Life has not been easy for FIFA in the current generation of consoles, and EA has only themselves to blame. Sales-wise the game is still doing great, but quality-wise it has been struggling. The first outing on this generation, FIFA 14, was rather positive, but FIFA 15 and FIFA 16 - both of which came with many changes - fell short of expectations. With Pro Evolution Soccer keeping steady with their performances, EA Sports knows they need to step up their game.
Even after playing the demo it's fair to say that we still don't know how good the new FIFA will be, but at least it's showing plenty of ambition. EA Sports has replaced the old engine, Ignite, with DICE's Frostbite, not only improving the general visual quality of the game, but also allowing the implementation of The Journey, a story mode the likes of which we have never seen in a football game (although it's not a new concept in terms of other sports games).
We already knew many of the details surrounding The Journey, but the new playable demo allowed us to sample the upcoming RPG mode first hand, admittedly in a limited capacity. In it players will follow the career of promising young player, Alex Hunter. When you start playing in the final version of the game you will have the chance to choose the Premier League team you want to represent, but in this demo you will be locked to Manchester United. It's a small sample, but we were impressed.
The demo shows the debut of Alex Hunter against Chelsea, the action kicking off in front of a packed Stamford Bridge. Although starting on the bench, Alex Hunter gets to play the last 10 minutes of the game, with the score tied 1-1. Judging by the demo, events surrounding the matches when Alex Hunter is not on the field are always predetermined, although you only have to watch the goals. When you finally get onto the pitch, you will receive the coach's instructions (in this case José Mourinho himself) that you can try to execute on the field. These may involve performing a number of well-aimed passes, assisting a colleague, holding the result, or scoring the winning goal. If you can achieve these goals, your influence with the coach will increase greatly, but you can still get a positive performance even if you're not meeting the determined targets. In The Journey you will be focused on Alex Hunter's career, but you're not required to control just him on the pitch. Before each match you can choose to lead the team as a whole, or only control the actions of Alex Hunter.
What makes The Journey special is the context of what is happening off the pitch. This mode will have several cinematic sequences, which sometimes ask the player to interact with events. At the press conference at the end of the match you can comment on the score and the team's performance, for example, and the answer will influence your relationship with the coach and the fans, and ranges from explosive, balanced, and cool. What we saw of The Journey left us impressed, and some of the details on show are, simply put, fantastic. We shared the astonishment of Alex Hunter when he stepped on the turf at Stamford Bridge, walking from the bench, all thanks to impressive graphics and a great atmosphere. It is clearly in The Journey that Frostbite really shows its worth. Even better was the warm-up, when Chelsea started insulting Alex Hunter, asking in unison: "Who are you?, Who are you?".
Experiencing these moments is something very special for a football fan, and judging by the demo EA Sports has managed to recreate these feelings in an exemplary way, although there are flaws. With the real players from each team (except for rare exceptions and certain fictional characters) and the coaches not speaking, some of the immersion is removed from the game. It's even worse when we realised that there is great inconsistency in the way the team is built. On our side on the bench was Pogba and Ibrahimović, which makes no sense. In terms of the teams and events, it's clear that The Journey will give the story priority, sometimes to the detriment of logic. It's a bit silly, but honestly, we can live with it. We look forward to seeing how it'll develop in the final version of FIFA 17.
The Journey promises to be an extremely ambitious and interesting addition to FIFA, but it's not that what really concerns most Career mode and Ultimate Team players. The gameplay in FIFA 16 had quality, despite some flaws, but in our opinion the artificial intelligence spoiled the game completely. Playing in the higher difficulty modes was a tortuous experience, enough to see some controllers thrown against the wall, but it seems as though this serious problem has been resolved in FIFA 17. Artificial intelligence now acts a lot more realistically, and it's not so unforgiving on the player. We also enjoyed realising that the individual attributes of the athletes now really has a major impact on the AI's behaviour.
We played two matches between Manchester United and Gamba Osaka, two teams with glaring differences in quality. In the first game we controlled Man United and we dominated the game without any problems, the end result turning out to be 2-0. After that we changed to Gamba Osaka, and the situation became a lot more complicated. We lost 2-0, had less possession, and Manchester even missed a penalty. We were very pleased with these results, which showed how player attributes actually matter in the AI's performance (last year most teams played like Barcelona).
With improved and balanced difficulty levels, FIFA has ceased to be a frustrating exercise, and it is again a fun football game, even playing against the AI. This is also due to the gameplay, which has improved when compared to what we've seen in the previous two years. EA Sports made many changes to the series with FIFA 15, introducing greater complexity into the gameplay, and overall FIFA is a much more complicated game than PES is, but that doesn't necessarily make it better. EA failed to fully realise their vision in the past, and although it's still too early to say they have done it in this year's game, the demo definitely showed an evolution from FIFA 16.
The game is more fluid, passes are faster, shots are varied, and the team movement is better. You can play high-quality football in FIFA 17, and it's a more organic game then PES, but it has problems because of it. The ball is so loose that sometimes it escaped the player when it shouldn't, and passes can be so fast that the animations don't always keep up to speed. You often see players turn 180º in at instant to catch the ball. These are the little moments that kind of break the immersion of the game, although they don't really have a big impact on gameplay. Still, FIFA 17 has improved since FIFA 16, and we hope that the final version corrects ever more of these shortcomings.
FIFA demos are usually a far cry from the final product, and there is always an evolution between the demo and the final version of the game, not to mention improvements via patches. But to be honest, we are satisfied with FIFA in its current state. It's not a perfect game, but it is a lot more solid and fun than FIFA 16. If the final version ends up being a big improvement compared to what we have seen here, even better. With PES also in great shape, 2016 appears to be an excellent year for virtual football fans.