Pin-point ball tracking, realistic collision systems and minor online gameplay tweaks. These are some of the staple, minute changes that apparently justify another instalment of a well-cemented sports franchise. Complacency is a dangerous thing in video games and familiarity coupled with a lack of innovation can do irreversible damage to a developer or publisher’s reputation. It’s fair to say the FIFA titles have been taking it easy over the last few years with mostly superficial updates; it’s only now, with the release of FIFA 17, that EA Sports have decided to break their monotonous mould with a new game mode, called The Journey.
Being my first FIFA purchase since 2014, this makeshift single player story mode was a pleasant surprise considering how multiplayer-focussed the franchise has become. The Journey follows fictional footballer, Alex Hunter, through childhood and into adolescence as he attempts to make playing football his career. From under-11 games in suburban England to the youth Exit Trials – the gateway to a potential Premier League contract – The Journey hits that coming-of-age sweet spot where overcoming adversity is a potent emotional fuel.
Football flows through Alex’s veins, with a father whose career was cut short through injury and a hardened grandfather who starred in the late-1960s. From rags to riches, Hunter rides the rollercoaster of success with childhood friend, Gareth Walker. Early on, Alex is sculpted to reflect a fiery or cool personality through series of dialogue options – almost like an RPG. It’s just a real shame that, despite the overwhelming amount of football there is to be played, EA Canada have failed to dive into the nitty-gritty role-playing aspects of professional football; The Journey may be detailed but it is extremely linear.
I relish challenge in any sports game I play, so I selected Watford as my club of choice, opting for an average team rather than one of prestige. I also figured it’d be easier to make Watford’s Starting XI as opposed to competing with well-known substitutes from Manchester United, for instance. I was right – for a time – and this is where The Journey made its first undisciplined error.
In spite of my good form as a substitute player, being on the fringes of the starting eleven, I underwent a forced trade; it’s something I still can’t fathom. Sure, it presents an opportunity to actually start a game on the pitch, but I felt as though I was doing all the right things to justify my spot at Watford; I felt as though there were other players who should’ve been transferred besides Alex Hunter.
The disappointments kept coming as soon as I arrived at the new club, Newcastle United. My preferred position of CAM – central attacking midfielder – was scrapped and I took the role of striker until The Journey’s conclusion. This was huge. I really enjoy linking up play with passes and crosses in the midfield and to be locked in the final third wrecked the flexibility of my game.
There was also the nagging issue of a lack of main story progression at my new club. Among the pep talks and fleeting conversations with fitness coaches and fellow teammates, The Journey’s primary tale remained stagnant on several occasions. A few times I played through as many as seven matches without any cutscenes featuring my grandfather/mentor, supportive mother or even Alex himself. A lot of the time, tidbits of information in my social media feed served as the primary source of plot. Gameplay shifted from the immersive rise of a player to playing long stretches of standard matches. Often, The Journey felt just like FIFA’s Player Career mode; its only difference being the appearance of those occasional cutscenes. Or perhaps it was merely reflecting the amount of excitement playing in the Championship actually provides – I’m not sure.
Even upon my return to Watford, The Journey had manifested into a false sense of roleplaying elements and customisation. I still found myself playing the position of ST despite the fact I’d managed to lock down CAM previously. Reaching social media Follower milestones awarded me sponsorship deals – but they had already been decided for me. I don’t agree with having my sponsors chosen on my behalf or successfully signing a “new sponsorship deal” when, as a matter of fact, it’s with the same company. A selection of potential sponsors is a far more straightforward and believable concept than having your agent pluck one out of thin air without his client’s approval.
The Journey’s integrated dialogue options also started to show their finite use. I usually chose answers that I’d typically say – some humour and respect mixed with a few smart-arse comments – but a string of post-match interviews saw the same questions and answers appear. This ultimately took the gloss away from contributing to a hard-fought win or clinching a Man of the Match award; RPG or not, a player needs choice instead of reoccurring lines of dialogue in consecutive matches.
Like it or not, The Journey – with or without Alex Hunter – lends itself to more adventures. But will this additional chapter be tied to FIFA 18 or will it be a DLC option for ’17? My vote is for the latter. I’d have no problem with dropping some real money on this game if it meant I could reprise the role of Hunter before the next annual FIFA release. On the flip side, after my time with FIFA 17, I cannot justify another instalment of The Journey unless there are changes to the formula.
For instance, I’d support following another aspiring footballer and aligning the fates of both fictional characters in FIFA 18. The opening stanza in this year’s offering of The Journey was fantastic, aside from a massive timeline gap that saw Alex Hunter jump from age 10 to 17. Those years could have been touched on through more junior or inter-school matches, where players could’ve moulded Hunter’s positional preferences or on-pitch persona even further.
I imagine the personal life of a high-profile football player is much like a soap opera, but it was virtually non-existent in The Journey. Tackling fame with egotism should always be at the forefront of your actions and, here, it was in limited supply. I feel this type of story mode, where you’re assuming the role of someone else in such a cinematic way, needs an even balance of typical FIFA gameplay as well as role-playing mechanics. I’m talking proper in-house sponsorship discussions; media interviews – not just the post-match ones; special event appearances; energy/stamina levels. It’s all the regular stuff we expect to see from our athletes today, which were poorly reflected in The Journey.
Still, much like a first-year rookie, we can’t expect the best from our up-and-comers straight away. It takes time to perfect one’s technique and delivery and The Journey is something unique when it comes to career modes in the sporting genre. For a debut, The Journey is a commendable, albeit underwhelming experiment, of what single player sports games will be about in the years to come. This could be a goldmine of enjoyment but still has a mountain to climb to reach its full potential.