A Bundesliga-Centric Review of FIFA 17

Note: I reviewed the Xbox One retail version of FIFA 17 thanks to EA’s early access program. So I’ve spent 10 hours in Online Seasons, local multiplayer, “The Journey” and the basic Career mode. Here are some Bundesliga-centric screenshots I took myself:

A Special FIFA Iteration for Bundesliga Fanatics

First, congratulations to Marco Reus, Borussia Dortmund and the Bundesliga. There is no way to quantify what “Woodyinho’s” FIFA cover appearance will do for all three brands, but it will definitely not hurt. What makes this even sweeter, is the fact that EA had their users vote on the 2017 cover athlete.

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Reus beat out Manchester United’s Anthony Martial, Real Madrid’s “James,” and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. The fact that a Bundesliga player can make the FIFA cover against ManU and Real players shows that the German league is finally getting some of the respect it deserves.

Although there have been plenty of German players on FIFA covers (Kuranyi, Asamoah, Möller, Podolski, Hummels, Adler etc.), these boxes were made for the German market. Marco Reus is the first German player on the global FIFA box.

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Mou, Mou. Looks real, huh?

Unfortunately, EA Sports’ appreciation of the Bundesliga ends here since its newest game that is even more Premier League centric than the last iteration. Every Premier League club in FIFA comes with its stadium and coach. All PL players were computer scanned by EA and look amazing.

On the other hand, FIFA 17 includes only six Bundesliga stadiums and just three (!) La Liga arenas. You also won’t find Luis Enrique or Thomas Tuchel on the sideline. And let’s not even talk about the horrible job EA did with the non PL player faces. Take a look at the image just below. Seriously, this is supposed to be Julian Brandt? Come on, EA!

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I totally understand that an Ingolstadt or Eibar benchwarmers will not get the same treatment as Mesut Özil & Kun Agüero, but how can EA make players like Julian Brandt and Max Meyer look so damn generic? They are two of the best young players in Europe after all.

It’s also baffling that Norwich City’s ground is included while Sevilla, Leverkusen and Napoli play in copy & paste stadiums called “Stadio Classico” or “Waldstadion,” On the other hand, EA Sports is forced to focus development on the content that consumers use and a vast majority of FIFA users play with PL clubs.

The good news: all 1.Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga teams are included, and, more broadly speaking, FIFA 17 is one of the biggest steps in the right direction the franchise has taken in years.

The Frostbite Engine Does Its Work

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Marco Reus gets the Frostbite treatment.

The biggest upgrade to the video game is immediately visible. EA Sports finally retired the old FIFA engine and now uses the same graphics engine that makes EA’s first person shooters Battlefield and Battlefront look so good. Unfortunately, the jump in graphics isn’t as big as some people might have hoped, especially, since from the standard top down camera angle, most users won’t notice any big differences.

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The digital version of S04’s Veltins shows off its delicate lighting job and atmospherics.

The jump from the old FIFA engine to Frostbite is not like switching from a Super Nintendo to a PS4, but lighting, player faces and stadiums look definitely better and the game runs smoother. The new engine also gave EA Sports the necessary tools and assets to finally implement a story driven career mode.

“The (Premier League) Journey”

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Almost every sports title in recent memory now includes a mode where you can pick/create a character. Instead of controlling a whole team, you control “your guy.” For example, the NBA titles developed by 2K Sports were the first sports games to add dialogue, cutscenes and RPG elements to their “MyPlayer Mode” in 2013.

In NBA 2K you can influence GMs, agents, sponsors, or even demand a trade via dialogue options. All the choices have an impact on your virtual career. I basically bought NBA 2K games for the brilliant career mode alone, so I was extremely hyped when EA Sports revealed their “Journey” plans.

Yet much of my excitement vanished when EA confirmed that you are limited to Premier League clubs and can’t create your own player. And now that I’ve actually spent some time with this so called career mode, I’m even less impressed.

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First, I have never been into FIFA’s career mode in the first place. Career mode works in basketball games when control just one player. In a 5 on 5 hoops game, you are just as engaged on offense as you are on defense. There are a ton of stats like assists, rebounds or points to accrue and even setting a pick or boxing out can get you experience points.

By contrast in football, you are one of eleven players, which means you’ll often just watch. The problem is, your AI teammates in FIFA are idiots which makes watching them very frustrating. That’s why I switched from “Play as Alex Hunter” to “Play as a Team” after just two matches. Once you play as a team the gameplay is better, yet you can’t influence tactics or substitutions which made me quit my (Alex Hunter’s) Journey for good.

I also couldn’t get emotionally invested in a character that I didn’t create nor asked for. Sorry EA, but I’m German. Bayern, Die Mannschaft, Barca and Real are the destinations German kids dream of.  What’s also messed up is that Alex Hunter’s behaviour, choices and actions have no effect on the unfolding storyline whatsoever. On my first go, I chose to play for Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool. Even though I aced all practice mini games and scored in every match, virtual Kloppo didn’t start my Alex Hunter. Well, I started a new “Journey,” this time with lowly Watford and the script didn’t change at all. In FIFA a young, promising English prospect will ride the bench no matter how terrible or good his team is.

I won’t spoil the corny “story” for you, but let’s be clear: you aren’t in control of anything.

Moreover, EA basically added some cutscenes to the already existing career mode and crammed the skill games in there too. I did not experience any meaningful enhancement of the gameplay mechanics.

While the journey might give you a couple of hours of single player entertainment, it’s definitely not a reason to get FIFA 17. What also sucks is the fact that the base Career Mode (you can be a player or manager) hasn’t been improved much. I would have liked if EA had simply put more effort into fixing the problems in FIFA’s standard career modes instead of adding a half-assed story mode that is nowhere near as fun as the NBA 2K My Player mode that EA was “inspired” by.

Maybe next year.

Gameplay Improvements? Yeah, But …

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FIFA 17 plays better than FIFA 16, that’s for sure. You actually need good passing to score, as dribbling skills and speed of superstar players (Messi, CR7, Suarez etc.) have been adjusted to realistic levels. This is the biggest improvement in my opinion.

In earlier FIFA incarnations, there were clearly overpowered players (Didier Drogba in FIFA 12 still haunts me to this day and Messi in 16 was just unfair) that could control 60 meter passes, run like a rabbit or dribble through three guys. In FIFA 17 this disparity has been toned down a lot.

For example, I played a friend on my couch (Bayern vs. Man City) and initiated a counter attack on Douglas Costa’s flank. Costa found himself with only Pablo Zabaleta to beat. In previous FIFA games, this would have been an automatic scoring chance because of Costa’s speed advantage over Zabaleta. So my buddy and I were shocked, when virtual Costa needed a moment to control the ball and then took another split second to pick up steam. This gave my buddy a chance to catch up with the slower Zabaleta, and in the end he successfully prevented the cross.

While this might not sound like a big deal, these small changes to first touches and momentum are huge. “Ping Pong” passing and “Kick & Rush” don’t work as well anymore. Those annoying players who lob pass after pass to their star strikers up front might finally be forced to learn how to play proper football.

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Shooting has also been improved (IMHO). It takes longer to get a shot off, but once you let one fly, your chance to score is much higher than in FIFA 16. I welcome this change, because clear-cut scoring chances will result in a goal a lot more often than in previous years, where any shot felt like a dice roll.

Set pieces have completely been redone and will take some time to adjust to. Check out the video above for details. Personally, I had too many issues with the new set piece mechanics, so I’m not a big fan of them as we speak, but I can see the potential.

Unfortunately, I played guys in Online Seasons who had already found ways to abuse the new corner kicks. One guy scored a brace with Gerard Pique against me from just three corner kicks, so I really hope this was just down to bad luck and not a fundamental flaw in the rewritten set pieces.

The Online Experience and Ultimate Team

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I have spent a few hours in the Online Seasons mode and didn’t notice any improvements whatsoever. It’s still peer-2-peer, so I ran into players with horrible connections. However, what was even more annoying was the matchmaking. Since I support a  4 star peasant club (Hertha) it took me ages to find a game and the teams I was matched up with were clearly too strong. My poor Hertha squad had to face AS Roma, Tottenham and Napoli. Sorry to break it to you, but if you plan to play Online Seasons you are kinda forced to pick the best teams, since matchmaking will likely punish anybody who picks a weaker team.

What also annoyed me was the intrusiveness of the FIFA Ultimate Team. In my previous FIFA-themed piece, I detailed what a terrible scam this mode is. Naturally EA wants you to try it, that’s why they put a “go to FUT” option on nearly every menu screen you land on. The game screams “Claim your FUT reward” in your face, even if you are playing a different game mode.

I actually launched FUT three times by accident because of sneaky FUT buttons. But to be honest, I don’t see how my bitching will help at all. FIFA has my beloved Hertha and the Olympiastadion exclusively, so I guess  they’ll get my 60€ every year no matter what. Where else should I get my Football video game fix?

Is PES 2017 a Legitimate Alternative This Year?

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On Metacritic.com, PES 2017 for Playstation 4 received an average score of 86, while the PS4 version of FIFA 17 is rated a little lower at 84. I downloaded the PES demo to see for myself and yes, PES is a more sophisticated football simulation than FIFA.

But when it comes to presentation, PES looks like a game from the Xbox 360 era. The commentary is so bad it’s almost funny and the missing licenses (no Bayern, no Real among others) will always hurt the PES brand. To be fair badges, kits, player names and such can be sideloaded into PES with a few workarounds. On consoles, however, these options are limited, but on the PC version there is a very big modding scene that releases patches which add the missing content.

The thing is, FIFA isn’t THAT much worse than PES gameplay-wise and features all the teams right out of the box. If you factor in the horrible Konami servers (yup, they are even worse than EA’s), there isn’t really a reason to switch from FIFA to PES. However, I would advise everybody to check out both demos before buying. If you are into modding and don’t mind messing with option files and patches, PES might be better for you.

Verdict: FIFA 17 – Should We Even Score It?

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I like the direction EA has taken in this newest series entry. Even though many of my biggest issues with FIFA are still there, I appreciate that EA Sports has finally shaken things up a little. Last year, the biggest change was the addition of a handful of women’s national teams. This year, they introduced a new graphics engine, a story-driven career mode, and rewrote the set pieces.

By EA Sports standards this is a revolution.

Since 2008, I have purchased every FIFA game and this year will be no different. But my fascination is gone, I basically keep the newest FIFA around by default for a couple of “Runden FIFA” with friends on my couch.

In a vacuum FIFA 17, is a very competent football game with tons of features, licenses and cool music but you always get the feeling that certain parts of the game were either mailed in or rushed. There is a pretty valid reason for it: money.

Gaming is a business. Licenses cost a ton of money every year so EA literally can’t afford to sit out a season or delay development to iron out issues. EA Sports’ mission is to make money. If they can hit their sales numbers nobody will care about review scores or critical acclaim. And while PES might look like a lovable underdog right now, don’t forget that Konami is just as shady (you might have heard what happened to the creator of Metal Gear Solid) as EA and wouldn’t do anything different if they owned the Bundesliga license. If you are into gaming and football, you will likely get FIFA. EA knows it, you know it. So I don’t see the point in giving FIFA 17 a score like 8, 4 / 5 or 81.

It is what is, it’s the newest FIFA. The game does exactly what you expect from it.

 

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