FIFA 17 takes the world’s leading sports sim in a new direction. Prepare for The Journey.

“Who’s your team?” asks FIFA 17 creative director Matt Prior.
“Gillingham, mate,” I reply, awaiting the inevitable smirk that usually follows this admission.
“Nice one. Keeping it real!”
To be honest, I’m just happy he’s heard of them.

Prior and I are sat opposite each other in a football-shaped media booth. An international PR representative looks on with disinterest, incessantly dragging her thumb across a smartphone screen. There are few gaming titles that pique our interest on an annual basis more than FIFA. An office favourite, good to play by yourself, or even better to ruin someone’s evening in a far flung region of the planet with a late gasp winner. Come late September, there’s only one game on our mind.

One of the most significant developments in FIFA’s recent history was migrating the game to the Frostbite engine for PC, PS4 and Xbox One; a platform utilised right across the publisher’s developer stable.

“The look of the games, the visuals, are incredible on Frostbite,” Prior says excitedly. It brings a whole new level of authenticity and inertia to the game; the lighting is all new as well.

“The other big thing that [working on Frostbite] brings to us, is our ability to cooperate with other teams. You can imagine with 20 teams all on different engines, solving problems is very difficult. There was very little studio collaboration, so, with a move to Frostbite, it allows much better cooperation between teams, and more importantly, much quicker problem solving. Essentially it is making games easier for us, which means we can focus on adding cool stuff and more of it in the game.“

The FIFA modus operandi in recent iterations has been focused on improving key areas of gameplay in manageable chunks. This has included tweaks to the mechanics for attack, defence, midfield play, penalties, free kicks and goalkeepers. While it feels like a constant work in progress, notable innovation in the FIFA franchise has come via the introduction of FIFA Ultimate Team, the aforementioned mechanic gameplay enhancements and some revision around the career modes. However, by harnessing the power of Frostbite, FIFA 17 will see the introduction of a single-player campaign mode called The Journey.

Prior describes The Journey as a “kind of peek behind the curtain of football.” The premise is an enticing one. Playing as fictional greenhorn Alex Hunter, The Journey follows his fledgling career at Manchester United, both on and off the pitch, in a compelling simulation of the life of a professional football player in the most popular league in the world: the Premier League.

“The Journey is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, and with the power of Frostbite, we can now create those environments easier and a lot quicker,” explains Prior.
“We’ve been working on it for just over two years now, but this is completely new for us and an area of gaming that the core FIFA devs didn’t have any experience with.

“We had to write scripts and audition actors, so it took a while to plan it out, and we had a totally separate team working on it. We also had to get some people with expertise who’ve delivered this kind of mode in other games before in to help us!”

The comparisons between Alex Hunter and new Manchester United prodigy Marcus Rashford are obvious, and although Prior says the mode isn’t based on the striker’s ascension, the comparison between the two is inevitable.

“It’s eerily similar in terms of what happened to him,” remarks Prior. “I actually met him the other week and to get his feedback is great because it validated the authenticity. There’s obviously the family element and the support they give through the inevitable ups and downs of the footballers’ lives, and that was a significant element in all the young footballers we spoke to including Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Reece Oxford. They all liked what they saw.”
It is undoubtedly a side of football that we’re all intrigued by. We read the stories in the papers of lads who have come from humble beginnings earning $400,000 a week, living extravagant lifestyles, driving the best sports cars and buying country mansions. Growing up, many fans of the sport (this one included) harbor similar dreams; now with The Journey, we can live vicariously through the eyes of Alex Hunter.

“It’s the side of football people are interested in; it’s the side of football in the real world,” says Prior. “You can get a certain level of vision on with Instagram, social media, perhaps websites, but with The Journey you’ve got a window on these guys’ personal life like never before, and this is something we think our users are interested in.

“We’ve always done an amazing job of focusing on the 90 minutes on the pitch, we’ve never done off the pitch and what makes a player tick, what they have to go through to be a professional player and all the rest of it.”

For The Journey narrative, Prior says the studio turned to former Eastenders actor and now sports journalist, Tom Watts, for help.

“He has just finished writing Beckham’s autobiography actually, so we wrote the story with him as a consultant. That guy just absolutely lives and breathes football; he’s like an encyclopedia, so getting that window into the world of football was fascinating.”

This is a bold move for the franchise but a necessary one if EA are to expand the player base beyond the millions who already buy the game on an annual basis. While the requisite skill level to play the game online could potentially put off new recruits (no one likes being beaten 15 nil in their first game), the introduction of The Journey will actually teach new adherents to FIFA how to play the game as the mode progresses.

However, the core FIFA players are a passionate bunch and might view the introduction of a single-player campaign mode in the game with some trepidation. Not so, according to Prior, who says he’s happy with the feedback received so far.

“This is something very unique that they’ve never seen before in FIFA. But we’ve put a lot of work into this. Authenticity is one of FIFA’s key pillars, so if we were going to do a story, then we were always going to make sure we made it as authentic as we possibly could, and the feedback we’ve been getting is very positive.

“The FUT users will probably go off and play FUT eventually. It’s not a mode that is intended to dominate that space, but certainly by the reaction thus far, everyone will love it.”

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