The greatest trick that EA Sports ever pulled was to get me to give a shit about a fictional footballer.
This isn’t some kind of brag or some “I’m more of a gamer than you” statement but I think it’s important to mention for context. I’ve been playing FIFA since FIFA began. I was there for the isometric viewpoint of FIFA International Football. I was there for the Sol Campbell cover of FIFA 2000 that bizarrely included Port Vale (my beloved Stoke’s bitter rivals) and no other lower league team, just because it was the favourite team of singer Robbie Williams (who sang the frustratingly catchy theme track). I’ve seen Wayne Rooney on the front cover of 7 FIFA games; 7 more than any man should have to endure. I even had a short lived love affair with the ill fated FIFA World. I’ve played each and every FIFA game (yes, even FIFA 64) and needless to say, in years gone by, I’ve bloody loved it.
That all started to change in 2009 and the introduction of the FIFA Ultimate Team. FUT has been a big money spinner for EA Sports but as the mode has become a larger part of the yearly FIFA experience, my enjoyment of the game has decreased. It increasingly feels like the series which I’ve loved since childhood is trying to nickle and dime me at every possible opportunity. “Pre-order this Gold edition to get an advantage over everyone who doesn’t” feels very “pay to win” to me and for a father of 4 with a full time job, I don’t have the time or inclination to stay competitive in a mode that has become less and less interesting as the years go on.
In 2016 I nearly jacked it all in. Pro Evo Soccer was finally “good” again and the annual FIFA refresh had started to become as stale as Andy Townsend’s commentating style. FUT had now become the tentpole of each FIFA game and I just wasn’t on board with that. Not even the inclusion of women’s football was winning me over and I was finally ready to become a PES-only player. But then EA announced “The Journey” for FIFA 2017. A story mode? In a football game? I was certainly intrigued; intrigued enough to play FIFA 17 anyway, and I’m glad I did.
While the first installment of “The Journey” was full of clichés and often focused on those elements of football that I find personally distasteful – getting excited about a sponsorship deal for a type of football boot? Nah, mate – it was certainly a breath of fresh air for the virtual beautiful game. To take a player from wash out to premier league winner while dealing with some of his off-the-pitch life too meant for the first time in a long time, I actually gave a shit about FIFA.
With FIFA 18, EA Sports have taken that further. Alex Hunter’s personal life off the pitch shares as much screen time as his trials and tribulations on the field. The saga with his family and his estranged dad is as important as the club moves, contract negotiations and conversations with footballing legends. There’s a surprising amount of emotion and impact in the story that explores the blossoming careers of not just Alex Hunter, but of his friends and family too. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t Lee and Clementine – It’s Telltale-lite meets FIFA’s player mode and for the first time in years, I actually give a damn about winning a match on FIFA because of it. “Hunter’s career is on the line. I need to nail this.” I think to myself as I try another risky through ball.
EA have inadvertently created the greatest advancement in Football gaming since they moved to 3D visuals in 1995. The beautiful game has become more “beautiful” as each year passes and technology advances but they’ve equally become more sterile and innovations have been hard to come by. With The Journey, EA get to create their own super star, tell an interesting tale of a young players rise to stardom and to explore the off pitch lifestyle of players in a way that already has me already begging for FIFA 19 and more of Alex Hunters journey.
Where this mode can take the football gaming genre has yet to be seen and will be determined by how far EA Sports are willing to take it. I imagine there’s a market for an episodic version of The Journey (much like IO did with the first season of Hitman) should they want to spin it off into its own game. I imagine there’s also a market for a less…. family friendly version of the mode that explores the less than squeaky clean side of football too, although I can’t imagine that would be allowed to carry the FIFA label. Regardless, The Journey is a masterstroke by EA to add much needed impetus to a series that was losing it’s cutting edge and I, for one, am already looking forward to what’s next.