Updated: FIFA 17 review – it's the beautiful game but lacking something on the pitch

As we previously reported, PES 2017 is the best football game Konami has ever made – but old rival FIFA 17 doesn’t fare badly this year, either. Ben Wilson puts’ EA’s super-rich star player through a stern beep test, including the online modes and multiplayer servers…

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Here’s a shock for anyone who followed the summer announcement that the Frostbite engine was coming to FIFA: this year’s edition plays much like the one released 12 months ago. Sure, it looks incredible after adopting the same lighting tech as Battlefield and Star Wars Battlefront – but save for a touch more physicality and some subtle new animations, everything feels immediately familiar. For those who enjoyed FIFA 16, like us, that’s good news; but the legion of critics who love to go in shins-high on EA is already sharpening its studs.

One of the new animations in the game

The single area that has been overhauled on the pitch is set pieces. These are a mixed bag

The single area that has been overhauled on the pitch is set pieces. These are a mixed bag. The ability to change your angle of approach brings welcome flexibility to free kicks, corners are aided by a new aiming reticule, and moving up and down the touchline before taking a throw-in is the most liberating change of all. But penalties are completely broken. Use anything stronger than a feather-like touch of the left stick during your man’s run-up, and the ball spangs miles wide. Every time. Expect spot kicks to be the first thing patched this year.

The ultimate Ultimate Team mode?

Card-and-coin-collecting mode Ultimate Team makes another triumphant return, with new twists - the best being something called Squad Building Challenges. These enable you to trade in players according to specific conditions, to score better cards or special rewards: for instance, swapping a team comprising players from at least three leagues, with 65+ chemistry, for a silver pack. New kits designed by artists connected to the game such as Major Lazer and Damien Marley are also a novel inclusion, while The Journey protagonist Alex Hunter can be unlocked as a playable character should you complete FIFA’s new story mode.

We won’t spoil The Journey’s end, as it were, but ploughing through its 15 hours is a worthwhile effort. It follows the fictional Hunter and best pal Gareth Walker on their rise from U-11 games on Clapham Common to the Premier League, via a loan spell in the Championship. West Ham youngster Reece Oxford was involved in a consultancy role, and it’s clear the EA team did its research – Wamer and Hunter’s ‘bantz’ is surprisingly on-point, and there are just enough dialogue options in dressing room scenes and post-match press conferences to sustain your interest. Its climax is predictable, but satisfying all the same.

Out on loan in The Journey?

There’s a major issue with people's custom faces being replaced by genero heads

Update: Online modes reviewed

'Satisfying' isn't a word you can always apply to the online side of FIFA 17. The excellent Pro Clubs mode, in which you gather with mates to form a virtual side where you each control one player, is enhanced with a new growth system directly affected by each match rating - but there’s a major issue with people's custom faces being replaced by genero heads, and as yet nothing at all from EA in response. It's hard to commit fully to a mode where a key (although purely cosmetic) component from the past has vanished without explanation, and you’re therefore forced to look like Johnny McNormal.

The returning Ultimate Team drafts deliver a stern challenge to the online side of that aforementioned mode, with genuinely tempting rewards - it costs 15,000 virtual coins to enter, but you can score 40k worth of value in packs if you defeat four online opponents. Sadly, that 'if' is Adebayo Akinfenwa-sized. The idea is to build a roster with perfect chemistry, but too many opposition teams instead ignore that ambition and simply pack in every superstar available.

Regardless of results, facing Messi, Ronaldo and Pogba in every match soon grows old. Thankfully, FUT draft can also be played offline, and that’s the version we recommend.

FUT decision time…

A couple of neat features do make online worth a dabble, however. Seasons, as ever, sees you matched against players of similar ability, and so you're constantly guaranteed a competitive game; while the ability to play against a friend's current Ultimate Team squad compensates for those draft frustrations, to a degree. We've had little issue with lag or game speed, but that's playing on a fibre optic connection - so the experience may not be the same for all.

Off line

If you’re a purely offline player, the big time sink once The Journey is complete is career mode. Like the on-pitch action, those who played last year’s game will immediately know their way around, although it’s fleshed out by five different areas of board expectation: Domestic Success, Continental Success, Brand Exposure, Financial, and Youth Development. So while the Burnley board’s only ‘High’ expectations are Financial (i.e. keeping the club in the black), you need to deliver domestic and continental success and maximum brand exposure to stay in the Chelsea job. It all adds character and variation to a mode which lacked imagination over the long-haul in previous years.

Still want more? Try the Women’s ‘International’ Cup (new ladies teams this year: Netherlands and Norway), or 50 other tournaments. FIFA’s days as the trendy choice are long past, and PES 2017 will thrill anyone looking for a fresh experience in football gaming, but there’s still no sports package quite like that put together by EA - and returning players are going to go loopy for those upgraded visuals. Think licenses don’t matter? Say that again when you’ve experienced City vs United under the floodlights of Old Trafford, with Guardiola and Mourinho on the touchline, and Tyler and Smith on commentary, in FIFA 17. In a word: Impeccable.

4 things we love…

1. The fine details

As well as adding managers for all Premier League clubs, FIFA 17 packs in numerous authentic touches such as the tannoy broadcaster announcing the man of the match.

The Frostbite game engine makes for some very lovely looking grass

2. Tasty menus

Navigation couldn’t be simpler. One clever new option is being able to cycle through available kits pre-match, with alternates shown in the background.

3. The Journey cameos

Harry Kane, Marco Reus and Angel Di Maria all make passing appearances in FIFA’s new story mode - but none to the point of it feeling unbelievable.

Di Maria offers some advice on avoiding working with LVG. Maybe

4. It’s all up-to-date

FourFourTwo received the game two weeks ahead of release - with every single summer transfer, such as Joe Hart’s Italian switch, present and correct. Impressive.

Hart is present and correct, gaffing regularly at Torino

… and one thing we hate:

Lower league variation

There's little variety in the style of play in the lower leagues

Start career mode as a smaller club, such as Exeter, and one long-standing problem returns: every opponent wants to play like Barca. Would the odd long ball really be that difficult to implement?

[Updated after we tested out the online modes and servers fully.]

Score: 4.5 out of 5

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