I can’t believe I am writing this, but the latest installment in a 23-year-old soccer franchise could be the best game released in 2016.
Screw it. Let’s make it rain superlatives in this piece: “FIFA 17” is the best FIFA of all time, the best sports game of 2016 and the best title yet released this year. I could not find a single thing wrong with “FIFA 17.” It is beautiful – breathtaking, in fact. It’s even more impressive that peeling back that marvelous exterior reveals tremendous depth.
This is my fourth week in a row reviewing a sports game (check out my Madden, NHL and NBA reviews). I took breaks only for other work, sleep and the occasional helping of bread and water. I should have been at the end of my rope. So imagine my surprise when the introduction of The Journey, a story-driven single-player mode akin to the MyCareer option in the NBA 2K franchise, sunk its hooks deep into me and pulled me from my chair.
I don’t usually get too deep into technical specifics, because they typically aren’t sexy and I run the risk of overstretching my limited computer knowledge. But someone at EA should be given a medal for switching the FIFA franchise from the Ignite game engine to the Frostbite 3.
I will explain.
The Journey tells the story of Alex Hunter, a third-generation footballer portrayed brilliantly by Adetomiwa Edun.
Electronic Arts is a massive company, and as such, has created several of its own engines for creating games. Ignite is typically used to create the sports games. It boasts better, more lifelike AI – meaning the players in the game should act like real players. Frostbite is used for EA’s shooters and role-playing games, like the Battlefield and Dragon Age franchises. It captures the piercing facial details and big explosions necessary for story-driven games.
So someone at EA Canada, the FIFA franchise development company, decided early on that this is not going to be a traditional sports game: This is also a role-playing game. And it paid off in a huge way.
The Journey is a remarkable triumph. It gives players just the right amount of customization options. You can choose protagonist Alex Hunter’s position, but it only allows you to play the spots on the pitch where you can make an immediate offensive difference. Very few defenders can win a game on their own. You also get to shape Hunter’s personality and relationships, but again – within reason. The mode’s architects had a particular storyline in place, and too much customization could affect that.
The plot is good, not great, but the acting is exceptional. Soccer clubs are massive business entities. Big teams have 50 or more players competing at various levels, plus the managers, trainers, agents, etc. associated with them. EA Canada inserted a diverse group of fictional characters into several of these roles along Hunter’s lengthy odyssey – all brilliantly motion-captured and reading from a solid script.
‘FIFA International Soccer’ dropped in 1993, kicking off two decades of dominance.
All of this was done without sacrificing anything on the field. In fact, I found the 25 or so hours I spent actually playing soccer this week was even more realistic than previous titles. The players are more physical – pushing and pulling each other as they jostle for better positions. It is no longer just about pulling off ridiculous dribble moves that only a dozen real players can pull off. Matches in “FIFA 17” are gritty – just like actual soccer.
The developers also made a few quality-of-life tweaks to the controls that make a huge difference. They simplified free kicks and corner kicks. The ball moves a little differently when dribbling. You can now press separate buttons to call for aerial passes vs. ground passes. That one is absolutely huge. In previous iterations, I would call for a pass while standing alone in front of the opposing goal, and my bonehead teammate would immediate kick into an opponent’s legs.
I played this game a lot, and I couldn’t find a thing wrong with it. I could not find any bugs crawling in either the online or single-player play. You couple that with an innovative, immersive new story mode, stunning presentation and the skillful tightening of in-game mechanics, and you have the best game of 2016.
But the year is still young.
Video Game Review
▪ Rated everyone
▪ Developer: EA Canada
▪ Publisher: EA Sports
▪ Available now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC