FIFA 17 hands-on: Your questions answered on managers, The Journey, Frostbite and more

Last week, EA announced that FIFA 17 was ditching the Ignite engine and moving to Frostbite – the revered foundation for games such as Battlefield and Star Wars Battlefront. But that’s not the only big change being made to its footballing colossus. I’ve been hands-on with the new game on both PS4 and Xbox One, and – just as occurred after our first play of PES 2017 – I've been tasked with tackling your questions posed via Twitter, Facebook and email. Here’s everything there is to know about FIFA 17 so far… 

Will they actually change anything? Improve glitches? More customisation? Better servers? Career modes that matter?
Astrodonn, via Twitter 

Yes – and I’ve specifically chosen to lead off with this question because of the words, ‘career modes that matter.’ (Glitches and servers are a conversation to be had further into the development process. Not a cop out, promise – it's just too early to say with any authority.)

FIFA 17 is introducing an entirely new type of career mode (in addition to the existing ones) in which you control a single upcoming Premier League prospect. It’s called… The Journey.

This isn’t Be A Pro recycled, either. You do play matches locked to that one player (Alex Hunter, a promising striker who breaks into the first team squad at the same time as his mate, Gareth Walker). But it’s as much about what happens off the pitch as on it. Cut-scenes take place in the dressing room, at your house, on aircraft to and from games, and so on. Cut-scenes, I should add, EA Canada has been working on with Bioware. As in, Mass Effect creators BioWare. It's Commander Shepherd does the EPL.



Hunter and Rooney hanging out in The Journey.

That means that in any given scenario, you’re given various dialogue options, all of which apparently shape the storyline. I play one set of scenes where Hunter is making his debut from the subs bench, away at Liverpool. In the changing room beforehand I can interact with Walker (who’s in the starting line-up, and ignores my fist bump when I select the “good luck mate” dialogue option), while a mid-match interaction sees me telling the coach I’m raring to go. After scoring, I’m asked in a one-on-one post-match interview how it felt to open my account for the club. Like any pro, I take the “full credit to the lads on the pitch” option.

There’s nothing profound in the conversations themselves, and the voice acting switches from 'believable' to 'Eastenders' and back, but it’s the details around which impress: Schweinsteiger and Carrick milling around in the dressing room, home fans singing “who are ya?” while I warm up on the touchline, Mourinho (more on which later) making eyes at the bench to decide whether or not I should come on. Those details do tease being part of a bigger footballing world, and if EA can get that part right the mode will prove a fascinating addition.

The version I play is locked to Manchester United, but you’ll be able to start the experience as any Premier League club. Anthony Martial, Harry Kane and footballing broadcaster (and himself a former Eastender) Tom Watt have all helped shape the storyline, and indeed one element of it sees Kane sign for your club as a striking rival, which triggers you being sent out on loan. It’ll be interesting to see how that narrative plays out if you decide to play the mode as Arsenal, given that there’s a Kane cut-scene where announces how pleased he is to have joined your team, while waving his new side's shirt aloft.

Many will scoff at this addition – I did when I first learned of that X-Factor aping title – but NBA 2K has offered sterling solo career modes for years, and the next natural step is surely you playing alongside your real life footballing heroes. If it means me talking Men At Work with virtual Mile Jedinak in the Selhurst showers come FIFA 18, I completely endorse this.

Hunter and best friend Walker, this time at Manchester City.

 
Any chance of them getting real managers in the year?
Dean Marlow, via email
 

Hold the phone… yes. Real managers are in. Repeat: REAL MANAGERS ARE IN.

So far, I’ve only seen two – Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, and Jose Mourinho at United. As touched on above, the version I played already has the mercurial Portuguese roaming the touchline. (When I score an early goal against City, with Rashford, he looks so characteristically deadpan it’s impossible not to raise a smile.)

For now, managers will only be available for Premier League sides, and will be swapped out as part of weekly updates if removed from their posts. Even so: yassssssss!

Martial will now be watched over by a lifelike Mourinho.

Will it actually be good this time, with clubs playing differently instead of all clubs being able to play out from the back?
Andy H, via Twitter

The football is solid. Not as effortless to pick-up-and-play as PES 2017 at this stage, but still a sound all-round game.

My favourite improvement is AI players’ off-the-ball runs. In FIFA 16, team-mates, regardless of their position, tended to run in straight lines – either directly up the wing or diagonally towards goal. There was little true bending of runs or attacking space, and that’s been fixed – and is so much better – this time around.

One example, of the many I could've chosen: as United (don’t boo), against Chelsea, I’m able to work my way up the pitch by recycling possession and patiently waiting for pockets of space to appear, rather than ping-pong passing and using convoluted right-stick dribbling movements. At one point, Rooney sneaks into a gap between DMF and CB – where he’s so deadly in real life – and I feed him the ball with Carrick. As he turns, Martial runs across Ivanovic and into the D, while Lingard meanders in behind Azpilicueta, and Rashford suddenly sprints between Terry and Cahill. The latter’s movement pulls Terry with him, opening a gap which into which Martial continues his run, into which Rooney delivers a through ball. Martial powers onto it, and, goa… er, superb fingertip stops by Courtois. Damn. 

Despite the save, it’s a move that wasn’t possible last year, because centre forwards had no concept of pulling central defenders out of position, and wingers didn’t understand the need to curve runs and spot gaps.

Other small but likeable amendments include being able to hold off your opponent while the ball is in the air, so you can bring it down using, say, your chest – rather than every cross or clearance resulting in an aerial dogfight. The physical side of the game is much improved overall, actually. You can use the left trigger to forcibly push a player away, shield the ball (and move 360 degrees) while running, and force the keeper to mishandle by challenging him on crosses. That’s right, no more goalie forcefield. Halle-freakin’-lujah.

As for variation, and different playing styles for different clubs: there’s no great variation to report at present. That's something which certainly needs to be addressed. Barnet should categorically not play the same way as Barcelona.

Old Trafford looks a touch more impressive with the Frostbite engine.

What will be so different with FIFA being on the Frostbite engine?
Qualeb Game, via Twitter

At present it’s tough to say – I’m only able to play as a handful of teams, in one stadium (Old Trafford). Certainly player faces are a touch more realistic, and the lighting for evening games looks uncannily lifelike, but it’s not like the cosmetic upgrade is immediately overpowering.

Over to senior producer Nick Channon, then:

“The first thing Frostbite does is allows us to do story mode [The Journey]. To do something with that scale – where you're going beyond the pitch – is impossible without the massive toolset Frostbite gives us. But it’s about the future too: it sets us up really well. We can do lighting to the same standards as Battlefield and Dragon Age. Look at Old Trafford: there’s an added depth to it, more atmosphere – that comes from talking to the Battlefield team and then directly applying what we learn from them, which we couldn't do before. And they can learn from what we’re doing too. It’s a great set-up for the company, to help improve our games."

Will the turf and goalposts be destructible?
Paolo Carlino, via Facebook

No, but this did make me chuckle. Bravo. 

Are they finally going to make career mode more realistic? Stop David Alaba going to Juventus every time.
Jake N, via Twitter

Nothing specific to report on this front, although real managers across the Premier League should add to the sense of authenticity. What would be great is if they moved from club-to-club depending on performance. So – for instance – after keeping Burnley up next year, an underperforming bigger side poaches Sean ‘Ginger Mourinho’ Dyche. That seems unlikely to make it in this soon, sadly.

One other small note – I’m 90 per cent certain the PA announcer at Old Trafford in the game is the actual real-life guy now. (If not, they’ve drafted in a good impersonator.) Channon is unable to comment when I ask him to confirm this. Not an advancement along the lines of the in-game engine preventing Alaba going to Juve, but another impressive little detail if my hearing is correct. (Sorry, what?)

 
Will there be more women’s teams?
Alex Eagles, via Twitter  

Yes, although EA hasn’t outright said as much. We know it’s the case thanks to Norway midfielder Andrine Stolsmo Hegerberg, who Instagrammed a photo of herself being scanned for the game earlier this year. 

Not pictured: the aiming reticule for corners. But it's a handy addition.

Have they fixed throw-ins?
Benny James, via email

Offer up eternal praise to whichever god you worship, because yes, finally you can throw the ball to your own man without the AI stealing in to intercept it 80% of the time.

In a neat touch, you can also move a few yards left or right along the touchline before taking the throw, to better position the thrower or improve the angle of whatever you’re trying to do (getting level with the area for a long hurl into the box, say).

Other set-pieces have been reworked entirely. There’s an aiming reticule for corners now, which specifies where you want to put the ball (accuracy is dependent on player attributes and your power bar timing, as ever), while you can move freely ahead of free kicks and penalties to change the taker’s approach angle.

One incident which I've never seen before is a Robben corner kick for Bayern which curls over the keeper's finger tips and directly onto the crossbar. It bounces down to Muller, who has his shot blocked on the line, before Lewandowski finally – and emphatically – lashes the ball into the roof of the net. A true goalmouth scramble, something we need more of in both FIFA and PES.

Truthfully, however, getting to grips with the new set-pieces during my hands-on is something of a struggle – I fail to hit the target once with a free-kick throughout the day! – but the clamour for change has resulted in EA taking action, and that alone will be exciting news for many. 

This part stings like a stud to the upper thigh, however: unlike PES 2017, there's no option to choose who to send forward for attacking corners. 

What new leagues are in?
Sarah Bellows, via email 

We've reported regularly on fans' wishes to see the Turkish 2nd Division and Israeli top flight added, but for now Channon is unable to comment.

James Rodriguez is one of four players who'll share the FIFA 17 cover.

Why [Eden] Hazard on the cover? And what have he, Martial, [James] Rodriguez and [Marco] Reus being on the cover meant for the game, if anything?
Stefano Petruzzi, via email 

I'll let Channon field this one:

"It's really about identifying what we felt was the future of football. It's a big change for us, not only for this year, but for the future with the move to Frostbite. So we looked at it as, 'who are the best young players around, and what areas of the game stand out for them?' The feature-set we've created ties directly to their strengths. Rodriguez for set pieces, for instance. We take their advice and give them ideas that we've had and make sure they sound right to them."


Premier League dressing rooms are a detail you won't see in rival PES 2017.

Will they ever stop?
Ciaran Kelly, via Twitter

No chance. FIFA is now the biggest sports game in the world, and much as people love to criticise it – and it has a huge challenge on its hands to hold off PES 2017, critically if not commercially – it’s not going anywhere, anytime soon.

Which does lead to the question: which has the upper hand for now? In pure on-field terms, I have to say Konami’s game. It’s more immediate, passing and shooting feel a touch crisper, and while both titles do well when it comes to football’s intangibles, being able to choose who to send up for set-pieces in one but not the other is a big difference maker. (Perhaps that’s just down to being a Palace fan, having watched Scott Dann score half our goals from corners over the past two seasons.)

FIFA remains well ahead on the presentation front however, with Tyler and Smith again on amiable form in the commentary box, and pre-match build-up and replays all retaining the ‘Sunday afternoon on Sky Sports’ gogglebox feel.

An early lead for PES 2017, then – but next season’s title race is shaping up to be the closest in years. (Until Rocket League does a Leicester City and embarrasses them both…)

FIFA 17 is out on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC on 29 September. 

We recommend