Some years a new FIFA game arrives with barely anything to write about bar balance adjustments that might form a monthly patch in many other games. FIFA 17 isn't one of those years. The latest iteration of EA's football giant boasts a new, glossy mode called The Journey in which you take control of Alex Hunter, watch his ascent through his first season in the Premier League in mo-capped cutscenes, and make occasional decisions via a BioWare-style dialogue wheel. It's an exciting addition and no doubt compelling even if it's also a bit shit.
As per the rest of the game.
FIFA isn't the first game to add story to its sports - NBA2k has been doing it for years in the MyCareer mode - but conceptually it's a great way to make the matches in between more interesting. Real football is already as much about storylines as scores, and the best experiences I've ever had with FIFA have been when there were long-running rivalries between me and friends as we sat beside one another in front of the screen. The Journey is an effort to lend a little of that personal context to playing on your own. And in this, it works.
You follow protagonist Alex Hunter from a 17-year-old going through his exit trials at a club of your choice, to battling for a first-team spot, being sent out on loan and through to the end of your first season. The cutscenes are well acted and well voiced but the set-up is pure cliché: your grandfather is a former footballing great; your dad is absent, a failed footballer himself, and thus a source of motivation as you attempt to win his approval; your best friend is an aspiring footballer whose success goes to his head; and your agent looks and sounds as if he's about to sell your soul.
Despite the sports movie tropes, I found myself rooting for Hunter: there's a warmth to a lot of scenes - the quantity of fistbumps aside - and the game resists most of the seemingly-inevitable dramas signaled by the above. It's only a shame that it doesn't put anything else in their place; by Christmas it felt as if the plot had dried up, leaving long stretches of nothing but football as per any other mode.
The larger problem is how you interact with the story. Your dialogue choices fall into three camps: Fiery, which wins you social media followers, makes your manager dislike you, and makes you sound like a prick; Cool, which loses you followers, makes the manager like you, and makes you sound like a sweet young man; and Balanced, which sometimes increases followers, sometimes catches your manager's fancy, and sometimes does both. Followers are important because the more you gain, the more sponsorship deals you accrue, and the more money you make - though why that matters I am not sure, given there's nothing to spend the money on. Having your manager like you increases the chance of you being on the first team, rather than on the bench in the reserves, which proved useful to me during stretches when my performance on the pitch ought to have seen me sold to Leyton Orient for six packs of Monster Munch Pickled Onion.
Stats bonuses or no, it doesn't feel like you have a lot of room to develop Alex Hunter as a character. The 'Fiery' choices really are total dick things to say, all swagger and braggadocio with none of the fun of Commander Shepard punching people in the face. They're also too infrequent, relegated to post-match interviews where the questions and answers quickly start repeating or very occasional moments during cutscenes.
Part of the issue is that the arc of your journey is pre-defined: you are destined to climb the ladder towards being a football great, no matter what the reality of your performance on the pitch. I chose Manchester United as my club and never once cleared the performance rating expected of me. When I was sent on loan to a Championship club - as you always are, regardless of performance - I played no better, making my inevitable return to Manchester United somewhat unlikely. By the time the end of the season rolled around I'd cocked up enough that I was only ever an undeserving substitute - except, that is, for plot critical matches, where I would inexplicably be promoted to a starting position. It never felt like I earned any of the rewards the game showered Alex Hunter with.
The mode highlights flaws not just in me but in the game, too. During matches in The Journey you're offered the option to either control your entire team or only Alex Hunter, as you could before in the Be A Pro mode. In either instance, you only control the match for the spell when Hunter is on the pitch - eg. if you're brought on or taken off midway you only play part of the match - and the top right of the screen houses a rating for Hunter's performance specifically. He starts off with a solid 6.0 and you gain points for good passing, scoring goals, successful interceptions, and other works of footballing skill, while mistiming tackles, sending passes towards the opposition, and wasting chances causes you to drop points.
There are problems with this rating system. At the start of the game you select which position you want Alex Hunter to play in, and if you are controlling the whole team you might find that your decision leaves Hunter in a place where he doesn't see much of the ball. I selected Attacking Midfielder - all but ending the careers of Wayne Rooney and Marcus Rashford in the process, as it turns out - and even in that prime pitch real estate I'd often cut Hunter out of matches by using my wingers and targeting big man Ibrahimovic upfront.
In an actual football match you'd criticise Hunter for not making himself more involved in the match, but in FIFA it creates a strange anxiety in which you're compelled to pass to Hunter to do his stats a favour rather than because you think it'll help the team win matches. Ignore this anxiety and Hunter will be substituted and your involvement in the match suddenly over.
The alternative is the take control of Hunter alone, which introduces new ways to lose and earn points by letting you call for a pass, suggest your teammates have a crack at goal, or run out of position. This too proves unsatisfying. For one, as years of dimwitted commentary has proven, the game is not always the best at registering your intent and it'll often punish you, for example, for failing to pass the ball even when you received the ball in an impossibly tight spot and then won your team a corner. For another, it makes you dependent on the rest of your team, who are now entirely controlled by FIFA's similarly dimwitted AI. It grates to be punished for a "bad call for a pass" when in reality your teammate simply bungled the ball to an opponent. It grates even more to spend long stretches of the game keeping your position while you pray that your own team make an effort to close down the opposition and win possession back.
This brings us to some broader problems with this year's game. As mentioned at the start, each year at a minimum FIFA spins the dials of re-balancing in order to change the way the game plays. Some years defending is more important, some years it's all about attacking; some years it's all about pace and daring runs, and some years it's a tactical passing game. This year ramps up the speed, which is fine, but counters that by strengthening certain players' ability to shield the ball. Now a striker like Ibrahimovic who is relatively slow but a prodigious goalscorer can be compelled to stave off defenders behind him by holding down the left trigger. This is technically a good thing in terms of representing the real sport.
Or it would be if the ability didn't seem absurdly powerful and if defenders had a good way to counter it. At times it now seems impossible to win back the ball from your opponent as they stand stock still, leaning backwards slightly. In real life one player might harry an opponent shielding the ball from behind while a second dashes in from the side. This would likely happen in a few seconds given the pace of the modern game, putting pressure on the opponent with the ball to turn and pass quickly. In FIFA, where you control one player at a time, this does not happen - you simply find yourself locked against the back of a stationary footballer with little you can do to win the ball.
This is doubly frustrating when you're controlling just one player on the pitch, watching AI grind against AI like a racy Strictly Come Dancing routine. It's triply frustrating when you're playing as a Championship team, which FIFA continues to render not as tactically different from the Premier League but simply as being like the Premier League but shit at everything. Those months on loan in The Journey are a slog, damning you to control matches in which players with no pace, finesse or control galumph around the pitch. Watch some real Championship football sometime and you'll see that it is not simply a debuffed Premier League. Across the board the game fails to support a footballing strategy or philosophy called anything other than "FIFA".
FIFA is a big game and it's impossible to cover everything it includes without the review feeling as long as an Aston Villa match. The things I've left out of this review are those that I feel haven't substantially changed, but if you're interested in specifics I've focused on different elements of the game in previous years. To briefly recap here: women national teams are still a welcome feature after being added in 2016; FIFA Ultimate Team is still devilishly more-ish; and "NOT HIM" is still the signature cry of everyone who uses passing assistance, which is basically everyone.
In terms of what FIFA 17 does differently, there's a lot designed to impress, from the now Frostbite-powered gurns on each accurately-modeled footballers' head to the biggest new back-of-the-box feature in years. But it's mostly a game of the same old problems - a Louis Van Gaal team in José Mourinho clothing. It falls down on the pitch and fails to execute well on its new ideas. I hope next year brings a better Journey and a better destination.
FIFA 17 is out now for Windows via Origin for £50.