This time last year I headed down to Guildford to go play FIFA 16 for the first time, and came back with news of a few new gameplay features such as a fast pass modifier and the addition of women to the series. It didn’t twig at the time, mainly as it was my first FIFA preview event, but those were signs of a quiet year for FIFA. The women’s teams proved to be nothing more than a small distraction for a game or two, the addition of the fast pass modifier slowed the game down dramatically in other areas and the other features were so small that I can’t even remember what they were.
Fast forward twelve months and I am once writing up a preview for the new iteration of FIFA, this time however it’s clear FIFA 17 is a massive entry into the annual football franchise, one that advances things beyond some minor gameplay tweaks. Hell, we even have a fully fledged single player story mode, with cutscenes that feature top players such as Harry Kane.
I suppose that is as good a place to start as we will get, so let’s talk about The Journey. Easily the biggest surprise of the entire presentation was this new single player story mode, that sees you guide Alex Hunter through his career. You start off by playing a single game, and your performance here will dictate which Premier League clubs will want to sign you up. Do well and a contract offer from either of the Manchester clubs or Arsenal could be on the table, mess it up completely and a trip to Sunderland or newly promoted Middlesbrough will be in order.
Once at a team your life starts to take off, at times the going will be good and at others things will go horribly wrong. In the demo we played, Alex (who isn’t a customisable character by the way) was just about to make his debut for Manchester United, coming on as a substitute at Anfield. But in another scene that we saw, Alex had been told that he was being sent out on loan to a championship club and then finds out, by watching TV, that his club have brought in Harry Kane to replace him and partner with his bestie up front. Apparently the narrative is scripted, but your performances and off pitch antics can impact some areas of it.
In the scene where Alex finds out that Kane is replacing him the Spurs striker himself appears on the TV, fully performance captured and scarily life like. Kane is just one of many stars that will appear throughout the story, although other specific names were not mentioned. You will also be able to interact with many of these players in off pitch cut scenes that feature dialogue options, think BioWare games and you have the right idea. In our demo we got to do a post match interview after our debut, and were given three questions each with three answers. The answer we chose would change our perception to different groups of people.
The team wouldn’t mention how long they expect The Journey to be, but with this much focus on it chances are it won’t be a small offering. Experienced FIFA players may skip past this and hit up Ultimate Team, which is returning (obviously) straight away, but for newer players or those who don’t have the time to invest in other modes this sounds like the perfect solution for them.
On the pitch things are pretty different as well. The switch to the Frostbite engine means that everything looks significantly better, from the stadiums to the players and even the gameplay. Character models look good for the most part, although there is something about the eyes that don’t sit right with me. Everything else is near perfect on most of the big names, but the eyes look like something out of Toy Story, and at times can be quite creepy.
In terms of gameplay, there is a ton of new changes. Set pieces have been completely reworked, new physics have been added to make collisions more realistic, there are more ball control options, new pass and shot modifiers, significantly improved AI, and more small tweaks to generally improve the action than one could reasonably count.
We may as well start with set pieces, but if you want a super deep dive into them, especially the new corners then check out our interview with Aaron McHardy, that man can talk about corners for a long time.
The biggest rework has been on the corners and freekicks in deep and wide positions, basically ones that you have no chance of scoring from. Instead of the camera going behind the player, the view stays at a top down perspective and an aiming marker appears on the penalty spot. Move the analog stick and the marker moves, once you are satisfied with the position of the marker you set your power as before and float the ball into the box. This creates more chaotic moments in the box, and offers more chances for flick-ons or free kicks that are intended as a cross but float into the bottom corner untouched. Goals like the Sergio Ramos goal in the Champions League final are now much more likely and that is only a good thing.
Elsewhere penalties have been reworked, and shooting free kicks have seen a similar treatment. Both now allow you to move your player around the ball prior to taking the kick, and this allows you to use other parts of the foot such as the outside of the boot. On penalties you can control and edit your run up speed, starting off slow and then speeding up, or vice versa. On free kicks the camera now stays behind the player until the ball goes out of play or is saved/blocked. This allows you to see the curvature of the ball, meaning a perfectly placed Beckham style free kick looks more awesome than ever.
Perhaps the most important change is the new physicality options and physics. Previously, a pre-decided animation would play when two players came together based on how they hit each other, but now this is all done in real time, similar to how rag-doll physics work. This makes crunching challenges, shoulder barges, and everything in between look more realistic and in many cases quite painful.
This new system also allows for more ways of defending physically. Instead of pulling back a player with the same animation every time when chasing them you can pull LT (the new physicality button) to try and hamper their run, or step across them. This can also put more oomph into challenges and allow you to push opponents off the ball fairly. With the ball the new button will allow you to shield on the fly and even while moving, making ball retention and hold up play even easier.
Once again the AI is “smarter” but this year it really shows in the opponent’s half. Runs are no longer straight lines towards goal, but instead varied, including diagonal runs; arched runs; runs into poor space to create a bigger space for someone else by drawing defenders away, and of course the old favourite of my first football coach Carl: one run for the defender and one for yourself, where you start off in one direction then after a couple of steps quickly change direction and leave them in your tracks. This makes finding that final ball much easier once you start to understand the new AI behavior, and that is something FIFA has always struggled with.
New modifiers allow for curved ground passes, downwards attacking headers, and low driven shots. New ball control options mean you can bring it down off goal kicks instead of having to head it, and you can even flick it on for yourself in this situation. Kicks and throws from a keeper’s hands can now be driven low and can lead players into open space. Sprint dribbling has been improved, making those good at it in real life such as Ronaldo and Bale much more formidable with the ball at their feet, and the new skill moves only enhance this. First touch errors are now more realistic, there are three times more animations than last time out and you can move up and down the line slightly when taking a throw in. Oh, and dressing rooms and backrooms of many of the big stadiums have been digitally created for The Journey. Phew, I think that just about mentions most of it.
The biggest take away from the event was that, while this is still the FIFA you know, if feels quite different and will take a good while to master. The new physical stuff makes both attacking and defending significantly different and allows for many different styles of play, such as using Ibrahimovic as a target man who can actually hold up the ball. The set piece chances are much needed, and while there are a few things that may need to be tweaked, they are a good thing in the long run.
FIFA may not be too much closer to being the realistic sim that it wanted to be, but this year FIFA 17 looks like it could have the most realistic on pitch action ever seen in the series. What is more important though is I had a ton of fun playing 17. That could have just been because I went undefeated on the day, but I think that says a lot about the quality of FIFA 17, because I can’t wait to play more.