In the opening to last year’s FIFA review, I argued it was long past time for this series to switch over to a brand new engine. I’m not delusion enough to think that article had any influence whatsoever on FIFA 17’s move to EA’s in-house Frostbite engine, but I obviously welcomed the decision. It seemed to hint at an era of new possibilities for the game. One where the old bugs and problems could be addressed by new code.
Unfortunately, Frostbite-based FIFA is not a particularly radical departure from previous efforts. The new engine provides a prettier render (the volumetric lighting helps a lot), but it’s doubtful whether this year’s incremental changes to gameplay owe all that much to Frostbite. Legacy coding problems are still very much in evidence, and, while nobody should have expected full re-write, it’s almost absurd that these things persist year on year.
In terms of this year’s gameplay changes, the increased importance of a player’s mass and physical presence makes the most difference. There’s much more emphasis on remaining balanced while on the ball. As a result, quality dribbling in FIFA 17 is much harder (because you have to remain aware of your own player’s momentum), and it’s easier to get nudged out of possession by a jostling defender. Shielding (LT by default on the 360 controller I was using on PC) is now much more necessary, both as a means to hold off incoming challenges, and for holding up play while you wait for team-mates to get into better areas. You can actually use a large, strong striker as a proper target man this year.
Whether you adapt to these changes will largely be down to preference, and how you like your football games to ‘feel’; but a regrettable consequence of the beefed up player mass is even lengthier control input delay than usual. Player animations seem even slower to play out than ever in FIFA 17, which means you can find yourself watching a player dithering on the ball before trying to put your (now possibly worthless) command into action. It forces you into a semi-clairvoyant mindset, where you’re sometimes trying to predict the button input you might want in the next half-second rather than immediately. This is a problem even in single player, and obviously gets worse if you have lag in an online match.
Slowing down the pace of play, acknowledging that players cannot instantly control every ball, and punishing button spam are all fine as design goals. But FIFA 17 pushes these factors to the detriment of the player feeling fully in control of the game.
Particularly irritating is EA’s new-found fascination with players automatically chesting a ball down. That’s not an inherently bad move, and it can be useful when it triggers at the right moment. Problem is, a number of situations which would previously have been a simple header away with the A button have now turned into ‘wait for the player to slowly chest the ball down and aimlessly hoof a pass to the opposition because you pressed A a few seconds ago hoping for a straightforward header’. When this occurs, it rarely feels like you had much of a chance to avoid it. The ‘cancel queued action’ command seems to have vanished.
FIFA 17’s other gameplay change of note is the willingness of AI players to make useful runs into space. This has definitely been upped from previous titles and, in conjunction with auto-interceptions from AI opponents being toned down in midfield, goes pretty far towards encouraging a short passing game up to the final third of the pitch.
In theory, anyway. But something is a bit awry with the game’s sense of who you’re aiming passes at (especially noticeable on the semi-assisted setting), and I think it’s related to the eager AI running. You can sometimes be trying to roll a square ball to somebody a half-dozen feet away, only to see it bypass that obvious target and continue towards somebody making a break down the wing. Other times you might be aiming for a guy running up alongside from deep midfield, and see the ball pinged right back to your central defenders. This isn’t exactly consistent. After almost 30 hours of play I still haven’t quite worked out how these breakdowns in intent and execution occur, but there’s some correlation between the AI being in ‘I’m making a forward run’ mode and the pass (semi) assist either prioritising or outright ignoring them.
While on the subject of AI runs, it seems impossible to tell your full-backs to hold a deeper position. If you were conspiratorially minded you might conclude they’re working against you, because the opposing AI sure does love popping a pass into the pocket of empty space they’ve inevitably left behind. This usually leads to a cross into your box or the ball being knocked out for a corner; either way, you’re forced into a deadly game of Chesting Down Animation Roulette.
No huge surprise, then: FIFA 17 has rejigged increments of gameplay from 16 (somewhat for the better), introducing a couple of new problems and accentuating some older ones along the way. Thing is, it was hoped that this entry would offer more than the standard annual step forward dictated by an older, limiting game engine. The fact that a much-hyped move to Frostbite hasn’t really disrupted that pattern is rather disappointing.
I’ve dwelt on how the game feels to play for the simple reason that these aspects are ubiquitous, regardless of playing online or off, and the more frustrating moments will erode your enjoyment no matter which FIFA 17 mode is your area of choice. From Amateur to Legendary difficulty, from basic friendlies to the all-new ‘Journey’ narrative, how the players handle and perform is the core of the game.
A brand new mode is certainly worth discussing, however. Especially when it shows some promise. In ‘The Journey’, you control up and coming Premiership star Alex Hunter (either in traditional ‘Be a Pro’ style, or as the whole team; every game beyond the opening lets you choose). You can opt to sign for any Premier League club and play through one season with them, although the fixed narrative makes a bit more sense with some teams than others. One plot point revolves around a big money transfer signing, which will require quite a suspension of disbelief if Hunter is plying his trade at, say, Burnley.
That’s a bit of a nit-pick though. The Journey is a cliché-filled romp, complete with absent father (a promising footballer ruined by injury), talented players messed up by fame and fortune, and unlikely cup runs. In this kind of story, if Burnley want to sign Harry Kane (a man whose line delivery is akin to a person trying not to swallow his own teeth), then so be it. You get the sense from the minimalist, Mass Effect 3 style piano score that The Journey occasionally wants you to take it quite seriously; but almost everything else about it is at odds with this overture.
As a method of adding a bit of much-needed context and drama to ‘Be a Pro’ mode (which, by the way, is still present in its old form as well), The Journey does a reasonable job. But like a raw, young footballer, it also has plenty of room to improve and hone its craft. The story pacing goes horribly flabby for several months when Hunter is sent out on loan (the only real thing of note during this period is that you discover a former total arsehole is now a model professional and minor arsehole), and there’s far, far too much emphasis on training. Absolutely nobody wants to do a series of about 50 rubbish FIFA 17 skill games as part of The Journey, yet that is the case. Forget about simulating you way through them; that’s an option, but it risks the random letter generator tossing out some low grades and bumping you out of the starting XI into the substitutes.
It’s also a shame that the RPG-like dialogue choices are basically meaningless. If you’re a jerk you gain more twitter followers (and ultimately land a sponsor more quickly), and if you’re more level-headed then the manager is slightly more inclined to put you in the team. Big whoop. A branching story worthy of an Obsidian RPG is obviously never going to be FIFA’s forte, but it is quite funny when you break what the plot is expecting to have to cope with (either by playing amazing, or being amazingly shit) and watch things play out regardless. I’m sorry Alex, I know you scored 15 goals in your first four games and are basically the most exciting young player the Premier League has ever seen, but you’re going out on loan anyway.
There are some bugs here and there, too. The fake Twitter posts sometimes got the name of my team wrong, and at one point our league match with Everton took place on an empty training ground (complete with crowd noises). As an official FIFA-backed ‘product’, the tale is also incredibly sanitised, with a rather dubious emphasis on maximising commercialism at all times.
Elsewhere, the returning Career mode has added a few ‘board goals’ as busy-work to occupy you through the season. Things like bringing through some youth players, or reminding you not to spend all of the club’s money. I’d need to play further seasons to see what impact this really has, but it basically appears to be a minor expansion of the previous league and cup expectations (which still feature, but now as one of several goals). Screw these up too often, and you’ll be fired.
The rest of the Career features seem identical, aside from the fact that the ability to request additional transfer funds has mysteriously disappeared. That means the same weird bug that sometimes shows all the results in other ongoing league matches as 0-0, the same utterly banal and sterile club news reports, the same bizarre transfer behaviour from major clubs, and the same weird training system that assumes only five players train in a team at any given moment. Conversely, it also offers the same oddly perfect conditions for gaming-while-catching-up-on-podcasts which mean I’ll probably dump endless hours into this Career mode too. Same as always.
Regrettably, FIFA 17 still hasn’t managed to figure out a way to make any of the AI teams play in substantially different ways from one another. Doesn’t matter if they’re Bury or Bayern, they’ll have almost the same pass completion statistics and near-identical tactics. The extent of the AI’s tactical nous, as it has been for some years now, is to press you a bit harder if they’re losing (sometimes in manner that still feels like a suspiciously scripted toggle) and to fall back deeper if they’re winning with a few minutes left. The similarity of opposing AI teams is a constant source of disappointment for those who play regularly offline, and tops my personal FIFA wish list of changes. You know, just in case the same people from EA who absolutely definitely read my pleas for a new engine are here again.
Over in the corner devoted to online play, there has actually been a positive development for Pro Clubs mode. Thanks to a new system for levelling up (which essentially rewards you for just playing a normal game of football), there’s a distinct reduction in the number of people farting about trying to spam skill moves when they should just be playing centre-back. That’s definitely a change for the better, and even makes drop-in play bearable.
Ultimate Team, meanwhile, has devised a cunning economic plan to boost the transfer market all year round. Squad Building Challenges encourage you to put together squads under various conditions (all silver cards, at least three nationalities, minimum chemistry rating of 70, for example), and offer tasty rewards in exchange for ‘cashing in’ those assembled teams. None of those rewards can be sold, but the increased demand for random Swedish wingers (or whatever is in vogue for the weekly challenge) means formerly neglected cards retain some value.
It’s a clever idea, and a neat diversion for those who favour the collectible card game portion of FIFA (which, judging by the revenue it pulls in, is literally everybody).
Otherwise, FUT is broadly its usual self. On PC, that means a diminished pool of online opponents (though still plenty) and, sadly, a much higher risk of running into cheaters who are operating the latest coin harvesting techniques and disconnect as soon as you begin a game. Again, it was hoped that the change to Frostbite would be able to incorporate more robust defenses against such things, but EA either can’t, or haven’t bothered, to crack down on this.
The general servers, at least over last weekend when the majority of my online play took place, seem relatively problem free. You’ll run into the aforementioned coin harvesters (at higher divisions, usually), and sometimes the match-making sticks you with someone apparently trying to play with a dial-up modem, but major lag has been the exception for me so far. What is worth knowing, though, is that alt-tabbing will disconnect you from EA’s servers and potentially lose you games. This can also happen when Origin pops up achievements on PC; so you should probably disable that function.
If you missed my technical run-down of the graphics and performance specifics of FIFA 17 on PC, then head over to this prior article which covers all of that business.
As an incremental step on FIFA’s annual march FIFA 17 does just about enough to satisfy, but this year’s tweaks to gameplay do bring problems. The increased emphasis on player mass and how it affects balance and momentum is theoretically sound, encouraging players to pay attention to how their team receive and distribute the ball while discouraging button mashing. However, it does present situations where input delay is even more egregious than usual, to the point where it’s to the detriment of the flow of the game. Likewise, the more ‘intelligent’ AI runs are successful; up to the point where they may be interfering with the pass selection logic.
Those aspects frustrate to varying degrees, but the real disappointment here is that a change to Frostbite hasn’t managed to address (or even attempted to address) long-term failings. Inconsistent player switching, AI teams playing in roughly the same manner, coin farming cheaters in PC FUT; all are still very much present. In that respect, FIFA 17 is yet another entry in the series which fails to implement the systemic change informed players are crying out for.