WITH Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 signalling a triumphant return to form for Konami, the FIFA series is this year facing genuine competition for the first time this decade.
It is not unreasonable to accuse EA of resting on its laurels in the past, but this time around, it has implemented some thoughtful changes to its best-selling franchise. The result is a game that is not superior to Pro Evo’s dynamic and considered gameplay offering, but one that excels at presenting the overall experience of association football.
As is to be expected, the game looks terrific. The Frostbite engine allows for a slew of subtle new animations which, from the vantage point of the normal playing camera, may not be immediately apparent,. But watch the replays of on-field action and the revised lighting system and textures makes for a more realistic game than ever before. Other little flourishes, such as the stadium announcer confirming the man of the match over the PA at a match’s climax, simply confirm the status of EA’s long-running franchise as the most immersive football game on the market.
Staples of the series, such as Ultimate Team and career mode, benefit from tweaks here and there, yet the most thoughtful innovation is The Journey, a game mode that has echoes of the NBA 2K series. Combining a truncated career mode with RPG elements, you play Alex Hunter, a young Londoner intent on emulating - and eventually bettering - the haul of prizes won by his grandfather, a former pro in the 1960s. Starting off at a youth football game in the unremarkable environs on Clapham Common, you are tasked with steering Hunter to success at the top level of English football.
The choices open to you are limited - for all that you can sculpt Hunter with points won through games and training sessions, his role is that of a striker - and the Mass Effect-style dialogue options that present themselves appear to have a minimal impact on Hunter’s fledgling career. Yet the overall narrative - written following consultation with real-life players such as Harry Kane, who makes a cameo in the mode - is meaty and convincing.
The ultimate prize you can help secure depends largely on the team you choose to join. In our playthrough, we opted for Bournemouth in the hope of securing more game time. Despite a late flourish towards the season’s end, Hunter just missed out on helping the south coast side win a European place. There are, however, clearly pronounced flashpoints throughout the season that add drama and purpose to the experience, regardless of what colours you wear. The experience, at around 15 hours, is short lived, but it is engaging enough to encourage repeat playthroughs and makes for a genuinely enjoyable addition to the usual host of modes.
Overall, this year’s gameplay has improved for the better, though problems persist. The somewhat sluggish pace of last year’s iteration has been remedied, but the most notable change is the intelligence of the opposition AI, particularly in defence. Back lines are more adept than ever at tackling, holding their shape and anticipating patterns of play. At times, this makes for frustrating encounters, and counter attacking play is rewarded more than slow, possession-placed build-ups, but it makes for a more authentic and challenging experience.
Other developments, however, feel entirely unnecessary. An overhaul of the penalty system invites wayward and overpowered shots. It smacks of change for the sake of change and it is to be hoped that EA patch it at the earliest opportunity. Attacking, meanwhile, reveals the AI’s shortcomings, with players seemingly reluctant to make runs and find space at times. The game is improved on last year, but Pro Evo is definitely a more responsive and intelligent offering on the pitch.
The gap between the two titles is narrower than ever. Purists will likely plump for Pro Evo and they would not be wrong, yet that choice should be seen as a slight on FIFA,. It remains leagues apart in terms of graphics, sound and presentation, and over the course of a year, its welter of modes lends it variety Konami’s game still aspires to. In an ideal world, you should buy both. Each showcases the best of the beautiful game in their own inimitable ways.