Last year, we wrote a 2,000-word skewering of FIFA 17’s The Journey – the first ever story-driven addition to EA’s football sim franchise – and called it a half-baked exercise. We concluded by saying it would “need to improve in spades across all aspects, be it factoring in user decisions, developing better interactions, and truly making it feel unique, for it to be worth anyone’s time come FIFA 18”. Going into this year’s continuation of Alex Hunter’s fledgling career – titled The Journey: Hunter Returns – we had little to no hope that EA would deliver on any of that.
Fortunately, FIFA 18 does improve in spades on many of our complaints. The decisions you make have actual consequences, interactions between players, coaches, and family feel real and thoughtfully developed, and those two contribute in making the second season of The Journey worth playing through. You can even customise Hunter’s look, if you enjoy that sort of thing. Of course, there are still a dozen issues here and there, but EA has come far in less than a year.
On top of that, the new Journey now has co-op, which solves another minor complaint. It’s good to see that EA now allows your friends and family to join in on the action, and select a player of their choice. It’s still not seamless, as the second player gets nothing to do during the training sessions, but it’s a good step nonetheless. It inherently makes matches more fun, especially later when you’re asked to develop a partnership with a teammate.
A positive, well-written story
The focus on fostering a positive relationship is further proof of EA realising the error of its ways. With FIFA 17, The Journey’s long arc was built on a childhood friendship – between Alex Hunter and Gareth Walker – gone sour, which manifested itself as a rivalry of sorts as you progressed through the season. (The fact that it wasn’t convincingly portrayed, or that Walker failed to perform were separate issues.) It was supposed to be dramatic and heated, as the wildest football rivalries are.
What EA’s writing team couldn’t anticipate was that it lacked any element of fun. Thankfully, that’s not the case with FIFA 18, where you’re working with someone and not against them. The choice of player too is in your hands, with the three options being Antoine Griezmann, Thomas Müller, or Dele Alli. No matter who you choose, the club will automatically make that player available, even though they’re outside the transfer window.
After you’ve made your pick, the game tracks your partnership in the games you play, relying on how you link up with passes, and rack up assists and goals for the club that involve both of you. If you do well, your partnership meter fills up, going all the way up to ‘Telepathic’. As it improves, your strike partner will start to find you more, and position themselves better when you’ve got possession of the ball. Of course, it becomes easier (and better) if you’ve a friend to play with, as you can both control a player and work with each other, instead of having to depend on the AI.
The improved writing in FIFA 18’s Journey is also evident in the handling of the supporting cast, especially with [spoiler alert] the new addition: Kim Hunter, the protagonist’s half-sister who Alex never knew of. The first time you meet her is when you transfer to the MLS, where she barges into the dressing room without an introduction. Alex thinks she’s just a fan, but when she shows up again at a diner when he’s meeting his father, he thinks he’s being chased, only to realise they’re related.
If this was FIFA 17, Kim's role would have gotten stuck on that shallow note. FIFA 18’s writing is more nuanced, and the sub-plot involving the Hunter half-siblings is one of the best parts of The Journey. In the beginning, Alex transfers his hatred for his father, who left his mother and him when he was little, to Kim. He’s hesitant to know her better, and he’s unsupportive after Kim is revealed to be a footballer herself.
When she invites Alex to watch her play – an international friendly with the US national team – Alex says he already has plans, even if you - the player - want to go. It’s only later, after a little advice from Thierry Henry – yep, that Thierry Henry – that he decides to attend the game, and start a fruitful relationship with Kim. Better yet, FIFA hands you control of Kim for the match, which is made possible thanks to the inclusion of women’s teams in the last couple of years.
That’s a progressive move for a series that's only in its second year of story-driven game modes, though it has a while to go before it arrives at parity, where players could select the gender in the beginning. But more importantly, it’s these kind of decisions – benefiting from good writing that lets the voice and mo-cap actors sink their teeth into the material – that make the second season of The Journey an infinitely better version.
Another example of this comes later in the season, when Hunter returns to Europe from the MLS. A few games in with your new European club – you can pick from Atlético Madrid in La Liga, Bayern Munich in Bundesliga, or Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1 – you’re forced out with an injury for two months. As you recuperate, you follow your old friend Danny Williams, Hunter’s boastful teammate whom he played with in the Championship last year, on social media.
Though Williams has secured a contract with your old club (Manchester United in our case), he’s struggling to break into the first team. Enter you, the player. You’re given the choice to help save Danny’s career, or skip to when Hunter will have healed from his injury. It’s the only part of FIFA 18’s Journey that’s completely optional. Of course, you’ll lose out on the rewards for this specific chapter if you go with the latter option.
For all of Williams’ cockiness and tooting his own horn, he’s still very much an underdog. And there’s an inherent joy in taking someone out of their depth, and getting them to a level no one expects from them. But the Williams arc in FIFA 18 is also representative of the issues EA has yet to solve with The Journey.
New day, same troubles
Though the game doesn’t forcefully push you towards a goal like the FA Cup debacle from FIFA 17, where we won three simulated games against top-tier teams with the same score, there are other niggles. The main aim for Danny’s chapter is to win the EFL Cup, which ends in February. The story has been conveniently planned to allow you to return to action with Hunter, without any overlap.
Given that you arrive at your old club in January, that basically puts you one step away from the final. The EFL semi-final pits you against an arch-rival, which turned out to be Chelsea in our case. And to push up the stakes, FIFA 18 makes the opponent AI play at an incredibly high level, even beyond the chosen difficulty setting. Worse yet, failure isn’t an option in this match, which meant replaying over and over until you win. After playing as Williams on World Class twice, before switching over to full team control for another try, then dropping down to Professional for a fourth attempt, we finally won on our fifth attempt, at Semi-Pro.
Such incredible decisions show that EA has retained a bit of rigidity in designing The Journey. For a mode specially made to be played with one striker – a 75-rated Williams in this case – it’s silly to think that players can have an oversized effect on the game, especially when the other team is playing beyond its peak level. And by not allowing people to fail and move on, EA is pushing against real-life possibilities, and causing needless player frustration.
Being more adaptable
This kind of rigidity is still visible in the choice of position, though it’s showing signs of improvement. FIFA 18 allows you to pick any one of the four attacking positions: striker (ST), central attacking midfielder (CAM), and either of the wings (LW/ RW). Just like last year, we picked CAM, playing in midfield and creating chances, rather than being at the end of them. The match objectives still skew towards scoring goals, but the game doesn’t treat your choice as an after-thought anymore.
Two-thirds our way into the new Journey season, we went with Atlético Madrid when given the chance to pick a new European club. Their natural 4-4-2 formation doesn’t have space for a CAM, forcing us to play as a central midfielder (CM). But immediately after the opening game, the coach invites you into his office, and asks you to pick a strike partner. We picked Griezmann, since neither Müller nor Dele Alli are outright forwards.
In a bid to foster the partnership aspect that’s crucial to The Journey in FIFA 18, the game then drastically tweaked the formation from the next match onwards, to the extent of moulding it around us. From a 4-4-2, Atlético jumped to a 4-3-2-1, which has slots for two CAMs. It gave the position we preferred, rather than forcing the traditional ST role devised for Hunter, as it did on FIFA 17.
Remnants of an inferior world
Annoyingly, FIFA 18 still goes down the route of simulating games by showing you pre-determined cut-scenes when you’re not in the starting XI, though EA has finally come to its senses and added the option of being substituted out if you’re not playing well enough, after which the match continues out of your control. Unlike Konami with PES, there’s no way to speed it up so you’re stuck watching on 1x.
And EA is still a fan-pleasing developer, so that means you’re free to choose any club out of the Premier League if you’re new to The Journey, or continue with the one you played with in FIFA 17. But now that Hunter has been through one season, his stats are slightly closer to those of players at top clubs. Of course, that also depends on whether you’re continuing The Journey from FIFA 17, in which case your Hunter will carry over the attributes he picked up in FIFA 17.
The other remaining let-down is the division of Hunter’s responses into ‘cool’, ‘hot’ or ‘neutral’, which affects Hunter’s overall temperament, the manager’s view of Hunter, and the number of followers. This is not how conversations work in real-life; you don’t automatically know how your response is going to be perceived, and EA shouldn’t make it so easy. It’s still one of those BioWare hangovers that need to be sorted out, which also plagued the Mass Effect series. The dialogue tree would be so much better if it were ambiguous, similar to The Witcher titles, as you’d have to choose without knowing what the effect would be.
On the right path
Even as The Journey has progressed in many ways – the narrative and player choice being the clear winners – it’s obvious that EA still needs to take a critical look at a lot of other aspects, many of which are pointed out above. And those are just things waiting to be solved. There’s so much more that can be done with The Journey, including longer, complex storylines, multiple character choices, and possibly a heftier social addition.
EA’s approach to the latter has remained restricted to star power for now, bringing in the likes of Rio Ferdinand for a talk show with Hunter, the aforementioned Thierry Henry as a mentor of sorts, and a meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo (he’s the FIFA 18 cover star, after all) during the pre-season tour in the US. But by continuing the Hunter story – which still has a national team run, and the Champions League on its likely roadmap – it’s created its own playable TV show of sorts, one you keep coming back to because you want to know more about the characters.