This season, FIFA is taking what could be described as a quantum leap... sideways. To our great surprise, the much vaunted Ignite Engine has been dismantled for its finest parts, allowing FIFA to break free and jump with both feet into the newest iteration of Frostbite - the technology under the hood of Battlefield, Need for Speed and Star Wars Battlefront.
Stunning new visual and AI tech isn't the only shock, however. FIFA 17 also features an extraordinarily serious RPG mode called The Journey, following the highs and lows of a young hopeful Alex Hunter. It has conversation wheels, the works. Why? Well, why not.
Newly promoted FIFA producer Aaron McHardy says he has "never been more excited" to share what his team have been working on for quite some time. Yes, the plans shared with the press just recently in London have been underway at EA Canada for the past two years. McHardy says that all is not lost from the Ignite Engine, but the pursuit of authenticity led the team to adopt Frostbite, which enables them to have more true-to-life action and to create new content very rapidly. It means that we can look behind-the-scenes at football grounds around the world, visit the changing rooms, even peak inside the team plane.
The tagline you're going to see everywhere for FIFA 17 is: "Football has Changed." Which, from EA's perspective, speaks to the team's desire not to stand still; not rest on its laurels. This step forward is taken so seriously that four "ambassadors" of the sport have been hired as consultants: James Rodríguez (Real Madrid), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Anthony Martial (Manchester United) and Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund). "They're the young guys," says McHardy, pointing to their valuable insights into the evolving world of their footballing lives.
It seems that these four youngsters have been primarily called upon to ensure that the RPG component of FIFA 17 stays as true-to-life as possible. 'The Journey' is hailed by McHardy as "the biggest new mode since Ultimate Team", taking us from lowly beginnings to a promising career at Manchester United in the boots of (fictitious) Londoner Alex Hunter. In addition to providing a substantial distraction from the meat of FIFA 17, playing against friends locally or online, The Journey showcases the range of depth and emotion built into FIFA 17. It's a mega-buck chest-beating reaction to all those criticisms of FIFA having lifeless players.
The Journey will dwell on the details worked into every facial feature, in particular the eyes. We're told that the Frostbite engine can animate flesh, not just bones, to look very realistic. EA has mo-capped Harry Kane to play a part in the Journey. There are real life managers in the dugouts too; José Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp performed expressively during our demo.
Similar to Become a Legend mode in PES, and closer to My Career in NBA 2K, The Journey is a lavish tutorial of sorts. Bolder than both of them is the narrative content which benefits from the experience of EA stablemates BioWare (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), both creatively and nuts-and-bolts technically. It features 'Dynamic Scenes' that showcase both the DICE Frostbite engine and storytelling nuance of BioWare blockbusters. We see Hunter in deep conversation with his granddad upon learning the news - via TV - that he has been sent out on loan while his lifelong friend gets to partner with Harry Kane. We choose responses - calm, fiery or lacking in confidence - to the changing room tension, and during post-match interviews. But when it comes down to it, the biggest impact on Hunter's career is performance during games, where a Score Tracker monitors every aspect of involvement.
Some examples of requirements that sway Hunter's career one way or the other, include: 'Impress the boss' (achieve seven performance points); 'Team Player' (get one assist); 'Break the Deadlock' (win the game), and 'Go Ahead Goal' (score the next goal). To encourage a better performance, the manager gives instructions from the dugout such as, "Try to be more efficient with your timing when tackling opponents."
In the short demonstration available to the press, the results of a turning point game for Manchester United away at Anfield, in which Hunter is given his big chance, showed how conversation choices are woven into the whole game - from the touch line to the post-match interview. When being subbed, Hunter could say "Just get me out there," or "It's all a bit mad," revealing his attitude in the moment. When being quizzed afterwards, Hunter tells the press "we would've preferred all three points," or "it was a special moment" - the latter in reference to his close friend Walker, whom he grew up with and graduated together.
The Journey is more than substantial, but how much it'll really matter for players focused on Ultimate Team and all the rest, only time will tell. For our purposes, we had the following teams to try out in the new Frostbite engine: Man United, Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Juventus, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, LA Galaxy and PSG.
We bore witness to what McHardy is calling a complete set-piece rewrite, emerging from a physical play overhaul that's less scripted and more context oriented. Crucial to all this is something called pushback technology, which responds authentically to human collision. And to this end, there is one shoulder button now allocated to physical play of any kind, attacking or defending. It's primarily to protect the ball more assuredly as an attacker, or win it back more forcefully as a defender. We voiced concern to McHardy that this could end up being calamitous in so many unwanted ways, but were assured that this is in hand.
We also tried out the new set-piece options intended to "take control in every dead-ball situation". Mainly, the freedom to carefully position your player before any free-kick is taken or throw-in attempted, but also a new reticule that allows players to aim free-kicks and corner kicks more efficiently. Most notably, the camera remains behind the kicker.
One major aspect of FIFA 17 that we must wait and see to validate is an Active Intelligence System that McHardy claims is "fantastic and has changed the game." The 'physical button' did produce clear results, shielding the ball and so on, but AI analysis that allows for more intelligent runs into space and an ability to create space in less obvious areas was perhaps only apparent in that through-balls and passes into space were picked up more generously.
Still, we remain intrigued by EA's promise that basic football truths are being built into this new engine, allowing for emergent behaviour and closer player control to shape the game. One great example of how this all comes together was shown in the closing seconds of a demo reel; a fake-pass exit performed by Cristiano Ronaldo on the edge of the box, typical of the real-life player, authentically conveyed, and opening our eyes to the potential of FIFA 17.