My first experience with football games came in the form of FIFA World Cup 98. That game blew my mind with its graphics. Then I played International Superstar Soccer 1 and 2 (the predecessors to Pro Evolution Soccer) on PlayStation 1. To this day I believe those two games were perfect football simulations. They didn’t have licenses for real teams or any of that, but their gameplay remains the best I’ve ever experienced in a football game. I’m by no means an exclusive fan of either FIFA or PES. I enjoy both franchises, but at this stage I feel FIFA offers a bit more value than Pro Evo. So, without further ado, let’s get into this review.
I commend EA for trying something new with their first ever story-driven game mode in FIFA, but unfortunately I feel it falls a bit short. You play as Alex Hunter, a young footballer trying to make it big in the Premier League. You choose a club to play for and your position on the field. You engage in training and make appearances in games to earn attributes, fans and manager reputation. The whole process is quite heavily scripted. You make decisions with regards to which club you start off at, but that carries no real value since the story plays out the same way no matter which team you choose. I played through The Journey twice and my experience was pretty much the same both times with each club. Just when you think you’re about to break into the first team for your chosen club, there’s a bombshell dropped on you. I’ll leave it at that, because I don’t want to spoil the whole story for you.
My biggest issue with The Journey is that there’s no real longevity in the mode. It ends after one season, after which you get a 75-rated Alex Hunter card for your FIFA 17 Ultimate team collection. By contrast, NBA 2K17 and MLB The Show’s story modes let you play out a whole career. FIFA 17 does offer this with Career Mode, but in my opinion NBA 2K17 has the best story-driven career mode in any sports game at this stage. There are other issues in The Journey as well (like annoying bugs and some commentating issues) which detract from the experience.
The Journey is an undoubtedly positive step for the franchise, and my hope is that they’ll take feedback and improve on the experience. The cut-scenes are really well done, especially those featuring real-life players – so if you simply play through it for the story, it’s entertaining for what it is. That said, I wouldn’t recommend playing through it a second time.
FIFA Ultimate Team
Perhaps the most popular and fun part of the FIFA series, Ultimate Team sees you start off with a basic team of random players. You use coins earned by competing in matches, tournaments and offline matches against the AI to improve your squad by buying players off the market. Alternatively, coins can be spent to open packs to get new players and consumables used by your squads. Squad strength is determined by player ratings, as well as the chemistry between players. It’s best to match players with others who share the same nationality, or play in the same club/league. I’ve always enjoyed Ultimate Team, and the improvements EA has made vastly improve the overall experience. They’ve added squad-building challenges wherein you try to complete various tasks with your club. These earn you rewards such as player packs or, in rare cases, legendary players – but be careful here, as you’re basically trading in the players in your club, and you won’t be able to use them again.
Online and offline tournaments are still available to boost your coins, as is the Draft Mode implemented in FIFA 16. As always, Ultimate Team gives you the option to use FIFA Points instead of coins, which expedites the process of building squads, but it’s not a necessity. With the game’s price already hovering around R1,000, personally I think FIFA Points aren’t worth the extra spend. But hey, if you’ve got cash to burn, go for it.
All this is great, but it has to be said that I struggle to find games online. There are some changes you can make in your settings to alleviate this, but I spent a lot of time waiting to find opponents, which is always frustrating. When you’re finally blessed with an opponent, the game performs quite well. I suffered through lag in some games, but they were the minority, and it’s to be expected when you’re playing on international servers.
Other, not-so-crucial game modes
There are certain modes I hardly ever touch in FIFA. This varies from person to person, but in my case I’m not fond of playing sports games against the AI. FIFA 17 offers all the standard single-player modes we’ve grown accustomed to. Career Mode also offers you the chance to create your own player and climb the ranks, much like Alex Hunter in The Journey, minus the cut-scenes, scripting and storyline. Career Mode also offers you the option to retire as a player and focus on team management, which I find quite intriguing.
Online Seasons with friends and Online Pro Clubs are also available, but they’re modes I don’t play all that much. My friends don’t play Online Seasons and I can’t find enough people to play Pro Clubs 11v11. You don’t necessarily need 11 players, but I find little point in playing with only two or three friends. In Online Seasons you can fight your way through from Division 10 to Division 1 with a team from the 30 leagues and 650 teams available to you.
For the local PSL fans, we still only have Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs available. FIFA 17 also adds 14 women’s national teams to the franchise, which is great.
FIFA 17 is technically a better title than FIFA 16. The Frostbite Engine shines, and the visuals are quite striking. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make up for some of my irritations with the game. The commentary is confusing at times, sometimes highlighting things that never happened, and on a few occasions my commentators ignored important events entirely. Some weird bugs are present as well. In one of my Ultimate Team matches, my opponent scored a goal, which was somehow recorded as an own goal by my defender – but after watching the replay five times, I’m not sure how the defender (who was a few metres away from play) took credit for the goal. At times, the struggle to find matches online just compounds my frustrations. I enjoy Ultimate Team and all it has to offer, so I often wonder if players outside of South Africa have as hard a time finding games as I do. Hopefully some of the problems I’ve experienced will be fixed in future patches.
FIFA 17 has taken steps in the right direction with The Journey and the upgrade to the Frostbite Engine, but we’re still yet to be graced with the perfect FIFA game. PES is biting at the heels of FIFA, and I personally prefer the feel of PES’s virtual footballing to that of FIFA. Having said that, FIFA narrowly wins the overall battle because it offers way more stuff for me to do, mostly thanks to Ultimate Team. With both titles being relatively expensive in South Africa, at this stage I’m inclined to stick to FIFA 17.