Far from the usual annual tweaks and updates to its footballing formula, FIFA 17 arrives with two marquee upgrades: the switch to a brand new game engine and the addition of The Journey, a cinematic single-player mode following a prodigious young player as he vies to make his name in the Premier League.
It is an addition that took many by surprise. A story in a football game? Pah. Yet The Journey is a surprising delight; flawed and cliched, but built with a sense of pride and warmth that is so often missing in such clinical sports sims. And, in this hyper-corporate vision of football we have these days, even the sport itself. And no, the irony of a video game that packs countless branded boots and makes a fortune selling player packs highlighting this is not lost on me.
You play as Alex Hunter, a 17-year-old starlet just setting out on his football career, taking him from academy exit trial survivor to his first Premier League contract (at a club of your choosing). It is the consummate rags-to-riches story; Alex coming from a broken home, overcoming adversity and setbacks with raw talent and hard work. While The Journey is careful not to stray too far from U-rated wish fulfilment (no shisha pipes or under-the-table deals here), there are some gentle messages about family, friendship and the pressures of fame that make it more than simply football matches with cutscenes slapped on top.
When Alex gets the chance for his debut from the bench in a hostile away game, he warms up along the sideline with the crowd roaring “Who are ya? Who are ya?”, while a less than perfect performance brings doubt and criticism on social media you will find hard not to take personally.
It is all handled very well, from enthusiastic actors to smaller touches that bring a frisson of excitement to even, ahem, more mature fans like me. Getting a nod from Arsene Wenger (perfectly modelled) in the tunnel as you arrive at Arsenal, or getting to sit down in the dressing room next to Dimitri Payet at West Ham are lovely moments. And with Hunter such a thoroughly likeable lead, it’s a mode that is easy to get swept up in.
It is far from perfect though, shot through with niggles. Chief of which is the lack of real influence over the story. It is set up as if the choices you make will branch the narrative, but it rarely ends up working like that. Whether you choose Man Utd or Middlesbrough from the outset, the story hits the same beats. And it is clearly set up with the assumption you will choose a big club, with some of the scripting making little sense if you pitch up at Watford or Burnley. It is nice to have the option, but don’t expect the story to be tailored to your team choice.
Similarly, your performance doesn’t hold as much influence as you might expect. The game settles into an alternating rhythm of training (boosting Hunter’s stats and his standing with the manager) and matches, with you starting as a substitute with set goals trying to force your way into the first team. But no matter what you do, even scoring consecutive hat-tricks from the bench, you will still find yourself shipped out on loan early in the season.
There is a lesson in there somewhere about needing a break in football and it does make for a better tale to see young Alex go through the ringer, but don’t go expecting a variety of outcomes between playthroughs. The Journey is constrained to the story it wants to tell, but it does so with commitment and warmth.
According to EA, The Journey is only now possible because of that technology upgrade. FIFA now operates under ‘Frostbite’, a game engine originally developed for first-person-shooters such as Battlefield, but there seems little lost in translation. FIFA 17 plays a largely familiar game of football, complete with many of the strengths and foibles that have defined the series in recent years, but also makes some significant changes.
It plays much quicker this time around, something of a response to the muted response to FIFA 16’s measured game, while the decision to nerf pace and power last time around has been reversed. Now speedsters like Patrick Aubamayeng or Gareth Bale are a scourge again, tearing away from lead-footed defenders given half the chance. It can lead to games that involve a lot of hopeful through-balls, particularly online, with canny (or unimaginative) players looking to release their speed merchants at every opportunity. But it is a viable tactic and one potentially countered by a greater emphasis on physical play, burly defenders able to knock slighter players off their track.
The extra physicality gives you an option further up the field too, with target men a more viable option. Squeezing the left trigger when taking possession with back to goal shields the ball, much as it did in FIFA 16, but physical traits come in to play and clashes are a lot more dynamic. You can attempt to bring down aerial balls using your chest, taking it to feet and waiting for other players to overlap.
And they will. Teammate AI moves more aggressively on the attack, finding space and often looking to get in behind the back line. It gives plenty of options, but doesn’t quite have the same canniness as PES 2017’s AI, where players will drop into intelligent as well as advanced positions.