The FIFA series has always tended be a touch exaggerated, like more of a rose-tinted rendition of the beautiful game as opposed to a wholly realistic one. Skills and tricks, favouring attacking over defensive solidarity, and building fantastical lineups through Ultimate Teamâ€”these are the hallmarks of the modern FIFA experience. But even they are about to outdone by what EA has planned for FIFA 17.
This season, you can take part in “The Journey,” an interactive narrative in which you play as the young footballer Alex Hunter trying to earn his first Premier League contract. Through dialogue decisions, on-pitch performances (in which you control only Hunter), and lavishly created cutscenes his story is told, influenced by what you choose to say and how well you play on the pitch.
No bones about it, this a wild departure from FIFA’s tried and tested formula, particularly for a franchise that has tended to favour small yearly tweaks over grand reinventions. Having said that, as sports game fans will already know, The Journey isn’t an entirely original exercise. The NBA 2K series, which has effectively made EA Sport’s own attempts at a basketball game redundant, has a remarkably similar mode called MyCareer.
There are, however, some lofty production values at work in The Journey, which are arguably better than those of NBA 2K. For the first time, FIFA uses the Frostbite engine (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC versions only), the same engine that powers nearly everything at EA, including the likes of Battlefield, Star Wars Battlefront, and Mirror’s Edge. In-engine cutscenes where Hunter chats with the likes of Jose Mourinho on the Manchester United bench, or laments joining lesser clubs are surprisingly slick, at least from a technical perspective.
What’s suspect is the direction of the story, and those that have been brought in as consultants to help shape it. During a press screening and explanation of The Journey, the likes of Eden Hazard, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford were touted as key participants the writing process, the idea being that footballers of the highest calibre are best equipped to handle delicate narrative work. While it may be true that those individuals understand what it’s like to work hard for that first professional contract, it seems unlikely that they’re going to be able to frame that hard work in the most entertaining way. Hopefully they’re mere PR pawns rather being than actively involved.
That said, the the one full, non-interactive cutscene that was played to me didn’t fill me with confidence. It involved Hunter coming to terms with the fact that he was being sent out on loan and then learning, through a TV news broadcast, that Harry Kane was being signed as replacement. As sports narratives go, the scene was more Ready to Rumble than Raging Bull.
Despite my initial surprise at The Journey’s inclusion, it does fit within the wider FIFA game. This is a dramatic offering in a franchise that has always sought to create the most dramatic form of football possible, and the creative team is clearly hoping that fans of the series are going to want to experience that drama in a much more literal way.
It’s not known how many hours The Journey will demand of players, but it would be wise for EA to stick to a shorter running time. Most FIFA players prefer to play with others, either in person or online, whereas The Journey is a decidedly solo enterprise. On the flip side, convincing avid consumers of narrative-focused games that the best option for a good story this year is FIFA 17 seems rather optimistic.
An easier sell are the changes being made to the way the football plays on the pitch, with ball retention and attacking runs behind and through the defence being the most impactful.
At the press of a button you can trigger your player to play a more physical game, with actions that include shielding the ball from opponents, using his or her body more effectively to bring down a ball that’s in the air, and generally being more prepared to jostle with the opposition. The changes feel stark when in possession of the ball, allowing you to more ably pause in front of the defence and play a cutting pass without worrying so much about a defender simply poking the ball out from your feet. In turn, this more readily enables the option to play a slower, more considered form of offensive build-up than in FIFA 16.
FIFA’s implementation of forward runs from players off the ball has steadily improved over recent years, but there’s little doubt the intelligence of FIFA 16’s AI attackers bore little resemblance to their real-life counterparts. Finally, you can now choose to curve their runs across a defensive line, and even make dummy runs in order to pull a defender out of position to create more space for someone arriving late into the box.
These runs are, with the caveat of not having played the final build, the most obvious improvement. There’s now much more likelihood of the likes of Paul Pogba or Luka Modric arriving from deep within the pitch to finish off an attacking move.
FIFA’s usual preference for razzle-dazzle self-promotion means each of these two gameplay alterations has been assigned its own ambassador. Eden Hazard is the face of FIFA 17’s physical play, while Marco Reus is the man of the intelligent forward run. Another two areas that are EA Sports is also keen to promote (but are less readily obvious in their impact on play) are set-piece changes and new attacking techniques. James Rodriguez is the face of the former, Antony Martial the latter.
During set-pieces you can move the kicker into any position you like before he or she starts a run-up, for both free kicks and penalties, and subsequently control the of approach. Further, you can perform fakes during throw-ins and use a reticule on the pitch to more accurately fire in corners.
New attacking techniques include more aggressive throws and kicks from the keeper, a new option to drive shots and headers low and into the ground, and an ability to flick the ball up to yourself to volley it towards goals. Best of all, however, through balls can be curved to track a path that runs almost parallel to keeper and defensive line. When used in conjunction with the new attacking runs these give you the potential to create some truly interesting goals.
FIFA 17 is an attacking, self-confident prospect all round, then. On the pitch there’s more diversity in offense and physicality, while The Journey represents a bold exploration into a single-player narrative. While some of the outcomes from this approach seem a tad suspect at this pointâ€”not to mention whether there’s any real demand from FIFA fans for a cutscene heavy single-player modeâ€”there’s no doubt EA’s definitely made FIFA more interesting this year.