Like many people, I was unconvinced when EA showed the first trailer for The Journey at E3. “This will add nothing to the game,” I thought. “They’ve just dressed up the Be a Pro mode with a few cutscenes and a clichéd Cinderella story.”
I was half right. FIFA’s new story mode does feel like revamped Be a Pro season, and the writers didn’t have a single original idea between them, but it still somehow manages to be the most interesting thing to happen to the series since Ultimate Team first launched back in 2009.
The Journey follows 17-year-old Alex Hunter and his, erm… journey, to becoming the Premier League’s hottest new wonderkid. After impressing at the exit trials, you can sign Alex to any of the 20 Premier League clubs. Whichever team you choose will be title contenders come the business end of the season, so the story is more credible if you sign to a top team. Still, thanks to Leicester’s heroics last season, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine West Ham mounting a title challenge.
Once you sign to a club, you must level up Alex’s skills by getting as much playing time as possible. The bigger the club, the harder this is, though as long as you complement good match performances with top marks in the training sessions, it’s trivially easy to stay in the starting XI.
Your performance on the pitch might get you more games but seems to have little bearing on the story. For example, Alex will always be loaned out to a Championship side for the first half of the season to gain more experience, no matter how well you play in your first few games. The same goes for the Mass Effect style dialogue choices, which do little beyond earning insignificantly small bonuses or penalties to manager approval and your Twitter follower count.
The story may be set in stone, but the outcome of the matches isn’t. In my playthrough, West Ham finished as unlikely Premier League champions, but lost the FA Cup final to bitter rivals Tottenham. I was impressed that the game didn’t just hand me success for the sake of the story, but I replayed the final and won to see how things would play out differently, and discovered that all I missed out on was an extra cutscene.
The Journey has a few twists to it. It’s just a shame it insists on telegraphing every single one ahead of time on the fake Twitter feed that you can read through between matches. “Will West Ham recall Alex Hunter from loan to reinforce a misfiring front line?” Hmm, I think they might. “England manager considering squad shakeup after string of poor performances.” You don’t need to be Nostradamus’ fortune-teller to see where that one’s going.
Despite these missteps, I found myself completely hooked on The Journey. The likeable characters and surprisingly good acting were enough that I was completely invested in Alex’s burgeoning career. As I carefully picked my passes, desperate to make sure he made a good impression on his Premier League début, I realized what a difference a little context makes to what would otherwise be just another match.
None of this would matter if the matches weren’t fun to play, but FIFA 17 shows great improvement on the pitch. FIFA 16’s scrappy, low-scoring games have given way to more free-flowing football, provided you don’t stray into the higher difficulty settings, which turn the opposition into ultra-athletic supermen, who win every header and muscle even your strongest players off the ball with ease.
Players still feel slow to respond at times (especially in online play where latency becomes a factor), but they have a renewed sense of agility that FIFA 16’s lead-footed footballers lacked. An updated attacking AI means teammates make more intelligent runs on attack and get caught offside far less often. New attacking options like the threaded through-pass and the low, driven shot aren’t exactly game-changers, but they allow for a little more creativity when putting moves together. New set piece options like the ability to change the angle of approach on a free kick or penalty, feel like change for change’s sake and only serve to over-complicate what should be a simple part of the game.
While the quicker pace of the attacking play is a welcome change, the defenders seem woefully unprepared for it. The defensive AI is stubbornly passive, rarely pressing the opposition and often failing to make easy interceptions. It’s common for both sides to have over 90% pass success at the end of a match. Still, if proactive defenders are the sacrifice that must be made to bring back the exciting gameplay of FIFAs past, then so be it.
Visually, FIFA still sets the standard for visuals and presentation. The shift to the Frostbite engine was a big part of the game’s marketing, but you’ll struggle to tell the difference without a side by side comparison; some slight improvements to the lighting here, some atmospheric fog effects there etc. It’s not the graphical revolution it was marketed as, but it’s still a generation ahead of Pro Evolution Soccer.
The Journey is FIFA 17’s headline act, but the series core game modes haven’t gone anywhere. In fact they’ve barely been touched at all. The only significant new feature of Career Mode is the addition of club-specific objectives beyond the usual “Win the League” or “Avoid Relegation.” These include goals like expanding the club’s brand in a region by signing players from there, or promoting a minimum number of youth players. It’s a small change but it gives each club a more distinct personality. Brand exposure goals are going to be way more important at Real Madrid than they are at Bournemouth.
And then there’s Ultimate Team. FIFA’s flagship mode still presses all the same buttons that collecting football stickers did when you were a kid, and EA have added to it with squad building challenges. Build a team that meets certain criteria, like an all Bundesliga team or an all-English bronze team, and you can exchange that team for rewards. It finally gives us a use for all those bronze and silver-grade players we’ve been selling off for all these years, even if the rewards for these challenges are sometimes not worth the time and effort it takes to earn them.
Sadly, Ultimate Team still operates on a free-to-play formula. Earning coins to buy players and card packs is a painfully slow process, so you’ll need to spend real money to progress at a reasonable rate. Only players with plenty of free time or disposable income can get the most out of Ultimate Team. It’s bitterly disappointing to see a format with so much potential ruined by micropayments, especially in a game that will already set you back $60.
Too Long; Didn’t Read
FIFA 17 isn’t FIFA at its brilliant best, but it fixes most of the issues that made last year’s entry so unsatisfying to play. Attacking gameplay flows better and players have more tools than ever to help them carve a path to goal. It’s just a shame that defenders struggle to keep up. Returning game modes like Career Mode and Ultimate Team remain largely untouched, but The Journey is a fantastic new addition that’s unlike anything seen before in a sports game. With top-draw presentation and plenty of modes framing the rejuvenated gameplay, FIFA isn’t ready to give up its place at the top of the table just yet.