For years, the FIFA series has been coasting. A new player on the box, a shiny new sponsor on the ball, a gameplay tweak here and there. Just enough to keep fans playing for another year.
FIFA 17 is a more significant update, adding more than a handful of tackling animations. While you won’t find much difference in the gameplay, the team at EA Canada have upgraded to the Frostbite Engine (used in fantastic looking BioWare games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age) and added an entirely new story mode. Called “The Journey”, it’s a soap opera-style melodrama in which you guide a young star player called Alex Hunter on his rise to fame. Hammy as hell, it’s still hugely fun, like an extended episode of Eastenders.
Between regular football matches, The Journey adds choose-your-own adventure-style plot elements. You get to pick your starting Premier League club and guide Alex through training sessions and press interviews, choosing lines of dialogue as you go. You can be a cool-headed dude in post-match press conferences, or act like a total arsehole. Your choices affect those around you, whether it’s your flat-cap wearing granddad or your manager.
The games themselves are further augmented by a real-time score based on Alex’s performance in several key areas, so it’s up to you to make sure Alex isn’t tripping over himself or pulling off bad passes. Perform well and the manager recognises his talent and he’ll get to play more often.
Easily dismissed as a gimmick, The Journey instead ends up being something quite loveable. As long as you don’t expect the emotive narrative arcs of The Last of Us, you can appreciate an eccentric little game that provides more laughs than a football simulator has any right to.
So does FIFA 17 best its arch-rival PES? You could argue about it until Villa are back in the Premier League, but it’s without doubt the most interesting FIFA game in a long time.