I've played over 50 online matches of FIFA 17 now, so feel comfortable in delivering a verdict of sorts: this is the sweatiest FIFA game I've ever played.
I don't mean it actually makes me sweat. Well, it sometimes does, but not, you know, generally. I mean its gameplay balances precariously on a knife-edge and matches are won or lost in a moment of madness. A mistake, invariably, either from the computer-controlled players or, yep, the goalkeeper.
I'd like to get stuck into the gameplay here. This is not an article about FIFA Ultimate Team, a gameplay mode I dare not encourage but understand EA has improved in key areas this year. Nor is it an article about The Journey, FIFA 17's surprisingly fun but still a bit odd story mode. This is an article about gameplay, about what it's like to play match after match after match.
Now, as with every FIFA, there is always a settling in period. You know when a Premier League club signs a new striker from Spain and they struggle in their first season? That's the first few weeks of FIFA each year. Gameplay changes, however subtle, combine to force players to rethink tactics, to unlearn previously successful skill moves and shots. FIFA 17 is no different.
I've played my way through this settling in period and now have a handle on what FIFA 17 is all about, and I have to report there's a lot that frustrates this year, and I'm not sure I'm having a whole lot of fun.
If there's one thing about FIFA 17 that I've seen reported online in forums and on Reddit - and experienced first hand myself - that sums up the gameplay this year, it is this: you're often better off letting the AI defend for you.
I get it. I understand why EA has made computer-assisted defending more powerful for this year's game. And you can feel the yo-yo design struggle the developers have in getting pace right. After the overpowered pace debacle of two years ago, pace was nerfed into irrelevance last year. Now, people are saying pace is back. Well, that's not quite right. Pace is back, but defenders have it, too.
The upshot is, it's really hard to create chances in FIFA 17 because the AI defending is really good. Too good? Yeah, probably. I've put the controller down while sitting on a one goal lead to test the effectiveness of letting the computer defend, and it works pretty well. It works well enough, anyway. FIFA 17 isn't broken. A skilled player can score against you if you're just not playing. But I was surprised to see just how effective the computer is when you let it do all the work.
To counter the better defending, players have focused on counter-attack play. This is the Leicester effect in video game form. Park the bus, soak up the pressure, the AI-assisted defending intercepts a pass or nicks the ball, then swazz a through ball out to a speedy winger, who invariably cuts in before caressing a finesse shot into the top corner (finesse shots are better this year, by the way). Top load your team with the Riyad Mahrez / Jamie Vardy equivalent and you're laughing. I use Crystal Palace a lot because I went to secondary school there and five star teams are uninteresting to me. The AI helps me steal the ball, Yohan Cabaye with his head up, Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend on the wings, cut in, shoot, or cross, Christian Benteke header. Boom.
That's when you're winning, anyway. When you're losing FIFA 17 is infuriating. Here's where the game is at its most sweaty. You dominate for 89 minutes, then your opponent scores a cheap corner, or there's some defensive mixup that results in a goal, or there's a shot the keeper parries into the path of the opposition striker. Then the ultimate insult: the dab celebration.
I find FIFA 17 matches online are often won by a single goal. You dare not have possession of the ball in midfield because of the power of the counter attack. Put one foot wrong and your opponent will thread a crazy through ball into a forward for exactly the kind of goal I try to score all of the time. Zaha can't do much except run very fast, but that's fine when you're playing on the counter attack. Benteke can't do much except power a header into the goal, but that's fine when you're playing on the counter attack. Play to your sweaty strengths, the FIFA coaches say.
Is this authentic? Well, the counter attack is certainly popular in the Premier League, with Leicester showing its effectiveness last season and, at times, this season. We're also seeing the emergence of the counter press at Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool and Pep Guardiola's Man City. I like to think team talks involve the managers telling everyone to watch how FIFA 17 AI defends. Do this, I imagine Klopp saying. Then, give it to Philippe Coutinho. You'll probably get James Milner another penalty.
But is it fun? I'm not so sure. Win or lose, I'm don't think I'm enjoying FIFA 17. When I lose it's soul-destroying. When I win it's like, well, okay then. That was a nice header from a corner I suppose. There's no chest-thumping. There's no jumping out of my seat. There are finesse goals and headed goals from crosses and tap-ins after a goalkeeper parry and okay then let's skip the replay because FIFA replays aren't very good anyway.
I should stress that I'm reporting my experience of the game, which is by no means top level play. In fact, top players tend to dominate possession and win, too. I'm reporting on what I'm seeing online, the meta, such as it is, and what I'm seeing on Reddit and on the FIFA forum. I'm seeing threads that discuss whether the defending is OP. I see threads about input delay (which, by the way, seems strangely bad this year, as if there is some kind of bug that needs fixing). I see threads complaining that the game doesn't switch to the player you want it to. I've experienced all of these issues. And then some.
But there are also plenty of people who seem to love FIFA 17, and it would be remiss of me not to mention the praise in among the complaints. Some people really like the flow of the game, the way you can finally effectively shield the ball, and some actually like the new defending because presumably they also like parking buses in real life.
FIFA 17 supporters say it's a more varied game this year. They point out that defending in FIFA games has been appealing in the past, and now EA has made it better, it's up to players to work out new strategies to defeat it. There's even a backlash against the backlash, where FIFA 17 fans say people who used to do well with FIFA online but struggle now simply need to get better at the game. I don't agree with this school of thought, but the sentiment is definitely there in online discussion about the game.
I should also point out that I win as many matches as I lose, which designers of competitive multiplayer games tell me is the holy grail of matchmaking. You want the player to feel there's a challenge, that they're playing a skilled opponent, because that makes winning satisfying. It's no fun to lose all of the time, and it's not fun to win all of the time. Somewhere in the middle, or where you win just a little more than you lose, is best for keeping players interested and feeling like they're doing well enough. In that regard, FIFA 17 has done a fine job sorting my online play out.
So, a pretty divisive FIFA this year. I'm not getting on with it, but I'm still playing, because every now and then I get some satisfaction from it. A bit like real life football, then. I'm a Chelsea fan, after all.