What do you give the sports simulation that has everything? In Fifa 17’s case, the answer is a 15-20 hour, Mass Effect-inspired story mode called The Journey.
Charting the rise of 17-year-old prospect Alex Hunter, it takes you through the first year of a Premier League career, including weekly training and a full slate of fixtures, and is far more enjoyable than it has any right to be. Select Manchester United and you compete with Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a first-team spot. Choose Swansea and you see Francesco Guidolin gesticulating on the touchline. And cut-scenes, featuring an array of hangers-on such as agents and endorsement reps, offer a tantalising glimpse into the life of a fledgeling superstar. Reece Oxford was involved as a consultant – and you sense that much of what’s presented as fiction is reality for the West Ham youngster.
That Mass Effect reference wasn’t a typo. Developer EA Canada worked with Bioware on the mode’s dialogue options, which give you Commander Shepard-style choices at various points such as post-match interviews and scenes out on loan. (Vermire Athletic, sadly, aren’t an option – only Norwich, Newcastle and Villa.) The media, your first-team coach and those hangers-on can all be conversed with in this way, albeit in a fairly linear manner; while most of the speech is of better quality than Match of the Day’s “all credit to the lads on the pitch” fare, your responses have little tangible effect. Come across as too fiery and you might be dropped for a game or two, but a strong training performance usually catapults you back into the starting XI.
Regardless of linearity, it’s a lot of fun. A likeable cast – ex-pro grandfather, single mother, belittling team-mates turned friends – keep you invested throughout the season, and story landmarks, such as an Adidas boot deal for hitting 200,000 Twitter followers, pull you towards its climax. Without spoiling it, there’s also a neat, user-specific reward for completion. EA has positioned The Journey as an experience never before offered in football games, and correctly so; it’s one that football fans both casual and committed should find satisfying and unexpectedly insightful.
If The Journey has been EA’s off-pitch focus, on the field of play it’s the Frostbite engine that the publisher has trumpeted loudest. Surprisingly, however, incorporating the tech which underpins Battlefield and Star Wars Battlefront only changes Fifa from a visual standpoint – although the cosmetic surgery is welcome. The new volumetric lighting is staggeringly realistic, with the feel of both summer evening kick-offs at Old Trafford and cliched wet Wednesdays in the red-and-white corner of Staffordshire recreated perfectly. Some 15 of the 20 Premier League bosses have been scanned and included here, the accurately modelled manager faces seemingly transferred straight from Uncanny Valley United. They are terrifying.
The feel of the football isn’t identical to Fifa 16, but nor is it transformative in the same way as PES 2017. On a fundamental level, passing, shooting and dribbling feel incredibly familiar; but, as with all sports games, extended play reveals fresh, exciting nuances. The random first touches which dogged last year’s edition are gone; now everything is contextual, although attribute based. Most Premier League players trap the ball without problem if unmarked or unpressurised, but can be harried into mistakes, which is as it should be. Similarly, tackling feels much less like guesswork: go in for a slide and, if timed correctly, your player not only wins the ball, but looks to protect as he regains his feet, sparking the type of instant counter attack that wasn’t possible a year ago.
Additional physicality is the biggest, and best, change. There’s close to zero ghosting through the back of opponents in order to steal possession, which is particularly key where old-fashioned centre-forward play is concerned. Attackers with impressive strength stats, such as Diego Costa and Olivier Giroud, shield the ball relentlessly – they’re now a major asset to have on your team, and a headache to compete against. A deliberate knock-on effect is that they’re also a huge threat where Fifa 17’s retooled set-pieces are concerned; an aiming reticule on corners and free-kicks enables you to specify exactly where you want your cross to go – again with contextual results. Thankfully, this feature can be switched off should you get fed up with a friend arrowing every whipped ball towards Costa’s frowning forehead.
Some flaws return. Where Pro Evo facilitates contemplative play, particularly in central midfield, Fifa still feels geared towards working the ball upfield as quickly as possible, prioritising fast wingers and mazy dribbles. More annoyingly, play on any difficulty above World Class (four stars, in old school parlance) and it can often be impossible to regain possession once your AI opponent takes the lead. In real life, that advantage turns most winning sides nervous in the dying embers of a match. In Fifa, it too often gives every opponent magnetised insteps.
Variety is also a small issue. Play a Master League campaign in PES as an English second-tier side and you’ll compete against an assortment of strategies and tactics, depending on your opposition: triangular passing, long balls at physical forwards, and all things in between. In Fifa 17’s career mode, at the same Championship standard, every AI competitor attempts the same possession-focussed ground game. New features such as board objectives keep the mode interesting, but long play sessions can feel laborious with little to differentiate the play styles of Chelsea, Cardiff and/or Cheltenham Town.
Yet there are reasons to choose this over its resurgent rival. Limit yourself to exhibition matches alone and PES plays the (marginally) better game of football – but no one does that. Fifa’s card-collecting Ultimate Team, where you assemble a dream roster by amassing Panini-style cards, remains unsurpassed by any contemporary, and its package is bolstered by features such as online seasons, Pro Clubs, and 50 real tournaments. And while it seems passé to mention licences, Fifa again dwarfs its rival where real kits, faces, stadia and presentation are concerned. Although some of these elements can be tackled in PES with a quick file download, this factor remains a deal-breaker for many fans, cementing Fifa 17’s status as the complete footballing package. The Journey, really, is just the beginning of what is on offer here.
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