Living the dream as Alex Hunter
I am writing this post as a two-part article. This is the first part, which details my game progress up until the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. I’ll post the second-part once I’ve finished the game. As mentioned above, the mode is designed as a story, so there will be spoilers below.
Taking the decisive penalty
The story opens with a scene of your character (Alex Hunter) as an eleven-year-old kid, playing in some sort of youth tournament final. Your best friend is on your team. The game goes to penalties. You can see your family on the sidelines rooting for you (although your dad is mostly criticizing). As a player, you have no control over what’s happening on the screen, and you can only watch as the clip plays out.
You watch an opponent miss a penalty; that’s when the game breaks away from the “theatric” mode and allows you to take control over Alex. You become the eleven-year-old kid facing the goalie and tasked with taking the decisive penalty.
This little intro was exhilarating for me. You get all the background you need and you are put in a spot where you really want to make it count, all within two or three minutes of gameplay. It introduces the characters and tells you all you need to know about Alex: his dream has always been to become a footballer. As you start your run towards the ball, it becomes your dream.
The “Rejects” Last Chance
The intro to Alex educates you (as a player) on what you need to know about the game mechanics. You will essentially alternate between doing one of two things:
- Watching clips of the events in your life (off the field)
- Playing football
Once that intro is out of the way, the game fast forwards to you being seventeen-years-old and about to go on a trial day to find out if you are good enough to get a contract with a Premier League team.
At this point, you learn that throughout the course of the game, you will be prompted to talk to other game characters (i.e., interacting with team mates in the locker room, answering questions from your agent or dealing with journalists in post-conferences). The way you answer those questions defines whether your character has a balanced personality, a fierce one or a cool one (which then affects your playstyle).
One of your first interactions is with another young man who has already been given a contract with a pro-team (I think his name is Williams). He comes across as a bit of a douche and you and your best-mate are set up against him in an eleven-a-side match. As a player, this gives you an immediate reason to try to do well, even if it’s just a practice match. You are then put through a number of drills to see how you rank among 20 odd other players (you need to finish in the Top 10 to get a Premier League contract).
The cool thing about this particular part of the story is that it makes the practice drills a lot more fun. Game tutorials are often monotonous sequences of gameplay (that you just want to skip) whereas here, you find yourself wanting to make it sure that you get your chance in the big Leagues.
Who would you sign with?
If you do well in the “Last Chance” trials then you get to pick the team that you’ll sign with (your Agent is that good). When picking your team, you can go straight for the big guns (Chelsea, Man City, Leicester…) or a club with smaller ambitions. If you go for a big one, then you will be required to consistently score a high match rating, otherwise you will be sitting on the bench. If you sign with a more modest club, then your chances of glory are lower but you are more likely to be given time on the field.
The club you pick will also determine your “earnings” although, at this point, I’m not sure what you can do with those!
I decided to give Crystal Palace a try. Ever since Tony Pullis was awarded the Barclays Premier League Manager of the Year for the remarkable feat of saving Palace from relegation in 2013-14 (finishing 11th), the club has been one of my favorites. I love how they dodged that bullet and how they’ve kept playing good football against greater foes.
After a couple of training sessions, you are told that you’ll get to go on the pre-season tour with the rest of the lads. This leads to some amusing clips, where you and your best mate Gareth struggle with adjusting the seats in the plane; a subtle way for the game to create that sense of wonder and excitement in you, reminding you that although you are a pro you are still just a kid.
This is all the most evident when the pre-season matches get announced. You learn that you will play three of the most formidable teams in the world: PSG, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid.
During the first match, you get asked to step in with 30 minutes left to go on the clock. The manager gives you some pointers and off you go. The game does a great job at making you feel the importance of the moment; this is the first time you wear the jersey and everyone around you represents what you hope you will one day become.
While the tour itself is fairly uneventful (apart from the 3-0 beating that I got at the hands of Dortmund), it serves the purpose of getting you more invested in the club. This would later on play a role in the wider storyline, but we will get to that in due time…
I don’t know if it is by chance that my first Premier League match was at Anfield or whether the game intentionally makes it that way but, let me tell you this: hearing those fans sing “You’ll never walk alone” will give you the freaking chills!
I, once again, started on the bench and came in with 20 minutes on the clock, the score sitting at 1-1. On the 89th minute, Cabaye crosses it in from the left and young Alex Hunter, 17 years of age, rises above his marker and heads it in to give Crystal Palace a 2-1 lead! What a feeling!
I couldn’t have asked for a better Premier League debut.
What followed was a mixture between glowing compliments and voices of doubt on Twitter. My Followers count exploded after that one and I felt like this was way too easy.
Then reality sank in.
At this point, I was playing on “Professional” difficulty and, despite the dream debut at Anfield, I struggled to perform at the level the manager required in the following matches. My rating were not high enough to grant me a starting 11 spot, so most of the games, I was coming in from the bench with limited time to make an impact (excuses) hence perpetuating that string of average ratings.
A few games in on the season, I got called to the Gaffer’s office.
I got told I was going on loan to a Championship club. Worse: my best mate, Gareth Walker, who at this point I realized was actually a bit of an idiot, was staying. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Gallo and Bernard!
I was told to pick between 3 clubs; I chose the one the furthest away from London, packed my bags and made my way to Newcastle.
Just when I though my Journey couldn’t get any worse, as soon as I got to the training ground, I bumped into Williams, the bully from the “Last Chance” trials. Turns out he’s playing as the Striker for Newcastle so – since I’m a number 10 – we are gonna have to get along.
Humpty F-Ing Doo.
Life up North
As it turned out, moving to Newcastle would be the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I don’t know if there’s actually a way to avoid getting sent on loan or whether the game is designed in a way that, no matter what you do, you always end up going down that path. I ended up enjoying this plot twist a lot more than I expected.
At this point in the game I was already questioning whether playing in “Professional” difficulty was the right choice for me. I was really struggling to make any kind of impact and I didn’t want to just come out of the bench every single game. I had also realized that what I was really enjoying about the game mode was the actual narrative, even within the games itself and, not necessarily, the act of playing football. So I decided to ease my game progression and switched the difficulty to “Semi-Pro”.
It took me a few games to really understand Newcastle’s formation and gel with Williams but, after a while, we were cruising. While in Palace, I kept getting told to play as a lonely Striker, but here I was playing as a number 10 or as a Center Forward and that suited my playstyle a lot better. I still lost a couple of games (I’m that bad) but I really enjoyed the sense of redemption that came from playing in a new team.
The whole “Go On Loan” story arc serves the purpose of grounding you down as a player. The facilities don’t look as shiny, the Gaffer is a bit of a weirdo and the glamor isn’t quite the same. However, that’s a brilliant way for FIFA to make a point: not all players are superstars. There are a lot of players out there who work really hard to keep their teams going without ever knowing what it means to hear the Champions League anthem.
The experience at Newcastle is a way to make you live through all of the above and it all comes together by virtue of your renewed relationship with Williams. While he once came across as a bully, the game now shows you that – while he’s still a bit of a dick -by the end of the day, he’s just another guy fighting it out for himself and his teammates. Alex and him become friends.
By contrast, your relationship with Gareth Walker keeps getting worse. Now that Alex is far up North, Gareth spends his time on Social Media telling the world that that’s where Alex belongs. This, again, adds up to the narrative and grounds you to the realities of trying to succeed in an extremely competitive environment.
Eventually, I did well enough as Alex to get recalled back to Crystal Palace. But before that happened, there was a particular moment that I found hilarious: both Alex and Williams are at Alex’s apartment playing FIFA on a console (talk about inception) and they compare each other’s stats.
Alex is a 65. Williams is a 50.
Back with the big guns
So I got recalled to Palace! Happy days!
For some reason that I didn’t follow, Palace had bought Harry Kane (this might have been one of the reasons why I got sent on loan). Upon my return, I expected to be playing as an Attacking Midfielder but, for some reason, I got set up as a Striker in a 4-5-1 formation.
At this point, I have to highlight something that I found really off about the game mode: ever since my arrival, Kane hasn’t made a single appearance. I got straight in into the starting 11, outside of my natural position and benching one of the best strikers in the game. From a player’s perspective, I don’t think this makes a lot of sense and actually takes away the fun of playing alongside one of the biggest stars in the game.
I decided to keep the difficulty at “Semi-Pro”. Against the top clubs, it’s still challenging enough for me to win and, against the smaller ones, I win without dominating. It’s not as much of a challenge but it has allowed me to progress the story mode and unveil whatever else might be on the cards for Alex a lot faster.
As a result of good performances – and a few fiery answers here and there to increase my Social Media following – I got offered a Sponsorship deal with Adidas. A lot of people don’t like seeing big brands getting involved in video games but I, for one, welcome it. As long as the execution is done right, I have nothing against it. In this particular case, I think FIFA did a good job presenting Adidas as my Sponsor and giving me the chance to pick the next par of boots I was gonna wear. It felt rewarding.
The narrative definitely slows down once you are recalled from loan. I played a lot of games, scored a lot of goals and progressed my character a lot, but the life of Alex didn’t really seem to develop that much. There are some post-match conferences here and there and some locker room interactions but, for the most part, it’s pretty flat.
FA Cup Quarter Finals
Up until the FA Cup Quarter Finals, I hadn’t been on the starting 11 for any of the cup matches. The Gaffer kept telling me that they were “too much for me to handle”. Meanwhile, I learned that the FA Cup was the only trophy that my Grandad never won as a football player.
This was the game’s way of building up expectation around the FA Cup and tying the story altogether. By the time the Quarter-Finals match arrived, it became clear that this was the crux element of the game mode; Alex had to win the FA Cup.
Crystal got paired against the might Spurs. I got told I was gonna feature in the starting 11. On the day of the match, Selhurst Park was just electric. As a player, I felt this one was for all the marbles.
We had a couple of chances that we couldn’t convert and then Eriksen decided to score a screamer on the 89th minute. Game over. Crystal Palace was out of the FA Cup. No trophy for Alex Hunter, no avenge for his Grandad.
Then something really weird happened…
As soon as I finished the match, the game prompted me to either go back to my last save or re-start the week, meaning that in order to continue playing through the mode, I would need to beat Tottenham.
This was incredibly frustrating for multiple reasons and, I have to stay, really lowered the overall quality of “The Journey” for me. Let me explain why:
1 – If you are really gonna force the player to replay a match, then make him replay only that match. In my case, the game before Spurs, I had scored a Poker against Everton; I had to replay that match again in order to play against Spurs. Makes no sense.
2 – Up until this point, the game had done an excellent job at making me feel like part of the narrative. Nothing felt forced. I deserved being on the bench here and there. I deserved going on loan. I understood being on Reserve for the FA Cup. By making me replay a match until I win it, the game is basically telling me that that’s the only way to complete my Journey. That really sucks.
I understand that from a Game Design perspective, you can only create so many scenarios before it becomes impractical to maintain. But there’s a very big difference between forcing a player down a path with clever in-game moments and forcing you down a path “because so”. It breaks the spell, dissolves the magic.
I obviously re-loaded the game and went on to defeat Spurs, 3-0.
This is the end of the first part of this review. I will post the second part once I complete the whole game. If you would like to know once the second part is out, consider following me on Twitter or signing up to my newsletter!