FIFA 17 review -- Enjoy the upgrades but expect some frustration
The new soccer season is well underway and with it comes the annual rites of fall: raking leaves, wearing jeans, roasting all your food, cursing the cool weather... and a fresh batch of soccer video games to keep us hibernating until the spring.
FIFA 17 is the pinnacle of the changing climate. It's glossy and rich with design, as expected. Things look luxuriant, per the commercials. All the summer transfers are on the right teams, the databases run deep with emerging talent and the menus are as easy to navigate as ever before. It's comforting, welcoming and there's rarely so much as a hair out of place in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's faux-hawk.
The game is a pleasure to play, as all FIFA games are, and you can quite easily lose three or four hours to it in a single sitting. So why does it feel like something's missing? And is that simply the price you pay for how high the bar's been set in this flagship EA franchise?
Let's review the positives first, and there are many. If you've ever played a FIFA game before, the learning curve is forgiving. The basic controls translate from previous editions so you're not forced to re-think your button-mashing. The trainer option returns, offering a slightly distracting on-screen array of flair moves and/or tackles should you wish to know mid-game how to play a "threaded through-ball." (I keep trying, by the way. And I still can't get one right.) It's a case of plug and play: pick your preferred game mode -- player or manager career, Ultimate Team, Single Game, co-op, etc. -- and get down to it.
The new game engine -- Frostbite, brought over from other EA titles -- affords the most life-like visual experience. Every shirt ripple, blade of grass and random facial gesture is awash with photo-realism. All the players look like their flesh-and-blood inspirations. The kits and peripherals are up to date, too, so you've got nothing but the latest and prettiest shirts, shorts, shoes, boots and balls on display.
There are tweaked mechanics for free kicks, corners and penalties that take a little getting used to but also lend an added realism to your set-piece trickery. We have more teams, more leagues and more official licenses to play with, a richer women's soccer experience and more depth to the career mode, though I'm not sure how I can tangibly impact shirt sales or how the board can hold that against me.
And yet for all the focus and attention on visual sharpness and factual accuracy, the basic underlying gameplay is a little neglected. After enough time pounding the controller and going through the time-consuming chaos of a full season, you find yourself cursing at the TV every bit as much as you do when your actual team is playing an actual game. That's no fun when you're resorting to the virtual reality equivalent as a means of escaping your real club's shortcomings.
I'll say I'm no expert but I found the subtly enhanced speed of the game to be too much. The blur of quick passing in midfield and the improved ability to shield the ball from defenders meant that every match became one of quick counter-attacks rather than controlled possession, simply because I could never get enough possession in order to try. Tiki-taka has no home in FIFA 17. Coupled with various tweaks to the game's passing system, no matter how carefully I tried, my passes routinely went where they shouldn't. (Again, I play video games to avoid the let-down of my actual soccer skills.)
More skilled gamers may find this little wrinkle endearing before quickly mastering the multi-button sequences that trigger all your flair moves, but games as ubiquitous as FIFA should reward and encourage even the most basic player.
Part of this may have to do with modifications to the game's AI: my computer-controlled teammates, whether with Borussia Dortmund or Burton Albion, made oddly-timed runs or frequently ran together so that what I thought would be a decent through-ball would instead end up going to nobody in particular. My AI pals would constantly, instinctively try to occupy the same physical space no matter what kind of lung-bursting run I'd make or pass I'd execute. Not even Martin Skrtel could fail to mop up the sloppy play and belt it up the other end.
The speed is fun at first but quickly becomes the only way to play. With no real time to figure out how to build momentum, simply shifting the ball to the wings, exhausting your sprint button and crossing it is enough to rack up a three or four-goal lead. In addition, you get the negative side of that turbo-charged game play on the defensive side: it remains as amusingly difficult as ever to execute a slide tackle or even time your step-in without committing a clumsy foul.
Shifting back to a happy note, the addition of a proper story mode, The Journey, is most welcome. I found myself enthralled by the slightly saccharine, made-for-TV movie progression of Alex Hunter and his hard-work -- but monotonous -- progression from a faceless academy and the childhood bedroom in mum's house to a Premier League contract, a few bumps in the road and an eventual penthouse suite overlooking whichever bustling metropolis that eventually comes to worship your presence.
It's a refreshing change from the original career mode (though that's still in the mix, for some reason) that gave you all of the ups and downs without any of the personality. You begin to care about Alex's career path as if it were your own -- so much for escapism.
It's not without its flaws, though: A somewhat predictable path emerges and while the addition of in-game "choices" -- basically, say something humble, be neutral or act a typically entitled 17-year-old -- provides a slight RPG element, the overall weight of those choices doesn't ultimately harm you too much in the short-term. Your first Man of the Match post-game interview is a genuine thrill; your 11th or 12th becomes a textbook demonstration of non-controversial PR patois.
If you can stick with it for more than two or three seasons -- after eight hours' play full of training sessions, scripted story scenes and obvious loan to the Championship despite scoring four PL goals in three sub appearances for Liverpool, I barely reached the end of the January transfer window -- I'd imagine that your perception as either a fiery ego, a cool-headed team player or a pure professional is more profound, but I rarely bore the consequences when constantly taking all the credit for my success.
My manager had a few stern words, sure, and James Rodriguez somehow knew who I was thanks to a 17-minute cameo during a summer tour of the U.S., but I still got to reap the rewards of my proxy's talents. Also, there's no sense of the big club "you're going on loan all over Europe for six straight seasons without a sniff of the first team" that frequently impacts your team's top prospects.
The best thing about The Journey is that it offers the promise of a more RPG-rich future in soccer video games. For those who find Football Manager too abstract but simple "arcade" soccer games too shallow, there's plenty of scope to push the envelope in terms of a career mode for future editions. (One jarring thing: I've yet to be double-crossed or misrepresented by my agent in the tabloids. Not sure if that eventually happens, but my guy seems entirely too nice and entirely too altruistic so far!)
FIFA 17 is a great game to play. It really is. Despite the negatives, fans who have been pining for this every bit as much as a big summer signing will dive right in and feast on the usual incremental improvements and refinements. Yet the game will frustrate those who have been hoping for more substance over style, as many of the game's changes are underpinned by aesthetic concerns.
With over two decades of practice at making FIFA games, it should be possible to match the game's groundbreaking visuals with their gameplay equivalent. While those elements matter, the ability to play this endlessly until FIFA 18 releases next year surely matters more.
James Tyler is a senior editor for ESPN FC. He can be found on Twitter @JamesTylerESPN.