Back when a younger and more lithe Frank Lampard wore the blue of Chelsea, he performed a pass against Man City that FIFA’s developers have been trying to replicate ever since, an outside-of-the-foot through-ball elegantly curled around the defence. Seven years on EA Canada has finally nailed it, but Frank’s split-second moment of magic gave FIFA 17 gameplay producer Aaron McHardy years of logistical headaches: “It was difficult to do [threaded through-balls] before active intelligence because the only mechanism we had was to turn up all of the runs, and then that messes with the balance heavily and we would lose the midfield. So we had to be very surgical and very precise on the types of runs and the intelligence of the runs we're adding, and that's where we started building technology to be more precise in the logic of that.” Simply, this year you've got more tools.
Threaded through-balls carve open a defense, but when that fails, you can resort to a rougher approach with the help of new 'pushback' technology. In possession, LT puts your body between opponents and the ball, and out of possession the ensuing physics-enabled jostles and tugs lead to a crunchier, meatier, pumped-up-Tony Adams-after-belting-the-national-anthem of a game. Pushback also lets you hold off players during aerial challenges—in my hands-on we use Fellaini’s lanky levers to plant feet and pluck the ball from the air.
That’s not to say FIFA 17 is all brawn. Smarts, says McHardy, underpin everything. “At the most competitive level for FIFA 16, we felt players who were very good at defending could stifle the game and there wasn't much opportunity, especially in the final third. So we put a lot of these new features in threaded through-balls and a lot into active intelligence to try and combat that, so that we don't have to open up the game in order to get chances at the highest level of competition.” Players make dummy runs to create passing lanes. They make curved runs. Because improved shielding gives them confidence in possession, they run into tighter spaces. At one point our teammate kindly halts his run in order to stay onside. They’d probably do a beer run if you asked.
Then there are dozens of techniques that presumably took slightly less than seven years to implement. Goalkeepers are able to 'Pass With Purpose' for extra fizz on throws and dropkicks. Outfielders can perform what McHardy calls “worm-burner” efforts that drive along the turf if you press shoot again while the meter fills (this works for downward-aimed headers too). Set-pieces are less of a lottery since you can maneuver around the ball in your approach to free kicks and penalties, amble along bylines for throw-ins, and use an aiming reticule on corners to replace the ancient art of ‘hoofing’.
What steals headlines, though, is Fifa 17's story mode, called The Journey. It stars fictional youth Alex Hunter on his quest for Premier League glory. Match performances and interview conduct determine your standing with fans, and affect the managers, and contracts you're offered. While fulfilling objectives and training to increase ratings smartly borrows from Be A Pro, off-the-pitch antics are a revelation. I'm shown a subplot involving Tottenham’s Harry Kane usurping you at Leicester after you're loaned out, a scene where the manager bollocks you in his office for getting sent off, snippets of an Anfield debut under hails of ‘Who are ya?’ chants, and Hunter in luxury digs poring over Twitter mentions from Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud.
The chance to fill the boots of emerging talent and encounter fully voiced footballing stars on your ascendancy is, for any fan of the sport, peak wish fulfillment. But how stories will diverge? Does Kane appear if you sign for, say, Norwich? Are poor players destined to rot on the bench? What if you fancy playing defense?
No matter the mode, details impress: immaculately realised stadium backrooms are represented for the first time courtesy of a transition to Battlefield’s Frostbite engine (at one point in The Journey you get changed next to Man U’s Smalling and Mata), facial animations more accurately show moving flesh over bone, and real-world managers like Mourinho, Klopp, and Wenger scowl authentically on the sidelines. While there’s plenty more to reveal in the coming months—licensing coups, Ultimate Team, women’s division—the changes we’ve seen so far are both plentiful and meaningful. Half a decade emulating one Frank Lampard pass, it seems, is time well spent.