Single-player story modes are not unheard of in sporting games. The NBA 2K series has had it in past instalments, for example, but this year marks the first time FIFA has dipped its toes in the waters of story mode with The Journey, an experience that follows Alex Hunter from being a football fan to a superstar of the Premier League. Being the mode's debut, however, it was always gonna be a bit slow off the mark, but it certainly isn't a bad first go at a story mode.
The premise is this: you start by taking a penalty as Alex Hunter when he wins a game as a kid, then flash forward a couple of years and you are 17 and taking exit trials at a football academy, after which you meet your agent. After that, the story really starts. It turns out you've smashed it in the trial so much so that, would you believe your luck, every single Premier League club wants to sign you, and here you are advised that big clubs will pay you more but not play you as much, and smaller clubs vice versa. This doesn't really matter, though, because money can't be used on The Journey, so it's more about personal preference.
Without spoiling too much, the story goes very much as expected for the most part, as you transition from zero to hero, from rough-around-the-edges talent to a more polished figure in the team of your choice. There are the ups and downs that Hunter has to deal with, such as falling out with his friend Gareth Walker, but these are all scripted and happen no matter what you do, so there's no need to worry or shape your game around these moments.
The beginning is very much focused on cutscenes and introduces players to The Journey very well, as you'll be seeing a lot of cutscenes during your time playing it. You control Alex Hunter's speech choices in these cutscenes as well, interacting with others and shaping the way that they perceive you. These cutscenes for the most part add something more meaningful to a game that has been lacking this kind of personality in the past. It's nice to have a character feel like more than just an avatar on a screen for you to control. It's not going to win any awards for acting, but for the most part this adds something fresh to FIFA. Alex Hunter's journey is one that has been developed by talking with real youngsters in football like Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and Dele Alli, so it actually gives a sense of weight and realism that Be A Pro doesn't.
The Journey isn't realistic as such, though. For example, we played in the Manchester United team and Pogba and Ibrahimovic sit on the bench a lot of the time while you get regular starts. You progress far quicker in terms of ability, get chosen for the first team far easier, and players pass whenever you call for it, too, so in terms of an authentic simulation of being a footballer, this isn't it. These features do help it play better, however, and makes it more user-friendly, so it doesn't matter that it's unrealistic.
In terms of what works, the little details in The Journey are a nice touch and EA has made sure that perceptions of Hunter change as you get better. When you first step on the pitch, for example, you can hear chants of "who are ya" aimed at you, but towards the end of the campaign you can hear fans chanting your name around the stadium. Having tweets from others about your career, your progress and your form is also a nice touch and helps the world feel just that bit more alive, as do sponsorship deals, an off-the-pitch career decision which bolsters the feeling that you are living the life of a young star more than simply controlling him on the pitch.
What happens on the pitch matters most, however, and determines your future in a big way. For example, getting a red card (or two) can be detrimental to your progress, and after the third we found we were released by our club and had to restart the week for a better result. Fail to achieve high ratings or good results in training, or if you get sent off too many times, you'll slip out of the starting XI and into the reserves, and training is just as important as matches in this regard.
Every now and then you also get set targets, and we found this spices up the experience in a big way. In some games you'll need to have a certain amount of shots, assists etc. as well as achieve a rating and get a result, meaning that your play needs to be more diverse. Strikers need to be able to assist, for example, and it's not just about scoring. We found this was useful for making the experience more varied and adding a higher level of intensity to certain matches, such as when we had to scramble a draw against Tottenham as a last minute substitute. The fact these targets affect your rating with the manager also raises the stakes, making matches and results count that bit more.
Where The Journey excels most is how it reacts to your play in this way. If you get a hat-trick, for example, you well rewarded for it, but bad performances, even in training, face consequences, which is where it distinguishes itself from other game modes. Everything matters more and you are scrutinised to the point where a bad touch can lower your rating immediately. How this has a knock-on effect for Twitter, manager relations and much more is where EA Sports has nailed it. Your performance also determines when you get skill points which can be assigned to traits, such as strength or skill moves. These are limited, however, and make you really think about which areas of your game need bolstering, something else that makes it all the more worthwhile to try your hardest to get these skill points and progress as a player.
We've mentioned before that it is very similar to Be A Pro in terms of gameplay and, unfortunately, it also comes with the same problems. If you play as Hunter (you can control the whole team, but we imagine many of you will choose to play solely as Hunter) then it's AI teammates who you have to rely on, but as with every FIFA game they are unbearably bad a lot of the time. They don't play like normal players and become frustrating very quickly, getting confused if there's no gaping open space to pass to, not passing forwards and generally playing slow and unambitious football, occasionally even running into each other. It's hard to try and immerse yourself in a game when your teammates play so much like computers, and even when you directly call for a through ball they misread where you want it and put it into a defender, at which point you get rated down for a bad call for the pass.
And that's another thing, the ratings are way off sometimes. A deflected shot to get your team a corner can sometimes be marked down as a "poor shot" but a clear chance wasted can be rated up as "keep trying", as can a selfish shot from outside the box. It seems there's no consideration of the context of events for these ratings and it becomes annoying being rated down for things that actually aren't too bad for the team.
What also struck us as being a shame is that there's absolutely no dialogue from the big figures. Mourinho, Ibrahimovic, Smalling, Pogba and more all featured in the locker room for us, however, it was so bizarre to have them stand there mute for so long while the rest of the players were talking to Hunter or amongst each other. It's good that they're in there, but it doesn't add anything if they just stand there like androids when you're talking. Even with other teams, like Bournemouth, the manager just stands there silent while things happen.
While dialogue options were a nice touch for the game, giving more weight to the experience of being a football player, this had the same issues with voice options as games like Fallout 4, in the sense that the preview of what you're going to say doesn't match with what is said sometimes. Fiery options sometimes comes out more arrogant and unpleasant than intended, and cool can sometimes be either sickeningly keen and sycophantic, or just plain boring. There's no diversity as well, as fiery options should really mean aggressive, not always arrogant, and cool options should just mean calm but not always safe and dull.
The Journey's flaws made for very frustrating matches at times, especially when we were screaming for a through ball into the acres of space we were running into, but for the most part it's a solid effort at a story mode, a commendable first try. The ending hints at more to come as well, so we will be very interested to see if Alex Hunter's journey continues in FIFA 18 and whether EA make a solid sequel to this year's first effort.
For our full review of FIFA 17, which touches on The Journey (but not in quite as much depth), head here. And head this way for our helpful guide on how to better attack and defend in this year's instalment of EA's annual football series.
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