EA's FIFA series has undergone a handful of major changes throughout its lifetime, but one thing – at least since 2011 – has never wavered: it speaks to football fans. The casual fans, the diehard fans, and the fans that linger in-between all have something to love about each year's new FIFA game, and, in the case of FIFA 17, that probably won't change. However, the introduction of the Frostbite engine is a change that could well divide opinion for some time.
I don't mean that in a bad way – FIFA has been screaming for an engine change for a handful of years now, and the success of the Frostbite engine means that it was first in line to become a part of the world of football. It's just that after I put in around 300-400 hours of FIFA 16, the engine change has made this year's FIFA a bit of a different beast. And while the change is definitely for the better, for a dedicated FIFA player like myself it means a huge shift in how I play the game. Things are different here, and while the overall package screams quality, the final touch feels like it's still missing by a little bit.
One of the first changes I noticed when I jumped into my first match was FIFA 17's innate love for physicality. Jostling for the ball is a physical practice, and it's represented extremely well this time around. Big, bulky players will usually win out against shorter, leaner players in a one-on-one battle for possession – unless the latter gets a touch in early and speeds away. This also comes into play during corners and when players battle for a header, though I was surprised by how often bigger players won out, making it a factor I had to take into consideration when building squads and bringing players in during my Career Mode saves.
Pace is still an important factor in FIFA 17 like it was in 16, too, though with the introduction of the Frostbite engine, the speed of the game is remarkably slower. So much slower, at times it looked like Manchester United's Anthony Martial – a winger with an amazing pace rating – was jogging rather than actually giving it his all. This translates to the entire game, too, as FIFA 17 wants you to focus your efforts on moving the ball around and playing defence-splitting passes, rather than just relying on recruiting quick players and technical maestros to fill out your team.
That said, the game's reliance on passing is both its greatest strength and its greatest flaw. Defensive AI has been dramatically improved, and a heavy portion of forward passes you play are usually cut out by the opposition. These passes can range anywhere between Paul Pogba-esque half-field beauties to Angel Di Maria's wonderful close-range scoops, and yet the opposition still manages to figure out you're going to play that exact pass and either block the pass or intercept it. This happens a lot when you've drifted into the opposition's final third in an attempt to have a shot at goal, and especially when it's a tight game or you're a goal down. This can be extremely frustrating – to the levels of controller-breaking frustration, no less. I've noticed this happens a lot more on higher difficulty settings (I play on Professional), so this shouldn't be as much of a problem for players on lower difficulty settings.
Set pieces, free kicks, corners, and penalties have also been fundamentally reworked for this year's FIFA. When you're taking a corner or a set piece, you're now given an indicator of where the ball is going to go, and depending on whether you tap or hold the cross button, the call will be played in a looping cross or a driven curling one. This is a great change, and represents players of the professional game well: they train for hundreds of hours perfecting their crossing game, and it only seems right to be accurate in this endeavour in video game form.
Free kicks and penalties, on the other hand, do not follow in these footsteps. While the former still echoes the same formula from free kicks last year, the annoying camera angle makes watching the free kick flying at goal look awkward. It feels unpolished and is a little wonky when compared to the precision and flexibility allowed on set pieces and corners.
The same can be said about penalties, which are, quite honestly, flat-out broken. You're able to now change your run up position with the right stick before taking the shot (you can also do this with free kicks, too), and that's all well and good until you actually have to take the shot, which now is mapped to both the left stick and the shoot button. This may sound confusing – because it is – but you run up to the ball with the left stick, in turn aiming the stick in the direction you want the ball to go, while pushing the shoot button to indicate how much power and height you want to put on the shot.
As you can probably imagine, a lot of shots fly skyward and some trundle over the line. It doesn't feel natural, it looks extremely wonky animation-wise, and I now try my best to avoid ever getting into penalty shootouts because they just aren't fun anymore. It's extremely disappointing given how much better the corners and set piece plays are now.
Disappointments aside, the inclusion of the Frostbite engine is an excellent one. The graphical display put on in FIFA 17 is one unmatched by any other football sim, showcasing an incredible eye for detail in stadiums, pitches, and player builds and faces. I was constantly taken aback by how wonderful the Premier League stadiums looked as I made my way through a Manchester United Career Mode, playing in some of the world's biggest and best stadiums. For someone like me, who stays up to 3 or 4am at times to watch the Premier League, seeing these stadiums come to life in the Frostbite engine is incredible. Add to that the excellent lighting display of matches played at night and some throughout the day and evening, and it's clear to me that FIFA 17, as a whole, looks absolutely incredible.
Career Mode players will find a lot to love about the new inclusions in this year's FIFA. The most notable are manager objectives given by the board at the beginning of a season, and a focus on managers on the touchline.
Each club now has a set of objectives to fulfil, and these range from continental and domestic success to youth development and brand exposure, with each set given a low, medium, high, and critical priority rating. Some are short term goals, which are based over one season with the club, and others are long term, which can take anywhere from two to four seasons.
In my two Career Mode jaunts – one as manager of Bundesliga 2 club Hannover 96 and the other as manager of Premier League giants Manchester United – I noticed a stark difference between the two boards and what they required of me. Hannover's board expected me to win the title, gain automatic promotion, and give youth a good chance at play time on the field.
As United, however, I was expected to win the league, qualify for the Champions League, win the Champions League within two seasons, receive 170 million pounds in shirt sales, and also grow a youth player promoted from the academy by 10 overall points within a season. The latter, if you've played Career Mode before, is quite a difficult feat to achieve in such little time, but I did manage to get there in the end.
I really like these new additions, and I think they spice things up a bit by requiring you to think more about who you're playing, who you're signing (when looking at the shirt sales objective), and how your team are progressing as a club. Though, when looking at some of the objectives, they do seem a little difficult to accomplish at times. I haven't had to face the consequences of failing any as of yet though, so I'm not sure as to how big an effect it will have on your job as manager.
The other big addition to Career Mode, as I mentioned before, is a focus on the managers on the touchline. This comes bundled in with the mode now as you're able to choose from a handful of pre-made managers to become the face of your club. It's a nice new addition, though it is heavily limited by the lack of customisation options – you can't change their skin colour, their hair colour, their facial hair, or anything like that, which is really quite annoying. Further, when playing as United, my chosen manager wore a tracksuit that had blue stripes on it, which, if you follow the league, are the colours of Manchester United's biggest rivals, Manchester City. That in itself breaks the immersion quite a bit, but other than that I am fond of the focus EA Canada has given to managers now, and how they play an important role in football as well. I hope these improvements are just the start of a bigger and more diverse range of managerial options.
The most unique inclusion in this year's FIFA is The Journey – EA Canada's first swing at a story mode. For diehard fans of Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, you'll quickly come to grips with what The Journey is mimicking: the rise of a young star (in the tune of Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and so on) and the pressure of being on the world stage.
The Journey, to put it simply, took me by surprise. What's included in the 15-or-so hours of gameplay is actually a really fun change up from what I've come to expect from my time with the FIFA series. It's akin to running with a Player Career but embedding a story within it, and it's an absolute blast, even though it's highly predictable.
The story of Alex Hunter and his friend Gareth Walker is one that echoes 2005's Goal: The Dream Begins, which, for me, was an absolute joy to watch. There's tension, fun, and a handful of excellent moments in The Journey, and the fact you're able to choose what you say in post-match interviews, conversations with your family, and chats with the coach really nails the feeling of rising through the ranks with your own personality. In a world where social media also plays a key role in pre-match build up and post-game thoughts, it was really neat to see Alex Hunter have his own Twitter account.
Not everything is excellent in The Journey, though, as some of the situations and scripted scenarios don't make a lot of sense. Having bagged a handful of goals with Southampton in the first handful of games, being sent out on loan just doesn't seem all that sensible from a manager's perspective. The Journey is an excellent glimpse into what could be a fantastic new feature for future FIFA games. If you like a fun story and you like football, it's definitely worth your time.
Not a whole lot has changed in FIFA 17's online modes, with the only notable new feature coming from the game's highly-addictive Ultimate Team mode. There, players can now jump into an exchange feature that allows them to swap out a handful different quality cards for cards that are of better quality and value. It's still a little shoddy in the sense that you aren't quite sure what you're going to get – especially when you're putting quality cards on the line – and I still think it's safer to build up your own coin stash and buy the players you want from the transfer market rather than throwing in hundreds of dollars for FIFA Points and gold packs from the store.
As a complete package, FIFA 17 is a fantastic game. Even though penalties are flat-out broken, the new additions and improvements to Career Mode, the inclusion of The Journey, and Ultimate Team being as addictive as ever still makes it the best value for your dollar when it comes to a football sim. That's not even taking into account how much better the game looks and feels with the Frostbite engine. Once again, EA has produced a deep, addicting football sim.