FIFA 17’s The Journey isn’t perfect, but it’s promising and addictive

(EA Sports)

Alex Hunter, along for the ride. (EA Sports)

For general thoughts on FIFA 17 and first impressions of The Journey, see this post from August.

Upon completing FIFA 17’s new single-player, story driven game mode, The Journey, my first thought was about how EA Sports could build on it. Though addicting (it was the first thing I tried upon receiving the game and it remained the only game mode I played until completion), it definitely feels like it’s just a starting point. Like EA wanted to gauge the level of interest in it before building it out to the degree that it could be built out to.

The Journey is very much a singular experience. This isn’t a choose your own adventure type game with endless variations. You either carry out the predetermined story of Alex Hunter or you do not. Starting with the exit trials, if you perform well, you advance to choosing between any of the 20 Premier League clubs you want to join (if you don’t perform well, you have to start over again). If you think this choice requires strategy — maybe choosing a smaller club that will provide more opportunities than a larger one — it does not.

Even if you choose a massive club with a plethora of world-class options at Alex’s position (which can only be right wing, striker, or left wing — you can’t make him a defender, midfielder or goalkeeper) he will still get enough opportunities to make Jose Mourinho’s eye twitch.

Each club offers different wages and bonuses, which is another thing you might assume to require consideration. It does not. Though Alex’s earnings are tallied after every match throughout his story, this number and his transfer value serve no purpose whatsoever in the game.

No matter what club you choose, Alex’s story will unfold with the exact same supporting cast of fictional players and assistant coaches (whose oddly mute bosses seem to have given them total control of the team). From there, it quickly becomes apparent that the game not so subtlety guides you through the story it wants to tell you. If the story requires you to win and perform well, the difficulty of the matches seems to plummet. If it requires you to struggle, it rises.

An area where you do have a bit of say, literally, is in choosing Alex’s words during certain interactions with teammates, coaches, and the press. You’re given three options — a “cool” choice, which the manager likes, a “balanced” choice, which everyone likes, and a “fiery” choice, which the fans like and the manager does not like. Obviously, the fiery words are the most entertaining and result in Alex gaining more social media followers (the story is partially told through his Twitter-like timeline), which in turns helps him get a couple of sponsorships (which amounts to a few extra cut scenes). But they also reduce the manager’s desire to start Alex, which is represented by a bar divided into segments: reserves, bench, starting XI.

The trick seems to be to have Alex maintain a slightly fiery personality through a mix of all three response types, helping him add followers without totally infuriating the gaffer. Performing well in the training sessions between matches can significantly boost Alex’s standing within the squad, so he can be a bit of an egomaniac as long as he works hard to back it up.

Another thing that needs to be kept in mind is that since you’re put in the boots of a young player, you aren’t given any control over who plays around him or what substitutes are made during a match. If you don’t play well, Alex gets the hook. This can be frustrating when the manager makes baffling decisions that you have to abide by, but that’s part of the realism, I suppose.

There’s a good balance of cut scenes and gameplay throughout the season to make it feel like more than just a normal career mode campaign. The story won’t be confused for The Last of Us as far of originality and depth of characters go, but it’s enough to create a bond with the characters. It’s also worth noting that since this carries the seal of approval from FIFA and the Premier League, the drama remains fairly tame — Alex is never approached by match fixers and he doesn’t have to navigate through a world of sex and drugs. During his downtime, him and a fellow footballer are shown playing as themselves in FIFA on more than one occasion. Which gets a little Inception-y.

Though this might sound like a lot of negatives, I really want to make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed playing The Journey. It was a more immersive experience than the standard career mode and the story was enjoyable. That said, I’m very curious to see how it develops. The ending seems to be left open for further Alex Hunter adventures, but there’s so much that can be done with this concept.

For one, now that women’s teams are in the game, seeing a women’s version of The Journey and navigating the wholly different experience female professionals face would be both fascinating and enriching for the player.

Ultimately, what The Journey needs is more variation. Keeping it limited to just one season can make that difficult, but as it stands now, there isn’t a ton of replay value because the story is pretty much the story. Like Alex Hunter, The Journey shows promise, though. It provides the unique experience of playing through your favorite football film. As long as your favorite football film isn’t Green Street Hooligans.