FIFA 17 impresses with its commitment to making changes to a tried-and-tested formula, delivering both in terms of quality gameplay and depth of surface-level content.
All too often, it's easy to overlook annual video games sports releases. Sometimes - and perhaps rightly so - these series have been criticized for failing to develop much from year to year, feeling more like a simple roster change rather than a new game altogether. However, FIFA 17 has made some quite noticeable changes in comparison to its previous versions.
Indeed, there's a reason why EA took the time to make the game a part of its E3 2016 lineup. FIFA 17 has made some big (and small) changes to the standard FIFA formula, and although the quality of those amendments may vary, at the very least it's proving to be enough for those disenfranchised by the series to turn their heads and take notice.
It would be remiss not to discuss perhaps the most substantial addition to the FIFA series with this iteration of the franchise. In FIFA 17, EA Sports has introduced a story campaign of sorts called The Journey. This gameplay mode places focuses on the character of Alex Hunter, a teenager trying to make his footballing dreams become a reality.
Although the mode promises that the player's actions then help decide Alex's path, the mode is actually much more linear than some may expect. Hunter could be tearing it up in the league with plenty of goals and assists, yet still be sent on loan to a lower division to gain more experience. The same frictions within the narrative will occur either way, with friends made and lost regardless of the player's decisions.
Instead, the player's actions on the pitch act as a barometer of sorts, changing the manager's opinions on Hunter as a viable option, with poor performances or a lack of discipline even risking Hunter's contract with the club. It's hardly the open story that some fans may have wanted, but it still has charm. Hunter himself, played by Adetomiwa Edun, is a likeable character - determined, good-natured, and the right kind of cocky. Meanwhile, the performances of soccer stars themselves are corny in the best possible way; there's a reason why these players took to sport rather than testing their acting chops.
At its best, The Journey acts as a grounding moment within FIFA, a series that all too often has placed the slick surface layer of licences and statistics over the feel of the beautiful game itself. It's a different kind of authenticity, tied to the user's own romanticisms of the game, and although the mode itself is hardly deep, it gives an added layer of personality to a game series that has sometimes been as faceless as the randomly-generated youth players it creates.
However, a feel of more realism is actually present across multiple aspects of the game. In particular, whose who pick up FIFA 17 to test their mettle in the game's Career Mode are going to be impressed. Signing up to manage a club no longer sets rather simple expectations of surviving relegation or qualifying for European football, instead giving a different set of goals alongside those achieved purely on the pitch.
A manager could now be expected to achieve success in terms of trophies and finances. Often, clubs will expect a modicum of growth commercially, expecting an increase in shirt sales or in competition prize money. This means that managers will also need to keep track of how much money they are bringing in to the club, and act more tactfully in the transfer window by perhaps picking up the best young players in the game.
Some clubs will also have additional goals with a view to long-term growth. In particular, certain teams will expect the manager to put an emphasis on youth squads, bringing through a number of home-grown players per year. It's a neat touch, adding a decent level of management alongside simply picking up the best players to trounce the opposition.
Thankfully, this realism has also transposed itself over to the pitch itself. Although FIFA 17 unfortunately does fall a little behind its latest Pro Evo rival in terms of purist football simulation, the soccer on show definitely feels more visceral this time around. Physicality is the name of the game, and FIFA 17's avatars know how to throw their weight around.
This actually makes the game feel substantially different from the most recent titles in the series, where being able to slide past defenders with silky footwork was the name of the game. Although that's still a viable option, there's an added level of tactical thought - should the user pick their way through an opponent with precision passing, try and blitz through with a fast, aggressive winger, or try and use a bit of finesse? It's certainly a welcome change, and helps ease some of the repetition found in the game.
The more physical side of FIFA 17 also adds diversity in other ways. For starters, playing in an aggressive manner gives a bigger feel of blood and thunder football, where crunching tackles and 30-yard screamers are king. It definitely makes high-intensity games a more thrilling experience, rather than the more tame affair of previous games, and being able to take on rival teams with an added level of self-inflicted ferocity feels great - particularly when pulling off a great celebration after a stunning goal.
Funnily enough, this also means that the soccer on show sometimes fails to look as smooth as in previous games. The goalmouth scramble is a regular occurrence in FIFA 17, be it through a blocked shot or a corner not quite cleared, and the frantic need to either put the ball in the back of the net or pull off a last-ditch clearance keeps the game grounded once more. It may not look pretty, but it feels more real, and that can truly be seen as a positive for those who appreciate it.
Although the quality of the football on show may be a little bit choppy, the same can't be said for presentation. FIFA 17 moves the franchise over to the Frostbite engine, and although there are a few teething issues here and here - the odd bland backdrop or inexplicably old-looking player - overall there's a polish that the engine provides that takes the game to the next level. Other, smaller, changes also add much to the immersive nature of the game, such as expanded scanned faces and Premier League managers that match their real-world counterparts.
Overall, then, FIFA 17 is a success. Long-term fans will still immediately get stuck in with multiplayer behemoth Ultimate Team, which is as addictive as ever, but the title also gives players a lot more variety beyond that. The Journey is a fun, light-hearted diversion to keep players occupied, while Career Mode has enough little expansions to make it feel like a very different beast. In short, FIFA 17 is a fuller experience than previous games, and when that's married up with the slick, licensed depth and complex player ratings that fans expect, it's hard to find reasons not to pick it up. The gaming equivalent of a half-volley into the top corner.
FIFA 17 is out now for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC. This review is based on the PS4 version of the game.