Regardless of what TV commentators might say, football doesn’t have a script. Yep, those players make it all up as they along. Amazing, eh?
That is unless you’re playing 'The Journey' on FIFA 17 (which we have) – a new mode that’s essentially a Marcus Rashford simulator. Stepping into the boxfresh boots of Alex Hunter, a young player at a Premier League team of your choice, you’ll take charge of him in training sessions, matches and certain off-pitch situations in the hope of becoming the next Neymar.
A journeyman striker
We played a tiny snippet, starting in the dressing room before Alex’s debut. A cut-scene played out, with the gaffer offering some generic soundbites before sending his team out onto the pitch. Alex was on the bench (alongside Wayne Rooney, so at least that bit’s realistic), but his childhood friend Gareth had made the starting 11.
Before heading down the tunnel, the game asked us to offer some words of encouragement to him, an RPG-style conversation tree appearing on screen, but Gareth seemed more interested in his own game than anything his friend had to say (we played through twice selecting different options and his response was the same both times).
After 70 minutes and with the score 1-1, the gaffer sent Alex to warm up, where he was greeted by a chorus of ‘oo are ya?’s from the crowd. We know this is an all-ages game but based on our own experiences of football crowds it seemed like a surprisingly charming reception. Before coming on the manager lays out a set of targets for the game: get a match rating of 7 or above, make 10 passes, and win the match. No pressure.
Once on the pitch it’s pretty similar to the existing 'Be a Pro' mode, with a real-time match rating in the corner and the odd bit of on-screen feedback if you play a good pass or make a bad tackle.
Fictionalising football has traditionally been very difficult – the real thing provides enough drama on its own – so 'The Journey' probably has its work cut out to convince the FIFA crowd it’s worth playing over 'Ultimate Team' or a regular 'Career'.
But we will say this: it was surprising how satisfying it was to come on and get the crucial assist on the way to a 2-1 win. Whether all the extracurricular stuff such as training and post-match interviews will end up being anything more than an irritating distraction from actually playing remains to be seen.
EA has been working on physicality and movement. You’ll be able to use a player’s strength more effectively simply by squeezing the left trigger, meaning players are better at shielding the ball with their bodies while waiting for support to arrive.
They can also hold players off at goal kicks in an attempt to take the ball down rather than just attempting to head it away every time.
It’s a change that’s impossible to evaluate in just a few hours of playing against computer-controlled opponents, but it felt like we sometimes end up stuck in stand-up physical battles with an opponent, both players almost forgetting there’s a ball there to be won.
It’s definitely something that’ll need to be integrated carefully to prevent it becoming overpowered, particularly online. Nobody wants to see Yaya Toure become an invincible Incredible Hulk of a player, especially when in real-life he now often just shuffles around the centre circle like he’s half-heartedly trying to keep some goats away from his picnic.
Teammates now also make more intelligent runs, not just for you or themselves but in an attempt to draw defenders out of position and create space for others. EA reckons their appreciation of the space on the pitch is better, so they’ll know which areas are more likely to present chances.
Combined with the enhanced physical powers, in theory this should provide a more rounded game that doesn’t rely too heavily on one aspect of attack, be it pace, power or intricate passing.
EA has also added two new ways to shoot: one with the feet and one with the head but both are executed in the same manner, it just depends where the ball is. Power up your shot and then tap the shoot button again at the end and you’ll deliver either a downward header or a low, driven shot – two techniques that any coach worth his boots will tell you can be devastatingly effective. The latter + Sergio Aguero when one-on-one = goals o’clock.
New balls please
Set pieces have also been tweaked in an attempt to make them feel less like a game of footballing roulette. As well as better control over the trajectory and pace of your dead-ball deliveries (tap to loft it, hold to ping it), you can now switch to controlling a receiving player before the corner is taken, attempt to lose your marker and hit B when you’re ready for the corner-taker to put the ball in.
Sound complicated? It it is a little bit and the few times we tried it it didn’t seem to be any more effective than the existing method, but if it was too effective it’d defeat the object, right? With practice it might end up being deadly. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing probably depends on whether you’ve just scored or conceded.
For free-kicks you now also have more control over the run-up. Want to run straight at it and blast it straight into the wall a la Cristiano Ronaldo? Just straighten up your approach using the left stick. Prefer a Payet-style postage-stamp curler? Just take a few steps to the side to allow your taker to wrap his foot around the ball. After you’ve hit it the camera now remains behind the taker for a little bit longer, so you can watch it sail gloriously into the onion bag/hopelessly over the bar (delete as applicable).
You get even more control over penalties. Rather than just choosing the position and power of your strike, you now have almost complete freedom with your run-up as well (within reason). We sprinted at the first three before deftly tucking them into the bottom corners, but, with confidence high, we tried to mix things up and sidled up to the final two before dragging them both hopelessly wide. More practice needed.
You can now also move up and down the touchline a few yards before taking a throw-in and even fake it to throw opposition markers off.
Goalkeepers appear to have spent the past year working on their handling. They now appear to deal with powerful shots in a more realistic way, taking the sting out of them and then pouncing on the loose ball, or parrying them away from the goal rather than straight into the path of an onrushing striker, something they have been prone to in FIFA's past.
‘Keepers now also have their own version of the driven pass (activated by holding R1), allowing you to launch flatter kicks and throws to your teammates in an attempt to get an attacking move in motion as quickly as possible and catch your opponent off guard. In an era when the man between the sticks is supposed to act as an outfield player as much as any other, it could be a deadly addition to your counter-attacking arsenal.
But that doesn’t mean they’re now totally unbeatable. That added physicality may manifest itself in dropped balls if you challenge the ‘keeper well enough for high balls.
EA says it has spent the past two years working to make FIFA run on the Frostbite engine (the one used for Star Wars: Battlefront and Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst) but FIFA 17 still felt remarkably familiar to play.
Saying that, pass weight is noticeably much lower, so even fairly short passes need plenty of beans to reach their man without interception, and the driven passes (played by holding R1) seem a little less rocket-powered. Various new passing animations mean balls are swept, prodded and poked between players if the situation calls for it.
The makers have been trying to develop the physical side of the game for a while now and they’ve never quite managed to weave it right into the way the game plays and make it feel as integral as passing or sprinting, but there were moments during our time with FIFA 17 that felt like it was getting there. With early reports suggesting PES 2017 is shaping up very well, that could be crucial if FIFA wants to hold onto its title.
FIFA 17 is due out for PS4 and Xbox One on 29 September.