FIFA is what it is, right? It’s a yearly iteration of more or less the same thing and has been so for the past few years. The jumps in terms of gameplay additions since the beginning of this generation have been minimal to say the least. Every one of them feels exactly the same and you begin to wonder why on earth you keep punting out for it. EA know they have you by the balls and through their filthy cash cow Ultimate Team, they’ll continue to profit from effectively the same product until the Earth burns into the sun. You can play FIFA 19 and wonder just what on earth they’re going to add to the core gameplay from now on. Not that it’s bad, but when you’re shelling out £60 a year on these things, what is really changing? And what are you getting for your money? An opportunity to just spend more money? Gee, thanks EA Sports. You’re far too generous.
And yet, here I am. Buying FIFA again like a drug I need at the end of September every year. I spent a good portion of my FIFA playing years avoiding Ultimate Team like the plague and will continue to do so, call me old fashioned I’m more interested in Career Modes, taking a new pro and building him up through the ranks. That or managing a League 2 team I’ve never heard of and making them Premier League champions. Naturally, the additions to this mode has stalled ever since EA realised just how much money they could make through FUT and as such their interest in the mode has faded. FIFA 19’s Career mode is exactly the same as 18’s. No, exactly the same. They’ve added precisely nothing (bar the addition of the Champions League. A fact they bash you over the head with at every possible opportunity). So what drew me to buying this stupid series that’s forgotten all about players like me? The old school (yes, my first FIFA was 96, kids)? Well, there’s something called The Journey. And its latest iteration could be my favourite addition they’ve ever made.
Added to the series in FIFA 17, the Story Mode came seemingly out of nowhere to become my favourite part of the modern FIFA series. Through the main protagonist Alex Hunter the series plays out as he tries to break into the big time whilst living up to the the legacy his grandfather Jim Hunter left on the game. We meet Alex when he’s just a kid in FIFA 17, and through a six hour or so campaign we go through the trials and tribulations of trying to break into a first 11 at a Premier League team of our choosing, whilst struggling to balance his non-playing life alongside it. The Journey was a huge surprise when it appeared three years ago and it cemented my FIFA purchase for as long as it was included.
Seemingly, FIFA 19’s Journey mode is the final one to include the Alex Hunter story, something I’m rather sad about though if this is the last we’re going to see of Alex and his family, they’ve absolutely knocked it out of the park.
In FIFA 18 we were introduced to Alex’s younger sister, Kim Hunter. Brought up in America by Alex’s estranged father, Kim much like Alex is a young prodigy, desperate to make a name for herself in the women’s game. Her inclusion was a welcome one as The Journey began to slowly incorporate women’s football and featured the likes of USA striker Alex Morgan and someone for Kim Hunter to look up to. Kim as a character is bubbly, tenacious and just a delight to be around. Her inclusion once again elevated The Journey. It seemed like EA Sports was doing all the right things when it came to moving this mode in the right direction.
Then there’s Danny Williams, Alex’s oldest friend and another young prodigy wanting to make it into the big time. I’ll admit, his character wasn’t my favourite in the inclusion. He’s the kind of person that I would get annoyed with being around for more then ten minutes, and his initial involvement in The Journey did little to change my mind. He’s persistently living in the shadow of Alex Hunter, so he uses his big personality to try and garner some attention, rather than his football skills. He’s certainly got talent, but his naivety led him down a path that couldn’t quite live u to the praise and adoration that was coming the way of Alex. Danny has to constantly prove himself. His character did grate on me throughout FIFA 18’s Journey. I was always far more interested in progressing the story through Alex and Kim Hunter.
When The Journey: Champions was revealed for FIFA 19, EA Sports announced that they were going to split the story up into three parts, allowing you to play through the season fully as either Alex, Kim or Danny or interweave between the three as the story progressed. I was very much up for this, figuring I could just bypass Danny’s story altogether and just focus on the Hunter’s. Perhaps it’s because I had played with Alex for longer and done the hard work to get him where he is, I wanted to see it through. And also taking Kim Hunter to next year’s Women’s World Cup in France sounded like a hell of lot of fun. I was all in and yet again, EA Sports had my money like they had read my mind in how I wanted to play The Journey this year.
I’ve just beaten The Journey: Champions as I’m writing this, and all I could think about was something I wasn’t expecting. I played through the campaign completely differently to how I expected to and as such, Danny Williams was far and away the most impressive and emotional aspect of the story. If anything, Champions made me dislike Alex Hunter.
It’s a strange and often infuriating direction EA Sports chose for Alex Hunter this year. As spoiler free as I can (it’s in the trailer above, after all), Alex joins Real Madrid after a season at PSG (after a season at LA Galaxy, after a season at Manchester United, all in the space of about three years. Yeah, nobody said The Journey was realistic) and the toll of becoming their prized signing takes its toll on his relationship with his family throughout. The attempt to balance his sponsorship commitments, playing well for his team and giving enough time and respect to his family is Alex’s story and it’s up to you as the player to navigate how he keeps all of these plates spinning in the air at once. As I progressed through the story though, I realised I didn’t really care. Despite playing through The Journey 1 and 2 with him and wanting to see his story to its conclusion, I wasn’t really all that fussed how it ended. Yes, it’s easy to let the kind of worldwide fame Alex was receiving go to your head, but the entire foundation of Alex Hunter is that he is working his way to the top with his family by his side. The biggest emotional beat in FIFA 18’s Journey was him reconciling with his father and meeting Kim Hunter, only for him to brush them aside this year like they aren’t as important to him. Why? Why is the game making me dislike the character I started this entire um, Journey with? His portrayal left a sour taste in my mouth and I was thankful that I got to leave him when it was time to pick up the story with either Danny or Kim. Alex is naturally at the center of the entire experience but his story was by far the least interesting.
The evolution of Kim Hunter is a far more involving and rewarding story. We know from FIFA 18 that Kim has only ever wanted to play for the US National Women’s Team. Her selection for the World Cup was a ‘fist-bump-in-the-air’ moment that I was delighted by. At only 17, Kim’s story weaves between wanting to be the best footballer she can be and balancing her school work. Taking exams in between tournaments and wrestling with the choice of whether or not to go pro (something she’s told by agents and fellow players is possible) or stick it out at school and put her dreams on ice until she has her qualifications to fall back on. Her character development across both games is strong, taking the role of ‘supportive younger sister’ very seriously, even if Alex is more focused on other things. She’s wanting to do everyone proud, aware of her talent and knowing she’s good enough to play at the highest level of her sport. Her desire for success is what keeps her motivated, in a similar way to Alex in the first Journey. To replay that through a different character is a delight and Lisa Solberg brings her to life in a quite remarkable performance.
Then there’s Danny Williams. Like I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t really all that interested in powering through FIFA 18’s Journey with Danny as I was so engrossed in Kim and Alex’s stories, so knowing he had a full story in Champions didn’t fill me with much excitement. And yet, as I rolled credits (figuratively, there aren’t any at the end of the story), Danny Williams became my absolute favourite aspect of the entire story.
He swagger and cockiness is still very much present and correct. His demand for attention, constantly referring to himself in the third person are sides of him I could probably do without, but I ended up looking a little deeper. Danny is deeply insecure, constantly on the edge. His extrovert nature is all for show, hiding a young footballer who just wants to be respected, questioning why people still don’t see him as a worthy addition to their team. The moments where it’s just him on his own in his small flat in Manchester are perhaps my favourite in the entire game. There’s a moment where he calls Alex but he’s too busy to talk, so he calls Kim despite having next to nothing to say, just wanting to have someone to talk to. Kim is naturally concerned, but Danny once again pushes out his bravado and ensures there’s nothing wrong. Of course, as the player we know differently. It’s a credit to actor Chris Walters that the balance between the arrogant striker and the troubled, naive and insecure young player is so finely tuned. There’s much to be said about the subtlety of how Chris weaves between the two in a single scene. Danny simply wants to show the world how good he is, to escape from the media’s obsession with him just being ‘Alex Hunter’s best mate’. Throughout the campaign he unravels and loses friends, and you want to fight for him. You want to be his best mate, put your arm around him and let him know he’s bloody good. He’s playing upfront for Manchester United, of course he’s good (no jokes, please).
It comes to a head when he’s drawn in the Champions League against his older brother, the vastly more successful and class-A twat brigade that is Terry Williams. You see immediately on the face of Danny this isn’t going to be a happy family reunion. We know little about Terry at this point so all we have to go on is Danny’s reaction and safe to say it’s not particularly good news. As the game progresses we learn that Terry isn’t exactly a supportive older brother, and well, let’s just say it’s bloody fun taking him on when the moment comes.
You have to suspend your belief a tad when playing The Journey, this much has been evident since its debut in FIFA 17. Alex seemingly jumping from one major club to another and to another in the space of a single season, Kim Hunter getting an immediate call up to the first 11 of the US National Team after a couple of training sessions. Here though, it’s all about Danny. Before each match you can check out a social feed for your chosen player. Throughout the game, no matter how utterly amazing I’m ensuring Danny is at every game, the tweets still consider him and ‘up and comer’ and ‘not good enough to play in the Champions League’. You understand that the game has a story it needs to tell but it seemed like no matter how good Danny was he could never get that recognition. The further I got in the game I noticed I was making choices that would benefit Danny over Alex and it’s a credit to Champions that it gave him such a strong story to get invested in.
If this is to be the final Alex Hunter story in The Journey – and it probably should be, there’s very little else for him to go – then I really hope it isn’t the last we see of Kim and Danny. The Journey, from its beginnings was perhaps EA Sports smartest move to ensure that even if there isn’t much happening anymore in terms of advancing the Career Mode, the single player experience of FIFA is still very much alive and kicking. Last year’s iteration was excellent, as Sean describes here. This years is even better, and it’s thanks to the wonderful, brilliant characters that inhabit The Journey that I even buy FIFA anymore.
Long may it continue. Long live The Williams.