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Review: FIFA 17

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Review Score 8

 

 

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Review: Forza Horizon 3

Forza Horizon 3 is for people who couldn’t care less about shaving four nanoseconds off their Silverstone lap time and just want to have fun with cars.

After letting racing fans loose on the mountains of Colorado and the Franco-Italian coast, the Horizon festival has come to Australia, and Playground Games have left you in charge. You’re not just another competitor this time round, you’re the festival boss. You’ll still be doing all the same stuff you did at the last festival, but this time it’s not really about winning.

Progression is no longer tied to how many championships you win, so coming 1st isn’t important. Instead you advance the game by completing  races and events to draw more fans to the festival. When you’ve attracted enough fans you can expand the festival, which unlocks more events and race routes.

Without the ultimate goal of becoming Horizon Champion to work towards, it all feels a bit aimless. Aimless fun is still fun though, and there’s a great deal of it to be had.

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As with any Forza game, there’s an incredible variety of events to take part in. There are themed races and championships for every kind of vehicle available. Hop in a Mustang and race against other American muscle cars or pick a side in the Mitsubishi vs Subaru championship. The change in setting has brought with it more opportunities for off-road racing, so there are plenty of monstrous off-road trucks and dune buggies among the game’s 350-strong lineup of vehicles.

The racing AI has received a noticeable tune up, to the point I had to drop down a difficulty level from the one I used in Horizon 2. While the other racers won’t try to run you off the road (thankfully), they’re not above trading paint. If anything they’re a little too aggressive for a game that encourages clean racing. This is probably a symptom of the “Drivatar” system, which the AI uses to mimic the driving styles of real players.

If you feel like taking a break from racing, the Horizon Showcases and Bucket List events make for the perfect distractions. These are kinds of things Clarkson & Co would’ve done on Top Gear if the BBC didn’t have a health and safety department; dodging oncoming traffic in a Lamborghini Centenario, or racing an off-road buggy through the jungle against an old army jeep suspended from a helicopter. The showcases feel heavily scripted and there aren’t nearly enough of them, but they offer some of Horizon 3’s most memorable moments.

With so much to do, it’s easy to become paralyzed by choice. Thankfully, with just two button presses, the satnav will choose an activity for you and set a route to it. It’s a small touch, but one I began to appreciate more and more as the map became littered with potential diversions.

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Of course, if you’re not in the mood for organized fun and just want to drive around in something fast, then you’re still well catered for. Horizon 3’s Australian playground is one of gaming’s most beautiful and varied backdrops. The vibrant rainforests and expansive outback deserts look magnificent at all times of the day, thanks to first class lighting effects and weather cycles.

Horizon 2’s slice of southern Europe was dazzling but hardly diverse. Horizon 3’s Australia offers twice the size and a great deal more variety. The map is large enough to suit the needs of an open-world racer, but small enough that you can drive through a city, across a beach and into the outback in the time it takes to listen to one song on the radio.

Speaking of the soundtrack, it really adds some extra personality to the game. Drifting across the beaches of Australia in a buggy is fun, but the grin it puts on my face wouldn’t be so wide if it wasn’t to the sound of “X Gon’ Give it to Ya” by DMX. Each of the 9 radio stations plays a different genre, so you if you’d rather listen to Richard Wagner than CHVRCHES, there’s a station for that.

The Drivatar system might imitate real racers, but there are still online races and free roam lobbies for those who prefer a more traditional multiplayer experience. The 4-player co-op campaign is the new headline feature that allows up to three friends to join your festival. Any events you complete together in this mode contribute towards your progress through the main game. In a rare example of cross-platform support, there is no restriction on PC and Xbox One players joining each others lobbies and races.

Sadly, long loading times handicap the game’s multiplayer component. While I was waiting for online races to load up, I had plenty of time to contemplate how much fun I could’ve been having in the solo mode instead.

In fact, the PC version suffers from multiple technical issues including crashes, intermittent framerate dips and stuttering. These were infrequent enough to be tolerable and may be fixed before long, but for the moment the Xbox One provides the more stable experience.

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The Horizon series has always provided players with plenty of customization options and Horizon 3 throws a few more in as part of your new role as festival boss. You can create and share your own races, championships and Bucket List events, import your own playlist to listen to on the radio, and the car customization has been expanded to include bodywork mods and rims.

The driving experience can be as realistic or as simple as you want it to be. The default settings feel like a satisfying mid-point between hyper-realistic Motorsport simulators and physics-defying arcade racers, but those who want a little more realism and challenge can turn off some of the driving assists that stop people like me from spinning out on every other corner.

The cars may look like the real thing (down to the millimeter in fact), and with the right settings they’ll handle like the real thing, but this is not a racing simulator. The game takes plenty of liberties to maximize the fun factor. A 100ft jump might wreck the suspension and snap the axles in reality, but in Horizon it will bag you a lot of skill points, as will ploughing sideways through someone’s garden fence when you slightly overcook that drift. This is a game that isn’t about to let anything get in the way of you having fun, and it’s part of what makes Horizon 3 so special.

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Too Long; Didn’t Read

Forza Horizon 3 is a celebration of everything that’s fun about cars; a madcap road trip through beautiful Australian landscapes. The lack of a clear, ultimate goal dampens the sense of progression, but when the journey is this exciting, who cares about the destination? Playground Games have taken the expertly crafted Forza engine and used it to create something with all the personality that the Motorsport series lacks. When I’m belting across the outback in a McLaren P12, watching the sun bounce off the bodywork as my favorite song fights to be heard over the engine, I’m having too much fun to think about my lap times.

Review Score 9

Halo 5: Guardians

2012’s Halo 4 was the product of a series in transition; Developer 343 Industries’ début  was a tightly designed and serviceable entry to the series, but by clumsily parroting more modernized shooters, they alienated long-time fans as well as failed to win new ones.

With Halo 5: Guardians, the franchise has emerged triumphant from its awkward transitional phase; embracing the qualities of modern first-person shooters without losing its identity.
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After a mission takes an unexpected turn, the Master Chief and his team of Spartans go AWOL, prompting the UNSC to send Spartan Locke and his own fireteam, ‘Osiris’, to hunt the Chief down. It’s hard to say much more without giving away spoilers, so suffice to say the story soon grows beyond this simple premise.

Halo’s story has never been very accessible to newcomers and Halo 5 is no exception. Even as someone who’s played every game in the series, I still felt in the dark at times, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the journey that ‘Guardians’ takes you on.

That’s thanks in no small part to new protagonist Jameson Locke. Don’t be fooled by the marketing, which sold Chief and Locke as joint protagonists. You only play as the Chief for 3 of 15 missions; Locke is very much the main man.

He’s not exactly a fountain of charisma, but he gets more dialogue in one game than Master Chief has had in all of his put together. Add to that the playful banter and camaraderie between Locke and the other members of Fireteam Osiris, and you have a reasonably engaging group of characters to spend the 8 hour campaign with.

The ever-likeable Nathan Fillion deserves special mention. His performance as the wise-cracking Edward Buck fills the void left by Sergeant Johnson; bringing some welcome comic relief.

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Previous Halo games were designed for single player, but provided the option of up to 4-player co-op. In Halo 5, it’s immediately clear that the campaign has been designed for co-op. If you don’t bring a full complement of four human players, any remaining slots are filled by AI-piloted Spartans.

You can give a few simple orders to these AI companions with a single button-press. You’ll never be able to coordinate any kind of strategy with them, but beyond the available commands of “go here”, “pick up that weapon”, “get in that vehicle”, “shoot that enemy”, I never really needed them to do anything.

The level design reflects this change in focus. Missions are still linear, point-to-point affairs, but there are plenty of open spaces and opportunities for flanking to encourage team tactics. It’s by no means a sandbox, but it’s considerably more expansive than your average ‘corridor’ shooter.

The way you get around these levels has changed as well. Players have been given a host of new movement-focused abilities. Sprinting and climbing make traversing the environment satisfying. Abilities like the ‘Spartan Charge’ and ‘Ground Pound’ are great for quickly closing the distance between you and your enemy, and the new thruster packs allows for short, rapid dodge movements.

While you won’t be as agile as you would be in Titanfall or Call of Duty, this new-found mobility goes a long way in updating Halo to feel like it belongs alongside these games, as does the ability to aim down the sights of the weapons. Importantly, it also makes the Spartans look and feel like the super-soldiers they’re supposed to be.

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The selection of enemies you’ll fight is largely unchanged from Halo 4, but it’s worth noting that those annoying, flying enemies are now far less common, making fights against Forerunner foes feel less like banging your head against a wall until it falls down.

Headlining Guardians’ multiplayer is the new ‘Warzone’ mode. Two teams of 12 compete to either be the first to reach 1000 points or destroy the other team’s base. You earn points by getting kills, capturing and holding key parts of the map, or killing the AI boss enemies that occasionally drop in.

The maps are much bigger than anything seen in previous Halos. They have to be to accommodate the large numbers of players and vehicles. It seems 343 wanted to put their own spin on Battlefield‘s popular ‘Conquest’ mode, especially when you realize that Warzone’s variant, ‘Warzone Assault’, is very similar to ‘Rush’, another popular Battlefield gametype.

What makes Warzone so different from traditional Halo multiplayer is the REQ (requisition) system. Players earn REQ points over the course of a match, which can be spent on powerful weapons and vehicles.

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It’s a system that takes some getting used to, but it’s worth it for the added layer of tactics it creates through resource-management dilemmas. Do I spend these 7 points on two powerful weapons, or one tank? Do I spend them all now, or save some for later?

Warzone is great fun, and offers something new and different to classic Halo multiplayer. It’s a shame that, at release, there are only 3 maps for it, even if they are 3 very big maps.

Those who want a more traditional multiplayer experience will feel right at home in Halo 5’s Arena mode. New gametypes like the single-life elimination mode ‘Breakout’ and the new map-control mode ‘Strongholds’ are available alongside classics like Team Slayer and Capture The Flag. Sadly, fan-favorite Oddball is conspicuous in its absence.

This is arguably the best Halo’s multiplayer has ever been. 343 have managed to balance the weapons brilliantly, making sure that every one is useful in its own way. The maps aren’t particularly varied in design, but the new movement system makes them easy to get around, creating fast-paced matches where positioning is now just as important as good aim and quick reaction times.

It’s clear that 343 had eSports in mind when designing Arena mode. Most of the maps are either mostly or completely symmetrical, and the matchmaking system finds players at your skill level based on a league system. All this, along with the superb weapon balance, combines to create the purest, most competitive multiplayer I’ve seen in any game for years.

Like previous Halos, you can create custom gametypes to play with your friends, but the ‘Forge’ map creator isn’t available until sometime in December. Thankfully, Halo 5 has more than enough content to keep you occupied until then.

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Halo 5: Guardians is an outstanding return to form. While the story is hard to follow at times, the gameplay is superb, and a major step up from Halo 4. Warzone is a fun and accessible addition to Halo’s multiplayer suite, and the Arena is a finely-tuned, competitive experience that gets the adrenaline flowing and the heart pumping like no other multiplayer can. The fact that all this plays at 1080p and 60 frames-per-second, is the icing on the cake.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

  • Characters with some semblance of personality.
  • Expansive levels
  • Greater focus on mobility
  • Warzone is new, different, and fun
  • REQ system adds depth
  • New gametypes compliment the classics well
  • Perfect weapon balance
  • Fast, exciting gameplay
  • 1080p/60fps
  • Nathan Fillion
  • Story is inaccessible and difficult to follow
  • Only 3 Warzone maps
  • No Forge… yet

Review Score 9