For returning fans
Outside of The Journey, the biggest question returning fans are bound to ask is whether the series has made a smooth transition to the Frostbite Engine. Well don't worry: FIFA is just fine. Better than fine, actually. So far I like it quite a bit.
The benefits of the Frostbite Engine are immediately obvious in the superior lighting and more detailed character models - both of which aid the look and feel of The Journey. The stadiums aren't that much better this year - crowds are still painfully generic - but the impact is nevertheless still noticeable, and the framerate remains rock solid. In that, I'd say that the move to the Frostbite Engine is a resounding success.
Outside of completing the move to Frostbite, FIFA 17's immediate task was balancing the more defensive play of FIFA 16 with the fast-paced action of FIFA 15. So far, I think it's done that. It hasn't sacrificed the defensive intelligence of FIFA 16 - interceptions are still fairly prevalent - but it does feel more open. In particular, it rewards smart, possession-style gameplay that takes advantage of width, with crosses in particular being easier to complete.
It also feels more physical this year. Playing as Alex Hunter, I liked the way that I would be jostled and held as I tried to get into position on a corner, giving the action a tangible feeling that it has occasionally lacked in the past. Defenders will also give you a little push as you try to collect through balls, making you work that much harder for your breakaways. Off-the-ball intelligence feels adequate, though perhaps not as strong as what you might find in Pro Evolution Soccer, which has long been the leader in that category. The important thing is that FIFA still feels like FIFA; and in that, it will immediately appeal to an enormous swath of casual and hardcore soccer fans.
Less successful are the new owner mode-like mechanics in FIFA 17's manager mode, which try to capture the idea that Manchester United is as much a global brand as it is a club. Practically speaking, it's a series of expanded goals that give you some direction in how you run your club. At the beginning of the year, the board will set domestic, international, marketing, and youth development priorities, each of them weighted appropriately. If you're Chelsea, you're expected to make the Champion's League and sign big name players. If you're Hull City, your main goal is to avoid being relegated while developing some decent youth.
It does bring some interesting ideas to manager mode, which has been stagnant of late. For example, you might be directed to sign a player from Japan (the J-League is a new addition to FIFA) to spur your international appeal, which feels like the kind of decision a real club would make. Where it falls down a bit, though, is the way that it presents its feedback. For example, a common goal is to increase your club's worth by a certain amount, but it's not really clear how to do that outside of winning more and making the Champion's League. There are a handful of charts highlighting shirt sales and club revenue, but by and large they say very little because there's no sense of what exactly you're affecting. And it still doesn't address manager mode's biggest problem, which is that it stagnates greatly after Year 2 as clubs cease to grow and change in meaningful ways.
I do think it's important to highlight that manager mode can still be a lot of fun; but it's struggled to develop for a while now, and this year isn't much different. FIFA Ultimate Team, on the other hand, is as good as ever absent last summer's high profile chemistry glitch (EA Vancouver quickly patched it). As always, its greatest strength is its massive pool of players, which makes it easy to find sneaky bargains and build lots of fun theme teams. This year includes squad-building challenges: A series of challenges that encourage you to hunt down certain types of players and build a squad that utilizes them. Once you've completed the task, the player goes away forever; but in return, you get some nice rewards. It's a bit more interesting than simply grinding out player sets, and it makes for a nice alternative to dumping players on the auction house.
Taken together, I think FIFA is pretty solid this year. EA Vancouver has opted to go deep rather than wide with their improvements, making this year primarily about the switch to Frostbite and the introduction of The Journey. With their foundation established, they now have a clear path into the second half of this console generation without sacrificing any of what made FIFA so popular to begin with. I'm excited to see what's next.
The Journey has a nice flow to it and is easy to navigate. Its load times are better than most sports sims, making it easy to get into a groove and play a lot of games.
The commentary featuring Martin Tyler and Alan Smith is getting a bit long in the tooth, and it doesn't compare particularly favorably with Madden or NBA 2K. That said, if you don't like it, you can always switch to the Spanish language soundtrack.
After falling off a bit, FIFA's move to Frostbite has brought it back in line with other high-profile sports sims like Madden and NBA 2K. It looks and feels as good as ever.
FIFA 17 bounces back nicely after a down year without sacrificing any of its primary strengths. The Journey is a well-produced campaign mode that complements the existing feature set nicely, and the move to Frostbite appears to have gone off without a hitch. It's not really accurate to say FIFA is back since it never really left, but it is fair to say that it has momentum again, and that speaks well of its future as we head into the back half of this generation.