Another year, another FIFA review, although this time around, there's actually a reasonable amount of new stuff to talk about without having dig deep into the finer - and frankly quite boring - technicalities of tweaked gameplay mechanics. Taken as a whole, FIFA 17 is the biggest step forward that the sports series has seen in some time.
Let's kick off with the title's latest addition to its already robust suite of modes: The Journey. A fully blown story mode complete with cutscenes and dialogue choices, The Journey stands out as something fresh and relatively exciting. Stepping into the goal-scoring shoes of talented teenage cockney Alex Hunter, you'll forge the young blood's legacy as he makes his way from playing football in the park to hammering home last minute winners in cup finals.
Essentially, The Journey is Player Career, except you're playing as a preset character with a voice and personality. The campaign itself is split up between training sessions, full competitive matches, and story scenarios as your actions both on and off the pitch determine how successful Alex's career turns out to be. Put in a good performance on a consistent basis and you'll keep your place in the starting eleven, for example, but make too many controversial - or 'fiery', as the game calls them - comments in post-match interviews, and the manager may start having second thoughts, even if the fans on social media think that you're top notch entertainment.
Right from the off, it's clear that a lot of time and effort has been pumped into The Journey. This is a mode that could have very easily ended up being a complete cringe-fest, but it actually feels authentic to some degree. Indeed, there's a surprising air of realism here in the storytelling; yes, it's obviously dramatised, but it's hard not to become immersed in Alex's potential rise to Premier League fame. It certainly helps that it features some decent voice acting from a range of supporting characters, even if the dialogue can sound like it's trying a bit too hard to be down with the kids at times.
Overall, The Journey only adds to FIFA's value. It offers a refreshing approach to the property's on-the-pitch action, and the role-playing elements are enough to keep you involved in the story itself. In fact, we'd like to see some of these newly introduced bits and pieces make their way into FIFA's other modes. The post-match interviews, for instance, seem like they'd be a perfect fit for Career, both as a player and as a manager.
Speaking of Career, the managerial side of things has seen some slight alterations this year. For starters, you can now choose the look of your manager from a selection of preset models. Naturally, most of them look like grumpy older geezers, but it's a welcome addition nonetheless, and it means that you don't appear totally out of place next to existing Premier League coaches, who, by the way, are now fully modelled in-game. And yes, it goes without saying that a good number of them look like really creepy animatronic waxworks.
Moving swiftly on from the apparent killer android that is FIFA 17's version of Jurgen Klopp, you're now expected to manage the business aspect of your chosen club as well as the team when playing as a manager. At the start of your career, you'll be presented with typical objectives such as domestic and continental success, but you'll also need to keep an eye on profits from shirt sales and give a thought to developing your youngsters. On paper, managing your club as a whole seems like an interesting idea, but in practice, it rarely amounts to anything more than simply making sure that you have a good season.
For example, if you're tasked with making a killing on shirt sales, then all you have to do is ensure that your highly ranked players perform well on the pitch. Likewise, progressing far enough in cup competitions will probably bring in enough money to improve your club's financial outlook. It's nice to have these objectives floating around - they at least give you a better idea of how well you're progressing - but it's a shame that they don't bring anything truly new to the table.
The same can be said of the the title's other returning modes, too. Ultimate Team remains an addictive time sink as you strive to create an unstoppable side, but it's basically more of the same barring the new squad-building challenges. By recruiting a specific kind of player and forming a team around their speciality, you're able to unlock rewards in exchange for letting that player go. Again, it's nothing groundbreaking, but it does give you something else to consider.
As an annual release, it can be tough to imagine how FIFA will continue to keep itself at the top of the table. When we think back to FIFA 14, which was the franchise's first current-gen entry, we remember it being a significant step forward thanks to the power of new hardware. Suddenly, stadiums felt that much more real - the level of detail was, at the time, very impressive. Here we are three years later, and FIFA 17 is trying to recapture that visual leap by moving to the Frostbite engine, which is now the basis for almost all of publisher EA's properties.
Simply put, the transition has been well worth it. The most noticeable improvement is the lighting, which looks fantastic whether you're playing during the day or at night. Floodlights give off a realistic glow, while evening games are bathed in a sunset orange haze. What's more, Frostbite allows for more detail across the board, from the skin of a player's face to the blades of grass on the pitch. It's easily the best that the series has ever looked.
But is it the best that the series has ever played? It's definitely the most accessible thanks to the return of the FIFA Trainer, which is back to give you general control tips during play. And, if you're not quite sure about your set piece prowess, new in-game markers appear during corners and free-kicks that indicate where the ball is going to land. Small touches, but they come together to create a footie sim that anyone can pick up and learn, which has always been one of FIFA's greatest strengths.
Physicality also plays a bigger role this year. Generally, jousting for the ball feels weightier, and attacking players can block off incoming defenders more reliably - although this does mean that trying to get the ball off a bulky forward can seem like an exercise in frustration as they stand there stubbornly shielding it until you decide that you've had enough and attempt to break their legs from behind.
That said, attacking players still find themselves in a mostly similar situation to what they had to deal with in last year's edition. Pace will only get you so far, so steady build up play is still the best way to go about creating clear cut chances, unless, of course, you're tearing down the wing on a deadly counterattack.
If there's but one real complaint that we can launch at FIFA 17, it's that the commentary is in serious need of a revamp. Regular commentators Martin Tyler and Alan Smith are back for another round, and they're still spouting the same lines that we've been hearing for about four years now. To make matters worse, the duo seem to contradict themselves more frequently than ever before, with Smith in particular making a habit of sounding like he's watching two different games at once.
The Journey is FIFA 17's headline act, and it's a surprising success. The story of Alex Hunter is this year's centrepiece, and adds yet more value to the already robust and rock solid footie offering that we've come to expect of the series. What's more, the jump to the Frostbite engine has worked wonders as far as presentation is concerned. As accessible as it is comprehensive, FIFA once again proves that it's still a top performer.