FIFA season is upon us once again. Like a call from an old friend you began to forget about, grabbing the FIFA 17 is comfortable but not particularly adventurous.

That being said, this year’s FIFA looks to have the makings of being the best one yet. And here are a few reasons why.

GAMEPLAY

There are no major gameplay updates this year, no new buttons to learn. Instead there’s just a slight tweaking of the core mechanics.

Speed remains one of the most important weapons in your arsenal. In FIFA 17 it feels like players are slower off their mark but their top speed is higher. This makes it tricky to burst past a defender on the dribble, but it does give the advantage to fast attackers getting on the end of a through ball with the defense on their heels.

Yes, chipped through balls are back in force it seems.

Beside pace, strength finally begins to play a more prominent role in the game. Players feel like they have weight and actually take up space, shielding the ball or using their body to keep an attacker from making a run. Weak players will struggle in central areas of the pitch where there are more bodies to contend with. Just like in real life, you can’t stack your midfield with 5’8 attacking mids because you’ll be overrun by players like Matic, Pogba and Vidal. Maybe someone should let Arsene Wenger know.

And speaking of shots fired, shots feel better. For the first time I can remember, shots consistently stay low and go towards the corners. Not only does this make it harder to save, but it looks much more realistic. There also seems to be a little bit more zing on the ball when you strike it right.

You also have to be smarter in possession. There is an old football mantra that you should play the way you’re facing, even if it’s to the goalkeeper. This rings true in FIFA 17, as blind passes are trickier than ever before. Less talented players often make horrible mistakes if commanded to kick somewhere behind them. The flipside is that it encourages build up play to be slowed a tiny bit, while the best passers can put it on a dime if they’ve got time and space.

Set pieces have been ‘rewritten’ but they’re basically the same. Corners just have an aiming dot. Penalties have done away with the green and red timing bar, instead it’s all about aiming and power. The more power, the more height, until you’re firing the ball at low flying aircraft Sergio Ramos Style. It takes a little bit of getting used to but then it becomes second nature. Only problem is that you can’t get much power along the ground.

FIFA 17 penalties
The penalties are a bit different at first, but fast become second nature.

All in all the gameplay is fairly similar to FIFA 16 and only experienced players are likely to feel much difference.

My only real problem is that the players’ movements feel stodgy and slow. The lack of acceleration really hurt the way I like to beat defenders.

I would also like to mention that the 2 player skill games are heaps of fun. Couch play may be going the way of the Dodo, but I was happy to hear that there would be two-player skill games running before a match (if you were playing with another person of course). They seemed like a cool addition, but they are actually really fun. You can be on a team, trying to work goals in 2v2 situations, or you can compete against each other. These are surprisingly competitive and addictive.

VISUALS

It wouldn’t be a FIFA release without people bemoaning the fact it looks the same as last year. But FIFA 17 should get a little bit less of that.

I’m sure you’ve all heard by now that FIFA 17 has been built with the frostbite engine, but the reason EA promoted it so hard is because it makes a real difference. If nothing else, the reality dial has been turned up to ultra. And it shows in the small details – the beads of sweat, the follicles of hair. In fact everything, even the atmosphere and the lighting, just feels more real, more of a simulation.

FIFA 17 Messi
Hooray! FIFA 17 looks amazing.

Pictures do more than my words could, but I would just like to mention that they have finally updated the hair and beards for created players. I’m someone who loves making characters, and EA have been using the same hair since 09, or maybe even earlier. Finally I can make someone cool.

GAME MODES

Career mode receives barely more than a cosmetic upgrade. There are some minor additions worth noting, however.

Each club has its own set of expectations in five categories: Domestic Success, Continental Success, Brand Exposure, Financial, and Youth Development. Depending on the club, you will be judged more on some rather than others. So a team like Real Madrid will care more about trophies than Youth, whereas a team like Borussia Dortmund expects at least some youth incorporation.

FIFA 17 career
Your club’s expectations are much more like to be met than my expectation of an amazing career mode.

There are also more ways to make and spend money. Signing a big name player may make a dent in you coffers, but his shirt sales just might help you recoup some of your losses.

You can also choose the appearance of your manager, for the first time, by picking from one of twelve presets. One looks kind of like Morgan Freeman.

Now, while these additions are cool, it’s kind of like adding a coat of paint to a wall to cover up a gaping hole.

Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but Career mode is my favorite mode and it has been consistently under developed. The youth system has been almost exactly the same for a few years, now. Except it was flawed to begin with. Basically, a 60 rated scouted youth player – regardless of position – will have all of his stats gravitate towards 60, including all of his physical stats like speed. And not only is speed one of the most important stats for wide players, it’s not something you can train.

You also still can’t change positions, or edit features to make them look less like sad mannequins.

If you played Career mode last year, it will be very familiar this year.

Ultimate Team, FIFA’s most popular game mode, is flashy but ultimately pretty much the same as well. There are more way to earn packs, but that is due to the new game mode.

Squad building challenges require you to build a specific team – say 9 players from three different nations, at a minimum of 80 chemistry – in order to earn rewards. The catch is that once you submit the squad they’re gone forever. It’s cool, but so far it seems like the rewards don’t really outweigh the coins you could have made from selling the players outright.

FUT champions is another new feature that allows people to compete in online leagues for even bigger rewards. If you think you’re a bit of a pro, this is the way to test yourself.

Other than that it’s the same old same old. Why mess with a winning formula? The pack opening animation is fantastic, though, especially when you get a world class player and they walk around from behind. A thing of beauty.

FIFA 17 pack opening Reus
Oooooooh pretty

Finally, we move on to FIFA 17’s real hero: The Journey.

FIFA’s version of NBA 2K’s myCareer, with a bit of inspiration from Pele’s movie thrown in, The Journey is a rags-to-riches story starring 17 year-old Alex Hunter. Basically it is the good old Be a Pro, or Player Career Mode, no one played, but it is couched in surprisingly impressive storytelling.

Alex is a young man, discovered by a scout as a boy. He must attend trials with his best friend Gareth (I-have-the-most-annoying-voice-ever-and-call-everyone-bruv) Walker, and eventually both sign for a Premier League club. You must fight for your place in the team, coming off the bench or going on loan, eventually working you way up to winning trophies with your chosen club.

Your responses to dialogue situations will either earn you more favor with fans or the manager. Which is cool, but hardly game-changing. It’s not Mass Effect, but it does have a really well executed story.

Everything is spot on, from the acting, to the exemplary music, to the graphics. Players such as Harry Kane were consulted to give the story authenticity, and although the closest I’ve ever got to playing professional sport is in a video game, The Journey is laced with a sense of realism. You feel for and with Alex, and his off the pitch relationships only deepen the desire you have to succeed on the pitch. It is a remarkable success considering that it’s the studio’s first attempt at such a game mode.fifa-17-the-journey-alex-hunter-celebration-living-the-dream-2My only concern is that, while the story arc is really well constructed for Hunter’s first season, I don’t know how well it will cope for seasons down the track. I seriously doubt that the Journey will be able to maintain the same level of engagement as it had in those first hours, but that doesn’t change the fact that the first season is a truly memorable gaming experience, and one FIFA has been sorely missing.

VERDICT

All in all, FIFA 17 will only ever stand out for one thing; The Journey. The rest of the modes remain basically unchanged and the gameplay experienced tuning more than anything else. But The Journey will probably attract new fans to the franchise, and it is a different dimension that pours in hours and hours of more playablity.

But in the end FIFA 17 is very pretty, it’s still really fun, and The Journey gives the series some much needed heart.

The Final score is: 8.5/10