Warning: the following contains major spoilers for FIFA 18’s The Journey mode.
Sometimes, it’s hard not to look at the latest release in EA Sports’ annual FIFA franchise and think: “Granted, I can see you’ve added some more fluid animations here, a new stadium there, and, yes, Lionel Messi’s beard does look a bit bushier and more sex-offendery, but WHAT IN THE HELL HAVE YOU DEVELOPERS BEEN DOING FOR THE OTHER 11 MONTHS OF THE YEAR?” I mean, come on, where’s the innovation? This is almost the football game designer’s equivalent of parking the bus.
Well, I’m delighted to report that, with FIFA 18, you won’t be bothered by such despondent ponderings, because this time around, the development team have come up with something new. Something, that’s set to become a defining moment in the future, not just of sports games, but the entire video game industry. That’s right, they’ve added a sound effect to Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal celebration. And it’s brilliant(ly awful).
Imagine, if you will, the noise the Greek god Zeus would make if somebody shoved a marrow up his bottom. It doesn’t sound something like that. It sounds EXACTLY like that.
The other thing the FIFA creators have clearly spent some time on in FIFA 18, is the second instalment of The Journey. The series’ fledgling story mode which plays a bit like an interactive version of the Goal! trilogy of movies. (In case you missed them, the first one dropped straight in to cinemas, the second one dropped straight in the DVD sale bin and the third one they encased in concrete and dropped straight to the bottom of the Atlantic.)
For its sophomore season, The Journey heads to Los Angeles, home of the glitz of Hollywood, the glamour of Beverly Hills and the groaning swimwear of Baywatch. It’s never, though, been anywhere near the home of association football. So, how has the Journey already ended up here, playing in a town where ageing European pros are normally put out to pasture? A place that a colostomy-bagged David Beckman and a bus-pass-wielding Ashley Cole have both called (retirement) home.
For its sophomore season, The Journey heads to Los Angeles, home of the glitz of Hollywood, the glamour of Beverly Hills and the groaning swimwear of Baywatch.
The first episode of the Journey in FIFA 17 charted the rise of potentially messianic England prospect and unlicensed Marcus Rashford impersonator, Alex Hunter. And this follow up picks up where the original left off, with Alex comfortably ensconced at his first Premier League club under the wing of a spectacularly clichéd assistant manager from the north of England. You can tell he’s a real football man, because he constantly calls you ’Unter and preaches passion and commitment rather than technique and intelligence. In his spare time, he’s probably training up a team of whippets to win the World Cup.
Mechanically, little has changed in The Journey. You play a series of matches with the game rating your performance in each one. Scoring goals, making Booby Moore-style tackles etc. gains you points. Missing open goals from 2 yards out, or being sent off for kung-fu kicking an opponent, not so much. In between games, training drills help you improve Alex’s abilities, and cut-scenes play out which periodically allow you to make choices that affect Alex’s character and circumstances.
I say “periodically”, because not long in to The Journey: Part Deux, Alex’s agent (a fantastic character who’s like a cross between Mino Riaola and Michael McIntyre) gives him the option to transfer to one of Europe’s super clubs. And it’s at this pivotal moment in Alex’s life, that the game, which delights in offering you opportunities to answer pointless press conference questions and enjoy banal banter with your teammates, basically sticks its fingers in its ears and says to the player, “La, la, la, I can’t hear you.”
Personally, I had no interest in leaving. I was at the club I had supported since I was a boy and I had no love for the team attempting to secure Alex/my services. But, in the story, Alex wanted to go, so he, and I, were going.
To begin with, this made me angry. Very angry. Luis Suarez bite-the-L2-button-off-my-PS4-controller angry. Even in video game terms, it may sound like relatively small potatoes, but up until this point, I had regarded Alex and myself as inseparable entities. And it, once again, raised the important question of player agency. How much control should game makers give their audience in deciding how the characters they play as behave?
Basic logic suggests that the more input you give the player, the more emotionally invested they’ll become, and the more likely they are to find the tale you’re telling compelling and fulfilling. The illusive alteration you’re striving for is a slight but critical change of perspective. ‘The’ story, becomes ‘their’ story.
But what happens when this quest for choice directly conflicts with a developer’s painstakingly designed narrative? How wide do you open the door and how damaging is it when you then slam it right in the player’s face?
Of course, what happens next in Alex’s story is all too predictable and schadenfreude-tastic. At the eleventh hour, the deal falls through and, in a desperate panic, he takes the only offer on the table to him, a move to Los Angeles. Which actually turns out to be far more entertaining than I imagined. Primarily, because I now considered Alex the main character in the story, rather than my character in the story.
Against the odds, EA justify that decision to separate you and Alex mentally, by also doing so physically. So, while Alex is spending his time in L.A. hanging out in his plush new home in the hills (not as cool as it sounds), hanging out with family at the local diner (not as fun as it sounds) and hanging out with Thierry Henry on a roof top (not a seedy as it sounds), the story diverts to tell a couple of vignettes. One introducing Alex’s half-sister, the other, seeing you scrapping to save the career of his best friend.
Although some will regard it as slightly concerning that, in only the second part of Alex’s journey, there already seems to be a lack of fuel in the tank, these diversions are compelling, adding surprising breadth and personality to a previously two dimensional cast of characters.
They show promise for The Journey’s future. As does the increasing involvement of a handful of famous footballers given enhanced speaking roles. In my game, for example, Alex struck up a close friendship with Tottenham’s Deli Alli. An inspired choice, as his voice acting is wonderfully dreadful. Honestly, if any of Deli’s scenes had taken place in a hardware store, at their conclusion, the ranks of chipboard would have risen as one to give him a standing ovation for delivering the type of wooden performance they could only dream of.
It all goes a long way to adding to the fun of The Journey. A mode I wanted to hate, but now would be deeply disappointed to see FIFA 19 without. Whether through ignorance or intent, the FIFA design team actually took a sizeable risk with the on-going adventures of Alex Hunter. One I hope they and other developers are able to pull off again in the future. I’m not Alex Hunter, in exactly the same way that I’m not Cristiano Ronaldo. But I can lay my hands on a large marrow and a plane ticket to Madrid, which might help open up another passage in the FIFA story.