In 2008 EA Sports released FIFA 08 within which the new Be a Pro mode was introduced to an unsuspecting public. Bloody marvellous it was. It was stunningly engaging and wonderfully playable. Imagine creating an avatar and turning them into that world class striker you’ve always dreamed of being in your back garden? Well here was your chance to actually, seriously, do that. With the release of FIFA Ultimate Team as an addition a few years back EA Sports did it again. This time we had a collectable card game whereby you can wheel and deal - and play football of course - to get that ultimate team. It was never quite there though and you’d go again. More of that delightful je na sais quoi that EA Sports delivers periodically.
Now, with FIFA 17 they have gone and done it again. Alongside the transfer of the game to the Frostbite engine (used for such games as Battlefield 1 and Mirror’s Edge ensuring things look and move as prettily as they possibly can) we have a brand-new game mode known as The Journey. In it you get to play the role of Alex Hunter, young football fan and aspiring footballer, as he works his way towards a first professional contract and more over the course of a season. It’s fifteen hours of gameplay, styled as a cross between player career mode, Be a Pro and an actual RPG. It’s absolutely awesome. From the opening cutscene it was utterly engrossing. Hunter’s dad was a failed footballer due to injury. His grandfather was a famous striker, leading his team to league glory in the sixties. You want to get Hunter to that level. It’s helped by the fact you can choose any Premier League club, so if you support one of those twenty teams today then you can possibly end up hunting for all the wins with your team. It’s fabulous. The Journey involves multiple training sessions - with performance in those dictating how many XP Hunter gets and therefore how good his stats become; league and cup games; dialogue choices and of course cinematics telling your story from summer to season’s end. There are FUT rewards littered throughout but quite frankly it doesn’t need them. The football RPG is born and in year zero we have an excellent first iteration of what will hopefully become a mainstay in FIFA games to come. It is quite simply the stellar peak of this year’s offering. Note that The Journey is only part of the current generation package - not PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.
Of course, FIFA 17 has all the usual options alongside this and will keep anyone involved for the next year until another version of the game’s released. With FUT, career mode, Pro clubs, online and offline multiplayer and co-op you will not get bored. The high level of production values ensures things are always pretty and entertaining too, and this year we even have less smoke and mirrors behind FUT’s chemistry given the hassle EA Sports had last year when the veracity of such effects was challenged. The sheer pizzazz is so far ahead of anything from other football games that the devs could just give up, but year on year they refresh things even if only slightly - for instance the ceremonial opening of FUT packs is different (fireworks if you pack anybody really good - good luck with that) and the commentary has been freshened up to ensure you don’t automatically switch to the Spanish or Dutch track (which are different too by the way).
There are bigger changes, too. Some impacting the game and others the actual football mechanics - not just due to the move to Frostbite, either. FUT has had a pretty sizeable revamp. It’s the same game as it always has been but the types of cards and the way you get them has been altered. We now have Ones To Watch in-forms which will dynamically change in rating over a period of time inline with real-life performance, as well as special player of the month cards and more. It means working out how much a particular card is worth on the transfer market will be a little more awkward but there’ll hopefully be much more variety in what people want, and then play with. Gameplay-wise the most obvious change is in the way free kicks, corners and penalties are taken. For corners you now have to manoeuvre a reticule to your chosen position and press circle for a floated ball - or hold it for a driven cross. For penalties you direct the stick and press the button for as long as you think is needed. Free kicks are similar. It's a change and at first a slightly bizarre one but over time you realise each new method, whilst seeming simpler, is actually easier to control and come away with the just rewards your abilities demand. There’s a greater degree of control in your chosen finish, too. You can direct headers downwards and drive a shot into the far corner. It all adds up to give you more choice when playing the computer or that mate who always beats you.
Perhaps the best and most gratefully received change to gameplay though is in the AI. EA Sports is calling it the active intelligence system. We just call it better football. Your teammates are now making more and different - better - runs. For instance as you make a charge down the centre you will have options overlapping, and they will do so as long as it is sensible rather than stopping randomly just before you deliver the threaded through pass. As a result a game of football feels more fluid, more real, more as you see it when watching real footballers on the TV or live in a stadium. You’re more present in the experience rather than an impactful observer. Of course it’s not all good - passing can feel laggy, knowing when to pass gently or drive a ball to your teammates can lead to complete cock-ups and the usual issues about bouncing off stronger players, being caught up by someone with less pace and so on still exist.
It’s to this end that people will question the overall quality of the game on offer, especially compared to PES 2017. Whilst FIFA 17 plays more or less at the same level as it did eight years ago, with many actual changes to how it plays - some helping and some detracting - Pro Evolution has improved dramatically. But FIFA 17 is still good at football, and the whole package is so far above anything else it’s difficult not to recommend it to someone who wants to play lounge football - alone, or with a friend. Online or offline. As a player, a manager or a card collector. Finally with The Journey the game’s entrance fee is paid for anyway and the rest is just a bonus.