Attempt to make the biggest, best burger in the world and no matter how succulent the end product, there will always be someone out there who marks you down a couple points for a mildly soggy gherkin. Now for barbecued meats, read virtual sports. FIFA 17 is the most colossal football sim ever committed to disc, with a wealth of modes that dwarfs its contemporaries (including the always exceptional MLB The Show) – yet I guarantee you some reviewer out there will tell you that it’s a 7/10 game because the penalties are broken. The penalties are broken. But it does so so much right that in the overall picture, that kind of small flaw is rendered as throwaway as a flaccid dill pickle.
Consider this: I’ve had the game for a week, and it has swallowed me whole for 35-odd hours, in the most enjoyable way possible. 16 hours to complete new story mode The Journey, which I’ll get to later. 10 hours fooling around in Ultimate Team, building squads and completing challenges and trying (and failing) not to spend 3,000 coins on Nathaniel Clyne. Five hours in career mode. One hour sampling the new Japanese teams. One hour playing matches in new stadiums at Middlesbrough and West Ham and Gamba Osaka. 20 minutes sampling Norway and Netherlands, the two new ladies’ sides.
I’ll get to test online seasons and co-op too, once the online servers are fully populated, but the salient point is this: in what world is nearly 40 hours of enjoyable gameplay in seven days, with so much still to come, not considered fantastic value for money? That puts FIFA 17 in the same realm as your Fallouts and Elder Scrolls. Big company to keep.
But yes, those penalties do need to be patched. Set-pieces are the biggest on-pitch change this season, and both giveth and taketh away. Spot kicks require you to nudge the left stick to begin your run up, then fine tune your aim (again with the left stick) while holding the shoot button to dictate power, before your player strikes the ball. It’s a disastrously convoluted system which makes placing your shot in the top corner next-to-impossible.
Other set-pieces get tweaks for the better: a new aiming reticule on corners enables more accurate delivery, free kicks are improved by the option to strike with the outside of the foot, Roberto Carlos style, and being able to move up and down the touchline finally fixes throw ins. Patch penalties to how they used to be, and it’ll be a wholesale thumbs-up on the set-plays front.
Otherwise the feel of the on-pitch play is much like last year: end-to-end action which rewards fast passing moves and direct wing play. Centre forwards get a boost too, thanks to an improved sense of physicality - couple that with a slight toning down in central defenders’ (and defensive midfielders’) abilities at stealing in front of your man to snatch possession away, and patient build-up play through the middle of the park is possible too. Anyone hoping Frostbite would reboot the series is set to be underwhelmed; but for those still playing, and loving, FIFA 16, it’s an upgrade in all the key areas. Nerfed pennos notwithstanding.
What Frostbite does deliver is phenomenal lighting effects, placing FIFA in the same league as The Show (there’s that name again) and NBA 2K17 from a cosmetic standpoint. Play an evening game at Old Trafford or Riverside Stadium and you can see the path of individual floodlights when the view switches to behind the keeper (e.g. for a goal kick), while smaller stadia see some patches of the pitch better lit than others, exactly as occurs at most League Two grounds. Or select a late-afternoon winter kick-off and you can almost sense the chilly December air, simply from the likelike shadows cast by the setting sun. These tiny details matter – and are another area where FIFA outshines every challenger within its genre.
More examples, along the same ‘details details details’ theme, in no particular order: all 20 Premier League managers being included in a football game for the first time. The tannoy bloke announcing the man of the match as stoppage time approaches. A hat-trick scorer being given the match ball by the ref after the final whistle. Youth players you’ve never heard of having their faces scanned, right down to Regan Poole. (Manchester United, centre back, impressively foppish hair in both real life and game.) Real referees throughout the English leagues, making this the first footy game to include a Deadman walking. Transfers, such as Joe Hart to Torino, fully updated two weeks before release. It’s incredible how much of this gets taken from granted, year after year, where FIFA is concerned. It’s also time it ceased, from both a fan and critic perspective.
If the above doesn’t convince you to at least rent FIFA for a fortnight, then The Journey should. FIFA’s new story mode - which I frowned at when first revealed - is going to surprise people, and not in an oh-god-not-another-Shane-Duffy-own-goal way. For the most part well-acted and convincingly scripted, it charts the rise of youth prospect Alex Hunter, using Mass Effect-style dialogue choices to advance the storyline and flesh out his personality. For instance: make too many ‘fiery’ selections during press conferences and your manager might drop you to the bench, but your Twitter followers increase, opening up endorsement deals such as Adidas boots.
Without getting too spoiler-y (I’ve made a separate news story for that) you can choose your initial club from the 20 current Premier League sides, and one to go out on loan to when your current side signs a superstar forward early in the season. The arc from there is fairly predictable – re-establishment at your parent team, trying to spark an FA Cup run to win a trophy your ex-pro granddad never captured, forming a rivalry with best mate Gareth Walker along the way – but it’s carried by surprisingly believable cut-scenes, and the fun ability to mingle with real-life players and managers.
As a Palace fan, I genuinely couldn’t stop grinning on turning up to train alongside Scott Dann and Christian Benteke, and seeing my character next to Wilf Zaha in the dressing room. Whether supporters of non-Premier League clubs will feel so invested isn’t for me to say, but either way the mode does something fresh, and is worth experiencing. (Plus you unlock Hunter as a rare Ultimate Team card at its climax, which is a neat way of ‘continuing’ his career.)
From Ultimate Team to the ultimate showdown: FIFA vs PES. EA vs Konami. The longstanding powerhouse vs the resurgent people’s champ. Is FIFA 17 more immediate than its rival? No, and anyone who wasn’t keen on FIFA 16, or simply wants to start afresh after a few years away from football games, will immediately fall in love with Konami’s outstanding comeback kid. But will I personally play it more than PES? Absolutely. Ultimate Team is the most addictive mode in any sports game – nothing else comes close, to be frank – and while option files are a welcome means of solving licensing issues, they still can’t replicate real stadia or managers or official matchday presentation.
In FIFA, I can play at Selhurst, and have the Holmesdale Fanatics drumming away in the corner, and Alan Pardew on the touchline, and fans singing his ‘Super Al’ chant, and real kits and faces and Premier League logos, and feel in total control of the club I love. And I know fans of Burnley and Southampton and Spurs who feel the same way. Perhaps that in itself is a commentary on the superficiality of the modern fan; if that’s the case, EA definitely knows its audience. It may be an unfashionable choice among critics, but to those seeking a complete footballing package, FIFA 17 remains the greatest show on turf. And goodness, does the Frostbite engine make that turf look pristine.