If there’s one thing the FIFA series has been needing for a few years now, it’s something different. The legions of people who moan about the series being nothing but a £40 roster change were beginning to win over usually ardent fans, especially as no significant updates to Career Mode or other offline features had occurred in FIFA 16. Then EA announced the the new “Journey” mode, in which players can take a pre-made character, Alex Hunter, from his boyhood dream of being a pro all the way to the top. Dom and I got our hands on FIFA 17 at gamescom and spent a good hour driving through the first chapters of young Alex Hunter’s career. First we had to choose his favourite club and there was only one choice to be honest – Burnley.
It becomes instantly obvious that Alex Hunter is an incredibly talented footballer, even at this young age (I think he’s about 9 or 10). The opening scene sees him majestically dancing past numerous defending players before being sliced to the ground, much to the disdain of his Dad, who storms off angrily. Despite this, your mother and Grandfather, Burnley (or whatever club you choose) legend Jim Hunter, cheer you on as the match heads into penalties. This is where you take control for the first time, stepping up to take the penalty that will win your team the trophy. We were unsure whether the game would actually let you miss this fundamental story piece, but still, we wanted to give it our best shot; gently rolling the ball as slowly as we could towards the goal. Cue: Goalkeeper diving in dramatic fashion in the opposite direction as your Grandfather praises your ‘unstoppable’ penalty. With Alex the hero you return to your house on Clapham Common and see the in-game Hub for the first time - your bedroom - draped in the claret and blue of any Londoner’s favourite team: Burnley FC.
The Hub is pretty interesting. In it you can see your upcoming challenges, check your status within the footballing world and, most intriguingly, check your Twitter to see how many followers you have and what people are saying about you. Since our version of the game was in German it was tough to see what Alex Hunter’s mother and best mate were saying on the social network, but surely it was all good. You get some more story tidbits as Alex grows up from a plucky young footballer to a teenager with scuff marks on his wall from all the days he’s been kicking a football against it. EA says that it collaborated with many famous players, including Harry Kane, to get the life of a young footballer just right - though I didn’t realise this meant down to the grubby walls and a poster that says “F is for Football” on it.
At any rate, you and your friend Gareth Walker, who is by all accounts the Iniesta to your Messi - or George Boyd to Andre Grey, to stick with the Burnley story - turn up at St. George’s Park for Premier League exit trials. This is where scouts from around the country come to watch young kids to see if any of them are worth signing. We’re given a fairly sharp ultimatum - finish in the top ten of all the generic be-a-pro trialists there and win a contract. The first task is an eleven-a-side game in which you’re only allowed to control Alex Hunter - you're told to score a goal and keep your average score above 7.0. I fail miserably and register only a single shot on target. Not the best of starts.
With it looking increasingly unlikely that Alex Hunter would make the top 10, it was over to the skill games in order to claw something back. These remain the same as they have been for several iterations of FIFA, though it was refreshing to see them be used in a different way. After six tests, ranging from the usual selection of shoot, pass, and run, we’d manage to return some dignity back to the boy. We were in the top 10 at the end of the day, meaning we had passed and scouts would be knocking on our door. This sparked another cinematic, this time as Alex and his gradually more and more irritating best friend were celebrating their endeavours they're approached by some previously scouted talent - the bigger boys. Some witty remark from generic player #1 gave us our first look at the dialogue tree. You’re given three options, and though they were in German for our play through, the icon next to them suggests you can be ‘firey’, ‘cold’ or ‘balanced’, naturally we wanted to be the arsehole that all professional footballers are and opted for firey. Alex spat out a sarcastic comment in retaliation, and our personality bar snuck to the left of centre, our first steps to being a pro and we were a dick.
Considering we narrowly scraped 9th in exit trials, the shady-looking scout who approaches Alex after the game is oddly enthusiastic. He hands over his card and just like that you’re in with a shot. There’s another time-skip and suddenly Alex is thrust into a momentous decision - EVERY club in the Premier League wants him in their team for some reason. But our Alex Hunter is claret and blue through and through, and there is only one club for him. Welcome to Turf Moor, son. For some reason Hunter’s mate Gareth chooses the same team, so you’re both inducted into the hallowed insert-team-colour walls of generic training ground, where you catch a glimpse of your manager (all Premier League managers have had their faces scanned this year around) and meet the assistant who, because FIFA didn’t have to dosh to get real-life coaches to do voices, will essentially be the translator for your mute gaffer. With that, you’re on the way to a pre-season friendly in the USA, which seems to be against PSG no matter what team you choose to play as.
After the struggles of negotiating the complex engineering that is reclining plane seats, much to the amusement of your older teammates (great banter), it’s time to don your trackies and take to the pitch. As this is your first professional game, you start on the bench with the other foreign signings and wannabe Burnley legends, awaiting the moment you have dreamt of for so long. That moment comes in the 70th minute (the match time is lengthened in this mode to enable you still plenty of playing time), when, after watching the highlights of the match so far, you earn your first Burnley appearance and finally take control of the team. Unfortunately your gaffer has also chosen to bring on your best mate at exactly the same time, somewhat ruining the moment, but nonetheless, it’s up to you to bring home some of that pre-season optimism. Unfortunately, we once again failed to make Alex look any better than he did playing on Clapham Common back in the good old days: no goals and no attempts isn’t much to impress a manager these days, especially for a striker, it was back to the training ground for our reluctant hero.
And with that our brief time with The Journey came to an end, we’d acted like a dick, scraped through selection process and still hadn’t registered a single shot on target in a competitive game; not much to write home about, then.
The Journey is a RPG-lite mode available in FIFA 17, following the career of an up and coming player as he faces the choices and trials of any wannabe footballer.
FIFA 17 will release on 27th September.