Sports games are like cell phones, or Fast & The Furious movies, or the Call of Duty franchise. Every year a new one comes out, a version slightly altered from its predecessor. Whether you like the new version often comes down to personal taste and personal experience with the previous version as much as it comes down to its objective quality. And inevitably, for all three aforementioned categories as much as sports games, there is a group of people who buy the new version every year, their collective and often inexplicable loyalty buoying the respective franchise along to yet another version the year after.
I fall into that inexplicable loyalty camp when it comes to the FIFA franchise. Annually, I tell myself that I won’t be purchasing this year’s version, then some combination of factors causes me to break down and buy it yet again. It’s not that the games are bad, in fact they are a lot of fun, but it’s difficult to justify paying full retail price for a game whose changes from last year’s version are slight. FIFA 17 may be the best FIFA yet as far as gameplay goes, but its annual releases leave its developers with very little time to make meaningful additions to the game.
The additions that were made to FIFA 17’s gameplay include better physical play between players and different methods for taking free kicks. The physical play, and the physics in general, add depth to the gameplay by ensuring that a player’s agility and speed actually count for something. The difference between dribbling with a player with high agility versus one with low is easily noticeable, just as is the difference between using a player with high strength versus one who is weak. The changes to the physics engine fortunately do not rid the game of the hilarious glitches that pop up every so often. Sometimes watching two players trying to get up, legs and arms intertwining only to make one fall back down again, is as entertaining as the soccer itself.
Like past FIFAs, the game falls somewhere between simulation and arcade. The field feels a little too small, the game itself a little too fast, but this doesn’t detract from the fun of playing the game. FIFA 17 owes its realism to clever AI defending and goalies that react as quickly as their real-life counterparts, at least on higher difficulties. Where FIFA 17 fails is in some of its controls, namely in how it allows players to be creative. Playing passes into a specific space can sometimes be difficult, even with highly rated players, and the game could benefit from a create-a-play mechanic that we saw briefly in the NHL series. Overall, the game successfully combines predictable outcomes and random chance to create gameplay that is fun and challenging – even though it may not be the most realistic representation of soccer out there on the market.
FIFA 17 also boasts the Frostbite engine, whose addition is supposed to help players’ faces express emotion better than last year’s version. This is technically true, but only because the FIFA franchise’s past is filled with players that look like clay models that someone took a hammer to. In FIFA 17, the most famous players in the world look pretty good, but still lack the detail and realism that can be seen in other games. The rest of the players look generic and sometimes outright goofy. The player’s faces do express emotion somewhat better than last year’s version, but EA still has a lot of work to do on in-game faces. As for the rest of the game, FIFA looks very good from a distance. The lighting is fantastic, with the shadows of stadiums laying on the field during the day games. The audio too is commendable. Fans sing famous club songs and players’ voices can be heard on the field. FIFA 17 succeeds at representing these facets of the beautiful game.
The final addition to FIFA 17 is “The Journey”, a single-player story mode that puts you in the place of Alex Hunter, a young prospect who is trying to make his way into the English Premier League. The Journey is more Hollywood than real-life, using film tropes such as the friend-turned-rival and the cocky douchebag, and adding in a few moments between Alex and his family that are more cheesy than anything. You’ll get to train Alex, play games, and basically try to live up to your manager’s expectations. The Journey is the first story mode in FIFA’s history and it shows its inexperience through its constraints on the player. The story told is innocuous and cliché, but its in its false sense of control that The Journey fails. No matter what you do, you will still be loaned out to one of three teams after one of two players is signed by your club, you will always see the same plot points, and you will always have the same ending. The base is here for a story mode that is exciting and different from other modes in FIFA, but the final product in FIFA 17 just isn’t interesting enough. The mode would benefit from giving the player much more control over their career’s path, from making player decisions have a wide range of outcomes, and from allowing the story mode to stretch over many years of a professional career. It’ll be interesting to see how much time the development team puts into upgrading The Journey into a more satisfying experience.
As for other game modes, FIFA 17 includes the same offering as previous games in the franchise. Career, online seasons, and online Ultimate Team modes include a few small changes. These modes allow the player ample distractions from the game of soccer itself, such as training players, releasing and acquiring new players, and changing team strategy and formation. There is enough here to satisfy fans of soccer, but the small development time of the game means that changes are minimal from FIFA 16. Specifically for career mode, there are mechanics in other sports games that have proven to be successful yet don’t appear in FIFA. There is no depth to FIFA’s morale system for players; no customization of the team’s jersey or stadium; no in-depth budget management; in general, there is little attempt at portraying the back-end management of a soccer club or the many facets of sports today that exist outside of the field of play. Many of these aspects in FIFA 17 lack depth and consequence for the player, and the game would be better if the career mode had more to do outside of playing actual soccer.
This lack of change in career mode from last year’s game to this year’s FIFA 17 is a reflection of the game as a whole. Small adjustments and additions are noticeable, but it’s impossible for them to justify buying a full-priced game one year after the last. In a vacuum, FIFA 17’s diverse game modes and enjoyable gameplay make it a must-buy for fans of the beautiful game. But in reality, with the game being so minimally different from last year’s version, gamers may just want to pick up the much cheaper FIFA 16 as an alternative.