Theatre of dreams
The throw-ins are fixed! Or at least they’re different, anyway. There might be plenty of bigger and more eye-catching changes in this year’s FIFA--the addition of a new story mode, a long-in-the-works shift to an entirely new engine--but few things will matter to regular players more than the fact they’ve fixed the bloody throw-ins.
That’s because, for all Ultimate Team’s compulsive success, FIFA is a still a game that lives and dies on its moment-to-moment gameplay. FIFA 16 featured hefty updates to the core mechanics, tinkering at the basic building blocks of how the game plays soccer. On the evidence of my first few hours, FIFA 17 will march things forward again.
That's the nature of FIFA’s iterative annual schedule; various updates and new features are in perpetual development, and each year a new game scoops up the ones that are ready to go. One of the longer-term projects coming to fruition this year is the shift to Frostbite, EA's flagship game engine used by DICE’s Battlefield series.
It’s not yet clear what extra potential this brings to FIFA’s gameplay. When asked, senior producer Nick Channon spoke about atmosphere and drama, and the scope for collaboration with DICE and other EA studios using the same technology. For now, at least, the focus is on improving presentation. At one point in the demonstration, the team shows off an impressive aerial shot of Old Trafford, with a cloud of humidity caught in the floodlights.
“What do we feel we could do to add to FIFA that would have impact, that would feel different and new? The gap was narrative.”FIFA 17 senior producer Nick Channon
Frostbite is, according to Channon, also key in bringing FIFA 17’s new story mode to life. The Journey is a big departure for FIFA; a narrative mode following a young player breaking through into the Premier League team of your choice. However, on the surface it’s hard to see why EA has invested in a single-player mode when FIFA’s biggest attraction and money maker remains Ultimate Team.
“People have asked for it” answers Channon, who explains that his team surveyed the existing line-up of modes as development on FIFA 17 began.
“What do we feel we could do to add to FIFA that would have impact, that would feel different and new? The gap was narrative.”
In a mode called "The Journey" you play, on and off the field, as a young striker called Alex Hunter who, in a Roy Of The Rovers flight of fancy, is emerging as a professional player at the same time and in the same side as a childhood friend. Alex interacts with other players and coaches--FIFA’s team consulted with Bioware about the branching dialogue system--and grows as a player, with upgradable traits and abilities.
He’s also given objectives to complete during matches, which play out like FIFA’s existing Pro mode, with player control locked to Alex - and while the story has a core arc, it’s designed to respond to your on-the-pitch performances. Play badly and you might be hauled into the coach’s office. Get yourself sent off and you could be in line for a talk about discipline.
Only a string of full playthroughs will test the depth of these variable outcomes, but even as I was tempted to giggle at the slightly stiff cut-scenes (a monotone Harry Kane explaining how thrilled he is to be signing for Leicester City), and I found the dramatic framework surprisingly effective.
In the section I got to play, Alex was making his first-team debut, on the bench with his friend Gareth Walker in the starting line-up. During our pre-kickoff exchange I decided to be the bigger man and chose the most supportive dialogue possible (“Score one for me!”) only for Gareth to brush past the fist-bump I was offering and respond “it’s time to make my mark.”
Suddenly, I hated Gareth, and even though “It’s time to make my mark” is an extremely unlikely thing for anyone to say, ever, it still lent an unexpected edge to the 20 minutes I had to win the game when I came off the bench on 70 minutes. I always want to win, but this time I really wanted to win.
If The Journey has been designed to fill a gap, Channon and his team are well aware that gameplay remains the crucial element in any given FIFA. “Without it,” he says simply, “you don’t have a game.”
Top of the list of this year’s changes are set pieces, which have been given a long-overdue overhaul. This is unglamourous but necessary work, beginning with those throw-ins. Now you can take a few paces in either direction on the touch line and make dummy throws to fool defenders. It’s more realistic, and gives the team in possession a better shot at keeping the ball. Corners are now directed using a moveable reticle, offering greater accuracy (though skill is needed here, as the target homes back to a central position).
In combination with the “pass with precision” modifier added to the game last year, this new system enabled me to whip satisfying crosses into the near post looking for a dangerous flick-on header. I didn’t score but, you know. Really satisfying.
Free kicks and penalties are also much changed. The camera stays low and over the shoulder of the player taking a free kicks (think of the rumbling camera perspective from the original Be A Pro mode) giving a more pitch-level view of the ball as it travels towards goal. And penalties are more like tiny moments of play than a timed button press; you’re now in control of your player as they approach the ball, able to curve and slow their approach, and the final shot itself aimed, powered and directed much like a regular strike (it’s a brutal learning curve--I missed three out of five penalties in my first FIFA 17 shootout).
While these set-piece improvements sit apart from the rest of FIFA’s gameplay, there are also a series of changes right at its heart. These are the ongoing tinkerings that eventually determine the quality and longevity of the game in any given year; a careful balancing act of introducing the new without breaking the old.
So, physical play has been rejigged, with the introduction of more free-will physics into player interaction. When players come together over or around the ball, FIFA 17 is better able to calculate the forces acting on each body. In practice this new physical play supersedes a lot of the dark arts jostling and guarding from last year--now, if you want to pressure a player with the ball, or shield the ball when in possession, you press L2.
I had trouble adjusting here. Playing a new FIFA for the first time is always an odd thing. Some changes which seem immediately gratifying turn out to be rather simple in the long-run, and other changes which don’t click immediately offer subtleties over time. All of which is, of course, a way of explaining why I was rubbish for my first few games of FIFA 17.
In FIFA 16 I use L2 for precision dribbling, slowing down play and turning away from defenders. Here, though, L2 would tangle me in physical confrontations, or at least get my player ready for one. The ball often felt stuck under my feet, and I found I couldn’t beat defenders with a change of direction or a quick turn over the ball. What I’m saying is, I don’t think my struggling is necessarily bad, just a measure of how big a change the physical play overhaul will be. And even as I struggled I enjoyed the new areas of play it opened up: stepping across players for blocking, over-the-ball tackles, finally being able to physically challenge keepers in 50/50 situations, and holding off defenders under a high ball in order to bring the ball down rather than, as was always mandatory before, simply challenging for a header.
Other changes are so embedded that, even after a few hours’ play, I’m still having to take the team’s word that they exist. Channon describes what the studio are calling an “Active intelligence system”, which is basically a complicated upgrade to the programme that tells FIFA how to play soccer as all 22 players at once. The accuracy and realism of FIFA comes from an AI system that tells players the best place to be at any given time. Now, according to Channon, active intelligence has a better understanding of what space is useful for any given player to occupy at any given moment, and so FIFA 17 is better able to do this job, leading to more sophisticated diagonal and curved attacking runs.
More immediately graspable are lots of smaller changes that don’t fit neatly under any given headline. The precision pass modifier now works with keeper throws and kicks, which will hopefully see an end to frequently suicidal looped chucks to opposition strikers. A timed second tap of the shoot button when running in on goal from an angle will now produce a drilled, low shot across the keeper. During aerial challenges you can try to knock the ball into space for yourself with a flick of the right stick. And pre-match tutorials now include two-player minigames, so no longer is one player always sitting on their hands before kickoff.
What does this all leave us with? An engine that’s set to improve FIFA’s presentation and expand its scope over the next few years. A new mode that might be a little shallow but seems likely to offer a short-term soap-opera buzz. And a long list of improvements and iterations that are good news in and of themselves, and better news as a sign that EA is still committing big chunks of resource to making sure FIFA’s soccer improves every year.