Can we be honest with ourselves for a moment? Over the last couple of seasons EA Sports’ FIFA series has been resting on its laurels a bit. Granted, they were still probably the best game on the pitch, but that is no reason to be lulled into complacency. After taking a bit of a shock last year from the resurgent Pro Evolution Soccer brand, it was high time that the team over at EA Canada pulled out all the stops. The result is the awesome new mode, “The Journey.”
Beginning the Rise
Remember as kid when you used to fantasize about being plucked from obscurity to become the face of a professional sports organization? The Journey allows you to live out that dream, albeit in a digital form. Lacing up the cleats of 17-year old phenom, Alex Hunter, players get to take the reins of this rags-to-riches story. Events both on and off the field have a direct impact on Hunter’s career and it is up to the player to guide them through the emotional minefield known as professional sports.
Where other sports series such as MLB: The Show opt to focus their “Road to the Show” mode exclusively on the on-field antics of your avatar, in The Journey, it’s a fully narrative experience. You get your big shot alongside a childhood friend, who goes on to success with the main squad, while you continue to languish in the dreaded “substitute zone.” Alex’s family and agent are also along for the ride, as you live vicariously through the continuous rise and fall of this budding newcomer.
As Hunter’s story progresses, it isn’t just soap opera drama and football games. Like any other athlete worth their salt, he must train and improve his skills. Competing in the numerous training mini-games work on two different levels. For one, the skills of the player are being tested, and their stats are adjusted accordingly. On the other side of the coin, this is also a fantastic entry point for FIFA virgins, because all of the challenges have direct applications over the course of an actual match. Simply put, as Alex gets better, you get better; the best part is, the improvement isn’t exclusive to the single-player campaign.
The story is engaging and the vast majority of the cast are both likable and relatable. Just when you begin to think that the plot begins to drag, seemingly on cue, a narrative bone that is tossed your way. It is worth noting that the off-pitch portions of The Journey are essentially a series of relationship simulators. Whether it be Alex’s relationship with the press and fans, his relationship with his teammates and coach, or his relationship with his family and close friends, it all boils down to trying to strike a balance between different personality styles. If he leans too far in either conversational direction, Alex risks alienating one of the key factions.
One sticking point is that the narrative tends to be a bit too rigidly structured. It feels like your on-field performance has very little to do with actually crafting the storyline. What do you mean I can score two goals and an assist in one match, but not improve my standings within the team? That makes so little sense it is laughable. If the plot dictates that you are stuck in professional purgatory, it seems like there is nothing you can do about it. Well that is at least that is the case until the game determines that you are worthy of improving again. While this is a disappointing choice, overall, the inclusion of the mode should be considered a smashing success. You have to start somewhere, right?
FIFA 17 Review - Journey Kickoff (PS4)
Returning to Greatness
Even with this significant new addition to the FIFA formula, it appears that nothing had to be sacrificed in order to bring The Journey to fruition. All of the standard modes are back again, with only minor issues from last season ironed out. A few specific examples of improvements are the additions of new objectives to the Career mode and a new variation on Ultimate Team that sees players pitting their squads against other teams online for enhanced payouts. Again, nothing earth shattering, but enough to justify a new iteration.
Another area where FIFA 17 makes a significantly tangible improvement is in the presentation. The same Frostbite engine that powers all of DICE’s releases, makes its first appearance on the pitch. Though the brand has never really been a slouch in the visual fidelity department, the introduction of the Frostbite engine takes things to the next level. More detailed character models, enhanced lighting and weather effects, and even improved player animations seamlessly meld together, setting a new bar for visual excellence in sports simulations.
In sports games most specially, it may be unprecedented for a title to usher in a massive engine switch without it having other unforeseen gameplay ramifications. Thankfully, there is a first time for everything! Not only does the game perform just as admirably as it has in prior seasons, I would even go as far as to say it runs smoother.
The most important part of FIFA 17, the actual gameplay, is as solid and dependable as ever. On-field action feels like the pace has been sped up a bit, but it’s nothing that’s going to lead to balance issues. In fact, given last season’s deliberately slower pacing, this is probably a welcome enhancement. The one notable pock mark continues to be the passing. It still feels a bit more sluggish that it really needs to. This has actually been an issue for several years, but it only becomes more evident due to the fact that everything else plays so believably.
It was nice to see EA Canada go back to the drawing board this season. The addition of The Journey, along with their already solid on-field simulation, really helps set FIFA 17 apart for the crowd. When you also throw a brand new game engine atop the growing pile of enhancements, you end up with a simulation that more than justifies its existence. They’ve really outdone themselves this year.
Review code for FIFA 17 provided by publisher. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.