|Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One|
|Publisher Electronic Arts|
|Developer EA Vancouver|
|Release Date Sep 27, 2016|
FIFA 17's centerpiece deals nearly every big card from sports movies' big deck of tropes, beginning with the opening sequence.
In a story mode called The Journey, a moon-faced 11-year-old, the hero Alex Hunter, lines up for a penalty kick in his league's championship, assured he will drive it in and be the one who wins the game for his team. I stepped up to the ball no less confident.
Alex's teammate and friend, Gareth, cleaned up the mess instead, and there I realized that though The Journey would spool out a classic tale of an up-from-nothing sports superstar, it would not hand the result to me, as many unstructured career modes seem to do in video games. Nor would The Journey require me to achieve specific objectives in a match, and replay it if I didn't meet every one. It's possible to flunk out of the meat-market tryout that follows the youth league scene. It's possible to be released from the parent club and never finish the story as intended.
The Journey creates organic tension and drama
On its own, the story of The Journey would be the usual Swiss cheese of sports mythology. But the mode's expectations of the player — a full season of English professional football, with no game trivial or skippable — create enough organic drama and tension to give Alex Hunter's hopes and accomplishments real tension and meaning. EA Sports' FIFA series put all of this year's eggs in The Journey's basket, and the risk pays off as a very complete depiction of soccer's lifestyle and realities, even as it delivers a fairy-tale outcome.
Structurally, The Journey is an elaborate repackaging of FIFA’s nine-year-old Be A Pro single-player career, with some role-playing choices threaded in, mainly in the form of dialogue. The Journey’s gameplay still follows the train-and-go-to-match-day liturgy of Be a Pro, but always steps in with a fresh cutscene to keep the user involved and interested in pushing on to the next game.
The star of The Journey is Alex Hunter, who in the span of a single tryout goes from a player marked for release to the next big thing with his pick of all 20 clubs in the Premier League. Whichever he joins he finds there is too much depth at his position — players may choose from four, but he is effectively hardwired to a goal-scoring role. Meantime, Alex's buddy from the story's open joins the club with him and has no trouble landing a starting job.
The Journey starts getting good about seven matches in. Alex’s club loans him to a lower-division club, soothing the demotion with the assertion that he deserves to start somewhere. I liked this approach as opposed to the linear path most sports career modes follow, where one earns their way to a parent club and a starting job and stays there. The Journey isn’t afraid to take anything away from Alex, and upbraid him harshly in doing so. As a substitute, some matches lay out specific goals for Alex to get into his manager’s good graces. But there’s an implied threat behind a bad match rating that injects plenty of anxiety and tension into a standard outing — for example, one below 7.0 in the second half makes Alex a sure candidate for substitution.
While a user may play as Alex alone or control the entire team (the same as in Be a Pro) I lengthened the time of each half at higher difficulties to give myself room to overcome mistakes and emerge with a solid match rating. Also, the teammate AI is self-consciously passive, as if it’s aware the spotlight must be on Alex all the time. Teammates routinely dead-end in the penalty area instead of taking a shot, seeming to wait to be asked for a pass. Their errant passes will still ding Alex for making a bad call for one, too. Placing so much of the responsibility on Alex to drive the attack, no matter his position, also deprives him of a lot of scoring opportunities on rebounds.
The loan period is also where Alex can mature as a professional, with the user guiding that growth. Dialogue choices shape his personality and have consequences, the biggest one being the playing time he receives from his manager. Alex is evaluated after every practice and game, with his standing plotted out on a bar. "Fiery" players who give hot-tempered answers to the press, especially when prompted to credit others, get an automatic reduction in managerial esteem. Fiery players who underperform serially in practice and matches will lose their starting jobs a lot more quickly.
The supposed benefit of fiery answers is an increase in fans, and more fans unlock the three sponsorships Alex earns, but these deliver no performance benefit and are cosmetic cutscenes. Focused properly on playing time, I gave politic answers to the media and rejoined my parent club as a seasoned professional and team player. I liked that development of Alex’s character within the story and feeling like I had a hand in it.
Otherwise, Alex Hunter is little more than a vessel for the user’s wish fulfillment, mainly defined by his activities on the pitch. Notably, Alex is biracial, though the story doesn't conspicuously acknowledge this beyond presenting his white, tweedy grandfather, Jim, (who must sleep in that coat and flat cap) as co-parent with his worried African mother, Catherine, who doesn't get much depth herself. Alex’s absentee father quits the scene in a huff in the opening sequence, and the story largely wastes his obvious influence, however angry, on Alex’s search for an identity.
A cliffhanger ending suggests there may be chapters to come
More endearing are supporting cast members like the agent Michael Taylor, who not only isn’t a sleaze-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché, he’s turns out not to be a sleaze at all. Jim Hunter is a former Arsenal striker, whose career 50 years ago still turns Taylor into a pie-eyed little boy. Danny Williams, Alex’s lower-division teammate, does a marvelous face turn from the strutting prick at the football academy's final exam to a loyal big friend whose bravado eases into self-deprecation. As a central attacking midfielder, I fought hard to get Danny the ball, and I was very sorry to say goodbye to him at the end of The Journey.
As threadbare as the story would be without the game action, The Journey is still very enjoyable, wrapping a season of world soccer in the off-the-pitch lifestyle and intrigue it deserves. Alex’s tour of two divisions of English football feels very authentic and complete, incorporating games in two championship tournaments as well as regular season matches. Commentators Martin Tyler and Alan Smith supply well acted lines that project a familiarity with Alex and his legacy, as if serious soccer fans should know who he is.
Completing The Journey concludes the activities of Alex Hunter, though a 75-rated version of him unlocks for use in Ultimate Team. It would be a shame if EA Sports created such a prominent character and detailed continuity and never returned to them, and a cliffhanger ending suggests there may be chapters to come. I hope so, because Danny earned plenty of good karma that I didn’t fully repay.
It’s apparent that FIFA 17’s makers were waiting to integrate the game with EA’s Frostbite engine before taking on a story mode. It’s worth the wait. Frostbite does more than support the intricate face scans and subtle expressions on the characters’ faces. The sophisticated lighting by itself is enough to make one feel like they’re playing a game distinct from last year’s edition. Foggy night matches at a small park in early December deliver a distinct sense of place, as do springtime afternoon romps through shadows and bright sunshine at a huge stadium. Loading times are also greatly improved over its predecessors, which aids users bingeing on The Journey as well as those in the career modes or FIFA Ultimate Team.
With so much put into The Journey, and Frostbite’s integration, the improvements and inclusions elsewhere are a little more subtle in FIFA 17 than past editions. Longtime players will appreciate some smaller refinements to the managerial career mode, and they and knowledgeable soccer enthusiasts will see a more physical game on the pitch, with the caveat that the arm-shielding move it introduces for ballhandlers is somewhat overpowered and due for a post-release adjustment.
But for lesser users the shield is a godsend, easing the panic often seen at the end of an attacking run where I’m usually most worried about wasting a rare opportunity. I used the shield to work my way around my defender and burst into the open for a better cross or a shot directly into the far corner. That said, it makes possession throughout the run an even bigger priority, as winning the ball back against the AI’s shielding is a tough task. On the whole, though,I felt it was better to have a tool to retain possession and think clearly about an opportunity, even if it limits the ability to retake it.
Longtime players will appreciate some smaller refinements
Penalty kicks and free kicks now include a means of repositioning the kick taker before they run up to the ball. To some this may seem like a pointless extra step but I found I had better angles on some kicks and, with practice, a better idea of how much power to put behind the kick. Corner kicks also have a crosshairs to aid in targeting the ball, though the user must still give it an appropriate amount of power to get it there.
In the managerial layer of the career, users now are given a set of club goals to inform the choices they make. For example, I was told my club had a goal of selling more than £10 million in shirts; signing a popular player would aid in that goal. Other clubs may have brand growth or projection as a goal, which would be helped by signing a player from a certain region in order to expand its reach there. These are interesting wrinkles, but nearly all of them can be resolved simply by winning a lot, and the club’s board doesn’t fire the user if they don’t do as told immediately.
FIFA Ultimate Team comes back as robust as ever, with a new puzzle-like game-mode that was surprisingly enjoyable and intriguing. Squad Challenges set several conditions for building out a team and, when the user meets them, they exchange those cards for a set of better rewards.
It’s a great way to, for example, unload a bunch of common bronze-rated cards for two or three better players, instead of just quick-selling them for coins or listing valuable duplicates in the auction house and waiting for value. I just would have appreciated some notation that one of the players in a Squad Challenge side was also on my main roster in use, so I could avoid gutting a key position or substitute without having to take handwritten notes on who I wanted to save. The auto-building option is also poorly suited to this mode, as it populates slots beginning with the highest-rated cards in a user’s collection. Here it would be more useful if it filled the slots with the lowest-rated cards, as the better cards are ones a user is more likely to want to keep.
FIFA 17 feels like a reintroduction to what makes this series great
FIFA 17, thanks mainly to The Journey, feels like a reintroduction to the things that have made this series EA Sports’ pride and joy for the past eight years. It may be a safe and well-trod story path, but it’s walked with characters I cared about. When I finished The Journey, I beelined for Be a Pro, something I have rarely touched, to create myself there and carry on what I had learned with Alex Hunter.
FIFA 17 was reviewed on Xbox One using pre-release retail code provided by Electronic Arts. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews