FIFA 17 Review (Xbox One)
It’s 2 a.m. and I’ve been playing FIFA 17's new mode ‘The Journey’ for the past five hours. Well, at least I think it's 2 a.m. -- I’m far too hooked by the mode's addictive qualities to look at my phone. Alex Hunter’s tale is an intriguing one, and my personal mission to achieve glory as a member of the AFC Bournemouth squad has engulfed my interest.
I don’t want to venture elsewhere, but there's more to discover. After I've sampled its entire feature set, I come to realize that FIFA 17 is somewhat of a divided experience on the pitch –- a game of two halves, if you will. While it succeeds in creating a primarily authentic experience against the CPU, it undoes a lot of that work when more users get involved, fluctuating between arcade and simulation tendencies along the way.
The FIFA series has largely attempted to showcase the realistic elements of soccer since its dramatic overhaul around eight years ago. Yet, it has also harbored many arcade-related characteristics that have tempted some to jump ship to the competition. FIFA 17 has gone in two different directions with this year's iteration.
This feels like a game that was crafted with offline play in mind. Games against the CPU play out in a fairly slow fashion, and you're forced to think about every action more carefully this year. Opposing teams tighten up and force you to make space instead of presenting it to you as they often did in the past. This results in more strategic build-ups, and you're forced to work hard for those satisfying moments of glory. For the most part, these factors and more come together to create a brilliantly authentic experience.
Offline AI is fairly impressive, resisting the temptation to resort to the safe pass as often as it has in the past. On Legendary difficulty, it presents a fun and thought-provoking challenge a majority of the time. When it doesn’t, it’s almost always because of poor defensive positioning and decision making. Another thing that lets it down is its lack of personality. If it weren’t for the immersive levels of presentation, it'd be easy to forget who you were up against. Every team tends to play in a similar fashion, and the lack of diversity becomes evident in no time.
Once you venture into multiplayer, the papered-over cracks of the game begin to burst. It's still the same basic game, but without the confines of CPU opposition, it becomes apparent that players are overly quick and skilled in attacking scenarios, and too slow and inept in defensive ones. It results in a lack of balance because the need for elaborate build-up plays begins to waver, and passing the ball can sometimes become somewhat of an afterthought. AI defenders struggle to deal with the randomness of each attack, finding themselves out of position on a regular basis. In fact, almost everything starts to falter to some degree, as the mechanics struggle under the weight of a multi-person game.
The extent to which this affects FIFA 17's multiplayer experience differs depending on how you play it. In a mode like Online Seasons, it's prevalent. In addition, online Ultimate Team contests are particularly arcade-like in nature, partly by design, with games resulting in high-score affairs and an abundance of over-the-top dribbling and pace. It's a big step back from last year's largely balanced multiplayer experience, and simulation fanatics might just long for their copy of PES 2017 after a rage quit or two.
Still, every area of the game has benefited from notable improvements. Goalkeepers have improved substantially over last year, although they're occasionally prone to bizarre errors. Defenders are delightfully masterful in carrying out blocking duties and making desperate goal-line clearances, and an enhanced physics engine has done away with many of the collision issues that have plagued this series for almost a decade. In addition, a concoction of brand-new animations littered throughout FIFA 17's gameplay serve to create a feeling of heightened freedom and possibility.
There are a few new headline features to mention, too. Set pieces have changed, with corners and in-direct free kicks being controlled via a new cursor system. It’s a little bizarre, and it isn't as effective as it sounds on paper. Penalties are a real quandary, sporting a new yet somehow worsened system that takes a step backwards from last year’s offerings. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, EA.
Physical play has been overhauled, and you’ll notice it particularly in the case of shielding. You can use your physicality to hold opposing players off the ball, and it works well for the most part. There are also new ways to attack the ball, such as driven shots and downward headers, and they’re subtle changes but important ones all the same. Another big addition is that of active intelligence, but it feels like it only affects attacking players, leading to an abundance of runs confusing the AI and resulting in poor defensive reactions. It's a big reason why FIFA 17 feels so unbalanced at times.
The Frostbite engine has made its way to the FIFA series, and occasionally it results in the best-looking sports game on the market. Player models have been overhauled, and as each match wears on, you’ll see beads of sweat glistening off their faces in the sunlight. It’s the lighting that really makes the Frostbite engine sparkle, resulting in incredibly detailed pitches and stadiums that are far closer to the real thing than ever before. It feels like a next-gen game at times, and it’s easy to stop and marvel at its beauty.
It doesn’t excel in every area, however. Crowds look poor compared to their upgraded player-model counterparts, lacking detail and engaging in bizarre animations. It’s the sight of an entire crowd standing up in unison that really puts a dampener on the level of immersion. They’re a visual detachment, and it’s strange because they felt like such an important part of the experience in previous years.
Detailed manager models have been added to the game, and they’re a great addition when you spot them from afar. Up close, they look downright weird -- creepy in their worst moments. They’re reminiscent of paranormal beings that shuffle around with dead eyes and blank expressions. They haven’t given me nightmares yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.
In the audio department, FIFA 17 has improved once more. New crowd chants have diversified the atmosphere of each game you play. The feel of an English Premier League match is very different to that of an international contest, as it should be. There’s also a brand-new stadium announcer who makes references to things like the man of the match award, with the crowd responding enthusiastically at each turn. As someone who’s heard this every week on the terraces for the past 20 years, it’s a nice touch.
Commentary hasn’t really changed all that much, but new lines have been recorded. I’m still of the belief that the FIFA series is among the best contenders in this area, and I have no qualms about the lack of a substantial upgrade this year.
The Journey is a story-driven mode powered by the Frostbite engine, and it follows the fortunes of an aspiring young footballer named Alex Hunter. It takes you to environments you might never have thought you’d see in a FIFA game. You follow Alex everywhere, from training grounds to his bedroom. Much of this is handled via cutscenes, which generally look excellent, play out in realistic fashion and are enticing to watch. Sometimes you're given the chance to interact through dialogue choices, and this changes the way your character develops. All of these cutscenes load in ultra-quick fashion, which is an incredible feat given their level of detail.
It’s anything but a quick experience. You’ll be playing The Journey for a relatively long time if you immerse yourself in every aspect of it. The periods between each game are segmented by a host of in-game social media updates that you can browse at your leisure, commenting on your performances and other relevant news. Weekly training is a requirement (but can be simulated), and it serves to both determine how you develop as a player and whether you can make it into the starting lineup.
Ultimately, the whole thing plays out in an exciting fashion, and it rarely gets to the point of tedium. Its storyline changes in subtle ways as you go, but doesn't alter drastically based on your performances, leading to some bizarre story progression at times. Still, the tale itself is genuinely pleasing to sit through.
It’s easy to point fingers at The Journey and say, “I want to create my own character.” However, the immersion factor of The Journey only succeeds due to Alex Hunter’s involvement. Commentators constantly refer to Alex and his performances during a game. Big-name stars pop up in cutscenes to talk about Alex and converse with him. Everything that The Journey does well, it does well because there’s such a natural flow between the main character and everyone else.
Whether you’re a veteran or a casual fan, The Journey should spark your interest. It’s great, and it’s very clear it has been developed by true fans of the sport who have crafted something that feels grounded in reality.
This is the series in which Ultimate Team made its debut, and FUT has been upgraded with two important additions this year. The first comes in the form of Squad Builder Challenges. If you wish, you can complete challenges by trading in a select group of players with certain characteristics -- sharing chemistry or differing in nationalities, for example. There are a lot of rewards on offer, and this is something that expands the potential of the mode. The other addition is FUT Champions, which is an online tournament structure that sees you attempt to qualify for weekend leagues. Once you’ve achieved this, you can start to compete for increasing rewards. It's a fun side addition for those who are interested in the arcade-style gameplay of online FUT encounters.
Elsewhere, career mode has benefited from minor updates. You can now create a manager from a tiny selection of face templates, but the amount of choice on offer is severely lacking. There are a few subtle changes dotted throughout. The most important addition is that of team objectives, where you’re given more scope about what the team expects out of you. That being said, don’t go into this expecting major additions in this area of the game. Last year's upgrades to career mode were welcome ones, but its lack of major progress this year will be a disappointment for some.
Also, Pro Clubs has been slightly updated once more. There are an expanded list of traits, and players now develop based on their actual match rating, rather than completing accomplishments. There’s also kit and badge customization, enhancing the customization factor of each individual team. I’m still disappointed that Pro Clubs hasn’t followed the trend of NHL in prioritizing player skill over in-game upgrades, as it only highlights the unbalanced nature of the online game.
It’s hard to put a definitive stamp on FIFA 17. It enhances the series in multiple ways, from the inclusion of The Journey to dazzling visuals that only the Frostbite engine can provide. Offline CPU matches are great for the most part, and serious work has gone into even the most subtle of details on the pitch.
Nevertheless, it has its downsides, and it feels like the mature approach of the game goes out the window in a multiplayer setting, transforming into a one-dimensional game of pace-dominated, zig-zag gameplay in its worst moments. Ultimately, it drags much of the experience down, and while FIFA 17 is still a great game and worthy of a purchase in many ways, it takes a step backward in some particularly crucial areas.