The annual sports game release format is often derided for offering only incremental year-to-year upgrades rather than any wholesale changes, and it's usually a fair point. EA and 2K's annual releases are usually pretty similar to the year before, tweaking graphics or physics and updating team rosters and player ratings. That's enough for plenty of players, and objectively the games are usually technically better than the previous title, but the reviews often come with the caveat of being easier recommendations for those who skipped a year, or die-hard fans who will buy no matter what.
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FIFA 17, however, needs no such qualifications. Featuring an entirely new engine, the debut of a surprisingly well-crafted narrative-driven game mode, and a general overhaul of the menus and other modes, FIFA 17 is an ambitious entry in the franchise, and hands-down the most complete and impressive soccer game available. Whether or not you owned or played FIFA 16, this is shaping up to be an easy recommendation to anyone. I played the game on PC, but it's also available on current- and last-generation consoles.
You'll be able to read my full review once I've had a chance to invest more time into the game and test the online servers, but FIFA 17 is highly promising through the first several hours.
While the on-pitch gameplay is the meat of the game, it's the new single player story mode, The Journey, that's received the most hype. This mode puts you in the boots of a pre-made player, Alex Hunter, a young talent looking to make his name at a big club. Some fans might be disappointed they can't create a custom player, but the choice is logical: the mode has fully voiced cutscenes, so having everyone play as Hunter lets other characters refer to you by name, and makes for better visuals. Without spoiling the story, you begin his fledgling career very early on, and a cast of family and friends are integral to the proceedings. You can choose which position to play (among attacking positions—I suppose it's much easier to generate excitement as a forward) early on, as well. The voicework is strong, and there's a lot of detail in each scene.
There's also surprising amount going on, narratively—it's not simply jumps between training sessions and trials. There's family drama and fully realized characters there to both help and hinder you. In a nice touch, you can often choose between any of three dialogue options during conversations—one of which is seen as a cool-headed reply, one fiery, and one balanced. This is one of several conventions borrowed from role-playing games, and affects how you're viewed on and off the pitch. 2K's NBA series was the first to experiment with these story modes, and The Journey is easily better than any of those offerings to date.
The dialogue is legitimately good, providing more depth than necessary from a mode like this, while the writing in NBA 2K struggles at times to remain coherent or logical. I'm pleasantly surprised with The Journey overall in regards to production values, visuals, and EA's commitment to telling a story. Compared to the sterile pro player Career mode that existed before, The Journey is a genuine breath of fresh air in a fairly stagnant genre.
For the first time, the FIFA franchise is utilizing Frostbite, the game engine developed by EA studio DICE, known mainly as the engine powering the Battlefield franchise. In part, The Journey has Frostbite to thank for its level of believability—the characters are well-animated and the environments look great, while real players resemble their real-life counterparts more than ever. On the field, the game looks fantastic (especially up close—watching a replay in slow motion is glorious, and the grass is particularly detailed), and it plays differently than FIFA 16. The games normally play somewhat differently than the previous year due to incremental tweaks, but FIFA 17 includes the most additions and improvements in a long time.
The overall flow of the game doesn't feel as extreme as a new franchise—it still largely handles like past FIFA games—but beneath the surface of the passage of play, there are more intricate additions. The physical play is more realistic, and players don't collide quite so clumsily as past games, better recognizing that this is a physical sport where players nudge and pull and incorporating that into the animations and mechanics. For example, left trigger lets you shield the ball with your body, a common occurrence in midfield battles or hold-up play.
Some of the issues with general FIFA play remain: speed differences on the field between certain players, if you're familiar with them, can leave you scratching your head, and the truly elite players sometimes still feel a little clunkier than they should. Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 has more fluid player movement overall, and Messi, for example handles a bit more like you'd expect when running at pace with the ball. FIFA still has some ironing out to do in this regard, as sharp cuts aren't as decisive or quick as they should be.
Set pieces have been rewritten, and are probably the single most changed aspect of gameplay. You can more freely target an individual spot, loft or drill the ball, and even set the kick before changing to one of the receiving players. This is a much better system than only getting control of a player as the ball arrives, and allows you to lose your defender, make a run, or prepare to put the ball on target as it's been crossed in. Free kicks also have finer control, and you can put a lot of spin on the ball now. For both free kicks and penalties, EA also added the ability to step back for a longer run up, or move left and right to change your approach angle.
A Deep Kick
Between the new story-driven game mode and overhauled on-field play, FIFA 17 is an ambitious entry in the franchise, and the easiest title to make a case for in years. The redesigned menus are a breeze to navigate, and other modes have received upgrades, too, including improvements to manager mode. The eclectic music selection in FIFA is almost always spot-on, but FIFA 17 boasts an especially excellent soundtrack, and I found myself quickly bouncing along to the tunes. All in all, FIFA 17 has the components of a well-crafted sports title. Please return in coming days for my full review.