swinging when it matters.