James Willoughby

There’s always something incredible about a new football season. The new kit. New players. Even a new manager perhaps. The first kick of the ball and the hope reignites that maybe this will be your team’s year. But for football fans with a technological love, the real excitement comes with the drop of the new FIFA demo, just four short weeks into the football season.

And there’s plenty to be excited about this year. A new game mode – The Journey – has been added in. The graphics are sharper, clearer, cleaner than ever before. The whole game has been overhauled, recreated and lovingly improved in the new Frostbite engine, being used for the first time in a sports game this year for FIFA 17. The demo lets you experience it all early, with enough time left to preorder before the full game drops on September 29th.

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Kick Off and The Journey are featured in the demo this year.

The demo itself only contains two game modes: Kick Off, as with every year, is the main feature (perhaps because no one plays it otherwise); The Journey however is the main star. Taking control of up-and-coming talent Alex Hunter, The Journey explores his story, with dialogue choices and match performances affecting the way his adventure in the footballing world turns out.

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Alex Hunter prepares to come onto the pitch for his debut. Dialogue options change the story on and off the pitch.

For The Journey, the demo allows you to play one match with Alex, on his debut for Manchester United. Although you start off as a substitute (thanks to your lifelong friend Gareth Walker getting the nod), you’re called upon to break the deadlock with only twenty minutes left to play. Thrust into the action, it’s down to you to make the difference.

Jogging onto the pitch, the player is given three match objectives. These appear to be randomised, but with some relation to the scoreline on the pitch. For my first match, I had to achieve a match rating of seven, pull off ten passes, and break the deadlock; for others, they had to provide the assist for the match-winning goal.

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Bonus objectives give Alex the chance to impress the boss and get into the first team.

The match rating system, which has been in the FIFA franchise since the “Be A Player” career mode was introduced in the  2011 installment, has come under some flak in recent years for being unclear and frankly erratic in how it rates a player’s performance. This year, it’s had a big overhaul, with text alerts informing you on why your rating has increased or decreased, and the position indicator playing a smaller part in how your rating is calculated.

After the match, Alex Hunter can give a short interview to the press, with the dialogue choices affecting his standing with the manager and fans. Following that, the manager gives a rundown of how you played, pointing out what you did well (and presumably what you can improve, although the 9.2 match rating I achieved left little to be refined), and lets you know if you achieved your match objectives. Presumably in the full release, these will have some bearing on whether you’re picked for the team, sent out on loan, or demoted back down to the youth academy.

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The press interviews give you the chance to impress both the boss and the fans.

The actual gameplay feels much smoother than previous years as soon as you step out onto the pitch. Turns are less sharp, as if EA have suddenly discovered the analogue sticks, instead of the traditional D-Pad; passes seem to roll across the ground, affected by friction, instead of clipping through the air. All the new animations work seamlessly, and there’s little evidence of players phasing through each other, and flying across the pitch, as if being shouted out by a Skyrim Dovakhin (although there are instances of the managers punching through their team in celebration).

In terms of the on pitch mechanics, it appears that EA have worked tremendously hard on balance. Short and long passes seem to have equal probability of being misplaced, and defenders can now actually control the football like the million-pound-salary professional that they are. Shots however, no matter the style, seem to be less accurate, which might have been intentional to prevent the 7-0 scorelines like that accrued against Chelsea when I demolished them as Manchester City in the Kick Off mode (and then realised it had been set to amateur the whole time).

Gameplay from a near-full release has been slowly trickling out over YouTube, from select YouTubers who were invited to the EA offices to capture early footage. From this, it appears like the career mode will now feature more in-depth finances and clearer board objectives, but apart from that, not much has changed. There are a few new skill games for training, and it appears as though some may be locked until the player reaches a certain level in that skill, but there are no new attributes which can be improved.

Ultimate Team has been going strong for years now, and with the new focus on the narration-heavy The Journey, can we expect this gamemode to drop off slightly? Not if EA have anything to say about it. There was little that needed changing in FIFA‘s most popular game type; new card designs and animations, along with MLG-type leagues that challenge the very best to win real prizes, are the only real changes there. FUT Champions, the leagues with real prizes, will take place every weekend, challenging players to move up through the leagues to take on the world’s best. Eventually, FUT Champions will culminate in a live tournament with all the best FIFA players from the year challenging each other head to head.

For those who aren’t quite as skilled at Ultimate Team as they would wish, all of last year’s features are returning, along with the addition of squad building challenges. These will set tasks like “Build a hybrid squad between the Liga BBVA and the Premier League with 100 Chemistry”, or “Create a team with only 5* skillers”. Creating the team and winning matches will result in virtual prizes similar to that of the current in-game leagues.

Although the Pro Evolution Soccer demo may have hit the virtual stores in a timely fashion, FIFA’s gameplay shows why it’s still the best selling sports franchise. This year’s installment isn’t just a money-grabbing title, with a few new transfers and glitzier graphics. It’s a show of power. A complete change to the engine, brand new game modes, bundled together with the classic FIFA gameplay make EA’s sports powerhouse even stronger.

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A first look at The Journey

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