A big feature of FIFA 17 when it was announced last year was that we'd get a story mode that follows young talent Alex Hunter as he rose through the ranks of a Premier League team of your choosing, having to deal with the pressures of fame, the relationships around him, and the challenges of being a footballer. When we went to a preview event for FIFA 18 recently, it was revealed that Alex Hunter would be coming back in The Journey: Hunter Returns, since the game mode was so well-received last year, and we also got some new details about what this would entail.
Alex Hunter will start his journey in FIFA 18 in Rio de Janeiro, playing football with the locals, before heading back to the UK where things start heating up, with transfer speculation all over the news. There are going to be new destinations during his journey, including a visit to LA for a pre-season tour. Also, at the end of the first Journey there are rumours you'll be called up to the England squad for the World Cup, so that could play into it too.
The Journey: Hunter Returns also makes big changes in terms of structure, as Prior revealed that feedback from last year suggested players felt a little aimless at times, especially when on loan, so this year they've divided the campaign into six distinct chapters, with clear goals in each of these.
Perhaps one of the most welcome changes coming to this sequel, though, is customisation. Last year, aside from the team kit you wore, you had no choice in how you looked or how you dressed, and now both of these things are being changed. New hairstyles are being introduced, for instance, and the examples we were given range from the low-key to the more Pogba-esque patterned and dyed hair. Your clothing can also be changed too, which we can only assume will be reflected during cutscenes when you're not on the pitch, and you can also have tattoos, although not on the face. This is all in the hopes that no two Hunters will be the same, and your experience will be that touch more personal.
The cast is being extended this time around as well, so there's going to be more characters interacting with Hunter and his story (we were shown a screenshot of an unnamed woman), and more famous faces. We know the cover star Cristiano Ronaldo will be in there, for instance, and he will be present early on in the story to influence your Journey, as Prior teased. There are even other playable characters throughout the story, we were told, and local multiplayer can be deployed so a friend can join you, although Prior said: "right now it's just the two of you on a team [but] what we're looking at hopefully is getting in the ability to pick any player."
Prior also discussed feedback from players that The Journey in FIFA 17 didn't have too much impactful choice, and this year there are some key decisions that have a "significant impact" on characters and events. Again, details were kept sealed, and nothing more was said, but this implies more than just choosing how cool or heated you are in a conversation.
In terms of what the plot could be about, we weren't told anything about this, but the multiple hints we got suggested that at least part of the story revolves around a transfer saga between Hunter and another team, possibly Real Madrid. In the demo we played, our agent came in and said there was interest from teams such as Real Madrid, a team Hunter became fixated on once he heard it mentioned, and there's a lot of other evidence to suggest this will be the case, including the fact that Prior said Ronaldo will be in the story early on to influence the narrative, and that there's a "wider world of football" out there. The trailer we saw also had The Clash's 'Should I Stay or Should I Go?' over it, so it seems like a safe bet this could be the case.
Staying with this trailer for a moment, this also featured a number of live action shots of not only professional players like Antoine Griezmann, but also live action footage of Sky Sports and other television programs, so whether this is just a trick for the trailer or not remains to be seen, but it should be mentioned.
Going back to the demo we played, after these transfer rumours had started we played a match, presumably a little bit of the way into the story, in which we were named on the bench, much to Hunter's surprise. When we came out in our Chelsea strip (our preview was at Stamford Bridge after all) fans started booing us because of the transfer stories, and so our goal was to prove our worth, as we were 3-0 down to Manchester United. Our agent had told us before the match to make sure we were on our A-game as well, to ensure this interest from other clubs continued.
"So that was just to get a quick kind of cross section of what to expect, a teaser, if you will," Prior explained when we asked him about this demo. "There's quite a bit that happens before and after that (obviously a lot happens after that), but before that it gives a little background as to why the Chelsea fans aren't happy with him. I can't really go into it, because that would be spoilers, unfortunately. Just rest assured that it's going to be an interesting ride for Alex this year two. We've had people play the game and work through the story and universally they came back and said it was great and it was something that they didn't expect. None of them expected The Journey to go where it goes, so I think you can expect an interesting ride, shall we put it."
When we asked about Real Madrid links too, Prior said: "The only thing I can tell you is that you get to play them in the Pre-season Tournament and stuff happens from there, so I can't really tell you much more."
In terms of gameplay, there's little to say from the one match we played, although it's much the same in the sense that you get the choice to either play as Hunter or the team, and there's all the usual stuff to consider that affects your rating i.e. losing the ball, positioning, stamina management, and so on. Suffice to say, scoring three goals to equalise and make it 3-3 like we did raised our rating and made supporters very happy, so you still have the power to influence matches.
In short, what we saw of The Journey: Hunter Returns shows a lot of promise. The core of it hasn't changed, as you still guide Hunter by playing matches and making decisions on and off the pitch, but it seems that this has been deepened by customisation, impactful choices, a wider cast, and more locations (hopefully). We don't know how important Real Madrid and transfer speculation will be in the story, but we're looking forward to finding out.
The Journey: Hunter Begins will only feature in the PC, PS4, and Xbox One versions of FIFA 18, and will not appear on PS3, Xbox 360, and Switch. You can read our hands-on preview of the game beyond The Journey by latching onto this through ball.