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Since it crossed over into the original Xbox and Playstation 2, each iteration of EA Sport’s massively popular FIFA series has felt somewhere from half to almost all right, prompting players to keep saying: “Man, if they could just nail down those few nagging issues, it’d be the best game ever.”

FIFA 17 marks the series’ first hint of humanity (review)

Since it crossed over into the original Xbox and Playstation 2, each iteration of EA Sport’s massively popular FIFA series has felt somewhere from half to almost all right, prompting players to keep saying: “Man, if they could just nail down those few nagging issues, it’d be the best game ever.”

FIFA 16 was one of the series’ high points in the last decade. After working out the kinks from the first generation on the latest consoles — no easy task — last year’s game refined the kinks from FIFA 15, which suffered from new issues (sluggish gameplay, overly easy free kicks) more than it benefited from its upgrades (check it out, vanishing spray; you can now see individual blades of grass; each fan in the crowd is in 3D and, I don’t know, has their own favorite band t-shirt on).

FIFA 17 is significant because it threatens to reset whatever progress EA has made in the last couple of years. This year’s game sees FIFA’s introduction of the Frostbite Engine, EA’s current bar-standard game engine that’s used on everything from Battlefield to Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2. As always, the company was quick to tout how this will affect FIFA’s appearance. But as anyone who’s been frustrated by how the game continues to add new photo-realistic faces while refs are still botching the offsides rule could tell you, graphics have long been low on the list of concerns.

As is standard operating procedure for EA, the company provided few to no details on how the engine would specifically affect the latest FIFA. A new engine would imply tweaked physics in addition to graphics, but we can’t say how or definitively if that’s true.

We can say, however, that FIFA 17 feels different in myriad ways little from its predecessor. That’s probably a given, considering each of the last 10 installations of the game has sported markedly different gameplay, only sometimes for the better. Movement and passing is realistically weighted, encouraging a measured approach to your play even more than last year. Patience is more likely to win out over players who spam the sprint and double-team button. That’s especially true when you’re up against the computer, which expresses its difficulty setting in how infuriatingly adept it is at playing keep away. For once, though, there is a difference between playing against Barcelona and playing against Norwich City on the higher difficulties, a long-overdue tweak.

But from appropriately awkward-looking midfielder knock-ons to goalkeepers’ reflexive bobble-parries, the element of chance and chaos that separates a business as usual play and a freaky miracle is viable and realistic here, maybe for the first time ever. An odd case in point: The first shot I took in FIFA 17 was not only a goal, but a bicycle kick from the top of the box. This worried me at first. I didn’t score a single bicycle kick in FIFA 16, and I had bagged an insane one on my very first shot this year. It seemed like the game had made scoring wonder goals much easier, but it was simply a huge fluke. I didn’t score another goal for two full games after that.

You might describe that as inconsistent; I’d say it’s human. And that’s what separates this year’s game. Soccer is an imprecise game, full of random chance. It’s most impressive when the people playing it seem to have minute control of the ball, but that rarely happens for more than a minute or so at a time. (That’s why Barcelona’s tiki-taka passing style is so impressive and mesmerizing.) Conversely, FIFA 17 is most impressive when it can at least provide the illusion of true randomness — the opposite of the series long-accused “scripting” — for a play or two. This year, it makes strides towards that. It’s a huge accomplishment.

That sense of humanity carries over into the debut of The Journey, a story mode that EA has tried across different sports platforms with mixed results. You play as Alex Hunter, the son of a former soccer legend who’s trying to fill in his father’s rather large boots in the Premier League.

The story is manufactured, clinging to standard rags-to-riches tropes: here’s your best friend, here’s your rival, here’s your broken home. But as an alternative to past year’s Be A Pro mode, a tacked-on RPG element that offered little story outside of generic newspaper clippings on your comings and goings and the backstory you made up for “Ayuasca Buttface,” or whatever you named your player, The Journey is high fiction.

Between matches and training drills, you navigate relationships with teammates, agents and the media by picking a “cool,” “hot” or “balanced” dialogue option. The game tells you early on that your decisions will affect Hunter’s disposition on the pitch, but the differences we saw are minor. Trending “hot” puts you out of favor with the manager, who is liable to give you less playing time, but attracts more followers on Hunter’s social media, which hastens sponsorships; “cool” is vice-versa.

For a game that has bungled or flat-out ignored the single-player experience in the last five years, The Journey is encouraging. More than a feature, it feels like an essential part of FIFA 17 as, if not as its own addiction, an extended tutorial before you switch over to where you’ll undoubtedly spend most of your time with the game: head-to-head multiplayer matches.

 

Little has changed in Ultimate Team and Seasons, FIFA’s main online competitive modes. I have spent little time in Ultimate Seasons over the years, but after clocking a handful of hours, it didn’t seem to have changed significantly from last year. The same could be said for Seasons, which I’ve played exhaustively since it was first introduced. As of press time, the biggest difference was simply online players trying to get used to the fact they can’t take the ball in for a goal right off the kick off by juking out defenders and playing one-twos.

 

Those yearning for a more realistic game will see FIFA 17 as an encouraging next step for the franchise. The game encourages you to slow down and consider the smartest pass (tip: like in the real game, it’s not always towards your opponents goal) rather than blindly charge ahead and expect to hit a highlight-reel screamer. Not that it won’t happen eventually. Just don’t count on it any more than you would at the next game you watch this weekend.

 

FIFA 17 was released Sept. 27 for the PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.

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