The last two years haven't been brilliant for FIFA fans. In 2014 EA implemented numerous changes to the game, and the result was not entirely positive. Last year, with FIFA 16, the gameplay was improved, but absurd difficulty levels ruined the solo content. This year, though, EA Sports seems to have finally managed to create the football game they envisioned with FIFA 15.
We don't know how relevant the move from the Ignite engine to DICE's Frostbite actually was, but it was a big PR focus by EA Sports. The truth is that we didn't notice a huge difference, at least visually. Don't get us wrong, FIFA 17 has fantastic graphics, but don't go expecting a big visual jump from FIFA 16. Lighting is better, and the detail in some The Journey's cutscenes is fantastic, but when you are actually playing the game you won't be noticing major changes.
The other big new feature from EA Sports is The Journey, a completely new story mode that makes its debut this year. We had the opportunity to play several hours and we can attest to the fact that it's a fine addition to FIFA. In this mode you follow the career of a young English raising star, Alex Hunter. This mode is locked to the Premier League, but within that limitation, you can make several choices. In the first phase you will choose a favourite club, then eventually you choose the club you want to represent. This choice is important because it will determine the opportunities you will have to play, and how well you must perform to get first team appearances. Everyone wants to sign for Manchester United, Liverpool, or Arsenal, but your life will be a lot easier in a club like Middlesbrough.
In a lot of ways, The Journey plays like Be a Pro (which is still present in the game). The coach will determine when Alex Hunter will play, when you will be benched, and when he will be on the stands. When you are not on the pitch, the game will be simulated. We think it is more interesting to only control Alex Hunter in this mode, but you also have the option to control the entire team. As you accumulate minutes, you improve Alex Hunter's attributes. You cannot choose what attributes you will be improving, but there are special features you can unlock (becoming a throw-in expert, for example).
Another way to evolve Alex Hunter's attributes is by performing well in the weekly practice sessions. Between each game you will take part in two training sessions, often determined by the AI. These will include crosses, tackles, shots, passes, free kicks, and other mini-games taken from the Skill Games modes. If you are familiar with the training system on the Career mode you will have a very good idea of how it works in The Journey. Alex Hunter's performance in training and games will then contribute to his relationship with the coach. Depending on how well you perform, you will have more chances to get minutes on the pitch.
What makes The Journey special is what happens off the pitch. It attempts to recreate the experience a young aspiring footballer during the early years of his career, from trials and then on to potential loans to Championship clubs. Occasionally you will watch a cutscene involving Alex Hunter, his family, and his companions (only fictional players and coaches interact with Alex Hunter, with the exception of small guest appearances). Between matches and workouts you can also access Alex's social networks to read what fans and friends are saying about him/you. These comments will naturally be contextualised with your performance on the field, so if you don't do well, don't expect a warm welcome on social networks.
The "story" itself won't win awards, and the actors are average at best, but it works. The Journey managed to keep us invested in the career of young Alex Hunter and we couldn't help but celebrate each goal and assist, or hold our head in our hands with each big failure. We played on World Class difficulty, and that's not exactly easy, especially while only controlling Alex. It makes every touch of the ball count, and puts more weight in everything you do. Whenever we won a game we had to take a peek at the comments about Alex, and now that the winter market is coming we look forward to seeing what will happen next.
The Journey is huge, and playing an entire season of the Premier League/Championship takes time, thus we do not know exactly how many seasons are recreated in The Journey. We would be surprised if it's more than one though, and we're sure EA wants to continue Alex Hunter's career in future FIFA games, perhaps with a big transfer abroad, or even a chance to play for England. All in all, The Journey is a good addition to the game, although there is room for improvement.
We know that, despite everything else, what really matters in a football game is how it plays, and fortunately FIFA 17 plays great. The game is more fluid, physical contact works better, goalkeepers no longer catch every cross into the area, and passing the ball around is a joy. All game elements have been tuned, from the tackles to shots, and unlike previous FIFAs, everything works as it should - even the difficulty levels.
The biggest change in terms of gameplay are the set-pieces. The system in this game is completely revamped and it allows you to point to where you want to cross the ball during corners or long free-kicks. During throw-ins you can walk along the side-line and simulate a throw as well, and both on free-kicks and penalties you can set direction and distance to the ball. This last option allows you to create several types of free-kick, from the typical curved ball, to the "homing missiles" as performed by Cristiano Ronaldo. With the right direction and a capable player, you can even perform a "trivela" shot like Roberto Carlos.
In FIFA 17 the difficulty levels have finally been adjusted, and the behaviour of the AI teams is now a lot more coherent with regards to the quality of the teams' players. We almost always controlled matches against inferior teams, although that doesn't mean we won every match. A smaller team can still defend well and be lucky in a counter-attack. As for far superior teams, well, we struggled a lot. As we should.
We don't care about winning every single match: we care about feeling that, when we lose or draw, it was due to our own mistakes, not the game's 'divine' intervention. Getting this feeling across to the player is one of the biggest wins in this year's FIFA.
Despite the prominence of The Journey, the other modes in FIFA 17 have not been forgotten. Career mode, which was already quite a big experience, has been reinforced with a new goals system specific for each. Now you basically have to meet a number of objectives in the short, medium, and long term, with targets relative to the club you control. If you choose to take on a club like Sporting from Portugal, or Ajax, you will have guidelines to recruit scouts, hire young players, and train them to become great prospects. Other clubs would rather seek financial stability, and teams like Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain just want you to get established stars. Your reputation and performance will be determined by how successfully you fulfil the club's goals.
As for FIFA Ultimate Team Mode, it has also received some new features. The most interesting one is FUT Champions, a weekly competition that will allow you access to the weekend's tournaments, eventually allowing you to earn rewards. The other new features revolve around squad building. You will be set with objectives when building a squad, with several parameters such as to include four nationalities, obtain a chemistry of least 85, or players all from the same league. If you've already spent hours on end playing Ultimate Team Mode, EA has basically offered you even more excuses to do so.
FIFA 17 is a robust package, which builds on all aspects and solves some major problems from the previous edition. It's still not perfect, even when considering it in terms of gameplay (the positioning of the player relative to the ball sometimes looks weird, with sudden spins and certain movements) but nonetheless it lets you play out some high quality football. The introduction of The Journey is just the cherry on top, because FIFA 17 would be great even without it. This is a very ambitious game with a complex football and gameplay system - and while it's not as accessible as it might have been, it's still very rewarding.
Disclaimer: Some of the new features mentioned in this review, like The Journey, are only available for PC, PS4, and Xbox One!