Every time I saw FIFA 17's "The Journey" mode up until now, in which the player takes control of Premier League rookie Alex Hunter and works towards transforming him from off-the-bench support player to a first on the team sheet, private jets everywhere, paramours at his feet global superstar, I chuckled.
This is what EA is banking on, I thought, in an iteration of its famous franchise where core elements have been adjusted in such a way that long-termers are going to struggle to adapt – foremost the set-piece controls, which after a handful of attempts still feel totally unintuitive, all left bumper this and B button that, with some stick wiggling thrown in for extra confusion. This silly little story, all underdog clichés layered atop tabloid stereotypes topped with a think gloss of mid-afternoon melodrama, is going to carry FIFA through the shaky transition into a new game engine, Frostbite, with all of its subtle changes to responsiveness, animation and pace.
"The Journey" looked like an unnecessary distraction from the real appeal of FIFA – the playing of matches proper with mates, both online and beside each other on the sofa, through Ultimate Team and by taking control of your own preferred club. Based on this week's demo of 17, tested on Xbox One, the way the game plays when lining up against AI opponents isn't quite as challenging as the latest Pro Evo, in which improved defenders and goalkeepers do a fine job of keeping the scores low; but as a social attraction, bringing friends together, it's shaping up to be another success. "The Journey", then, would surely be a superfluous inclusion for most.
And perhaps it will be – but now that I've sampled the smallest taste of it, in 17's demo, I'm just a tiny bit smitten. When actor Adetomiwa Edun, who plays Hunter, came out on stage during the London leg of the EA Play event back in June, the most natural reaction was to smirk at his hackneyed "I have a dream"-styled monologue. It was too cheesy for words, so cheesed together were your teeth and gums by the overwhelming cheesiness of it all. But in practice, when you open up "The Journey" and step into Hunter's size nines, the approach really works.
The demo sees Hunter make his debut for Manchester United. Proceedings begin in the dressing room – the Red Devils are away to Chelsea, fierce rivals of recent years, and Hunter is told that he'll start on the bench. A peer of his from youth level who's also fresh to the club's first team, John Walker, starts up front, and he makes an impact, scoring United's opener. Chelsea hit back, and with 15 minutes of normal time remaining – assuming you're playing exclusively as Hunter, and not the whole team – the star of this story is summoned for his chance in the spotlight. The coach leans in: are you ready?
And here's where you, as Hunter, get to shape yourself. Do you answer modestly, how this is such a great opportunity, and how you're raring to go; or do you respond with fire in your voice, passion? A little conversation wheel appears, Mass Effect style, and you pick from one of three options. I elect to play the pumped-up super-sub in waiting. "Remember to keep your discipline," the coach reminds me, as manager José Mourinho looks on. If, in my 15 minutes, I achieve a rating of 7.0 or more, the Portuguese will be impressed, and potentially select me to start next time out. That's my key objective, and very selfish, but it's one of three – there are also the achievements of netting a goal for myself, and the team winning the game.
Quite why Hunter's been thrown on when both Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović are clearly available amongst the United subs is beyond my footballing brain – but then, I'm not a Premiership manager right now, and (probably) never will be. But here we are, here I am, and there's Chelsea scoring a second goal. Unlike Pro Evo's bastard-hard semi-isometric perspective on its "Become a Legend" mode, "The Journey" is presented side-on, just like regular matches, although you're only in command of Hunter as he dashes into space, a press of A calling for the ball. This makes it easier to judge passing distance and the offside line, and I'm quickly breaking through the opposition back four to get a shot off. It pings off the post – what an introduction that would have been. My rating rises – in the top right of the screen, it proudly displays 8.0. José's attention is mine.
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The 90th minute arrives and still United are behind – until Hunter, under my control, finds some space on the right wing. A low cross to the penalty spot is met by Wayne Rooney, who takes the ball on his chest, lets it fall to the ground and sweetly side-foots an equaliser. The corner of the screen flashes green: 9.0 is Hunter's final rating as the England captain's goal is practically the last kick of the game. I don't know if how my game played is the same as anyone else's out there – perhaps the demo is carefully orchestrated to ensure that Hunter will always get his chance to shine, whether he ultimately fluffs his lines or becomes an immediate hero. But what I see is captivating in a way I really didn't expect. I actually felt like part of a team, like I'd contributed to a hard-fought point, and like I immediately wanted to see what the next tie would bring.
A short interview in front of the TV cameras follows the game – answer well to improve both your following amongst the fans and the manager's opinion of you; and yes, everything Hunter says is soaked through with the stereotypical footballer shtick of "lacking that cutting edge" and how "the gaffer" (surely José hates that) is going to respond in training this week. But once that's done, it's back to the title screen, demo over. "The Journey" has barely begun, but against the odds, I'm up for strapping in and seeing where it takes me next. From the look of the latest trailer, from the back pages of the 'papers to the front; but with PES pulling away ahead of FIFA in the pure kicking-sim stakes, this perfectly soap opera-like off-the-pitch drama is just what's needed for me to stay, ahem, in the game.
The full FIFA 17 comes out on September the 27th.