Marcus Rashford was born in Manchester, 19 years ago. Until earlier this year, very few people had heard of him. That all changed in February when he made his English Premier League debut for Manchester United, scoring two goals against Arsenal. Rashford is now an England player, part of the exciting young squad currently competing in the European Championships.
Rashford's story is the sort of romantic stuff loved by sports fans throughout the world: a local lad with talent, rising to the top. In English football, such stories echoes down the years, from Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse to Bobby Moore and Paul Gascoigne.
Footballing romance is also part of British fiction. In 1954, a comic strip was launched, called Roy of the Rovers, about a kid who comes good and rises to the top of his game. The weekly comic that bore Roy Race's name was a huge success in the 1970s and '80s, before it closed in 1994. At the time, the comic's demise was blamed on the popularity of video games.
The Journey features a fictional young Londoner called Alex Hunter.
FIFA 17 is pulling together the romantic traditions of Rashford and Race in its story mode called The Journey, which features a fictional young Londoner called Alex Hunter (pictured below) who plays his way into the big league. It's the first time in its 23-year series history that any FIFA game has tried a narrative approach.
"He’s the grandson of an English legend who was playing back in the ‘60s," explains creative director Matt Prior. "Obviously football was a very different animal back then. They weren’t the millionaires they are today. They were playing more for the love of the game. That’s a character we can use to differentiate between the modern-day game and the old game. And then his father was also a promising footballer whose career was cut short by injury. Alex is your everyday kid. Not a silver spoon or anything like that, but he does have football in his blood."
Prior says he recently met with Marcus Rashford and showed him some of the work the team are doing on The Journey. "It’s an eerily similar story. He’s a good kid and it was great to get his feedback."
The Journey is possible in FIFA 17 because developers at EA Vancouver are building the game in the Frostbite engine, which is also used for blockbusters like Mass Effect: Andromeda, Battlefield 1 and Mirror's Edge Catalyst.
The engine can handle a big story, with personalities and locations away from stadia. For the last few years, FIFA games (and most EA Sports games) have been built on a network of technologies and shared best practices called Ignite.
"As FIFA 17’s developers, we’ve never brought a cinematic style of mode to the table before," says line producer Aaron McHardy. "It’s brand new for us. Luckily, our friends at [fellow EA studio] BioWare are some of the best in the business at bringing narrative and story to their consumers. We can lean on them in a way we’ve never been able to do before."
McHardy says EA Vancouver has been working on bringing FIFA to Frostbite for the last two years, during which time FIFA 15 and FIFA 16 were also being developed using Ignite. The Ignite-based solutions had been "transitioned," he said, along with various improvements (discussed later in this story). But the biggest changes will be visual.
"We're putting beautiful scenery on the screen," he says. "We can get some fantastic imagery and lighting, color, tone and depth. The players really feel like they’re integrated in the environments. We get a lot from the rendering technology."
As Alex Hunter in story mode, players can choose which clubs they join. A die-hard Everton fan will never be required to play for Liverpool. But performance is key. If you want to play for one of the bigger Premiership sides, you'll need to be good. Sub-standard performances will be punished by a spell on the bench or even in the reserves. All these eventualities trigger story sequences.
Hunter can get himself back in managerial graces by using practise mode to demonstrate the necessary skills. Hunter is a forward who can play left, right or center, so there's no option to make him a defender. He can be played either as an individual or as the whole team.
EA won't say, at this point, how long The Journey campaign lasts, or if Hunter will appear in forthcoming games, getting older each year, like Roy Race, who was a player manager by the end of his storied career. Unlike Roy Race, there will be no romantic stories about girlfriends or crazy plots about drug cartel kidnappings on the eve of the FA Cup Final.
Dedicated FIFA players buy each new iteration as soon as it arrives, usually in late September when the European leagues are all up and running, and the summer transfer window is complete. Apart from those roster changes, the game generally only progresses in small degrees.
FIFA 16 did make some improvements last year, tightening up AI defences and giving attackers more options to dribble, for example, as well as adding training icons. There was also a more purposeful passing mechanic. But these additions do not significantly alter the experience. Last year's game will probably be best remembered as the one that first introduced women's soccer to the experience (EA confirmed that women's soccer will return in FIFA 17).
The move to Frostbite and the long development time given to this iteration has both allowed and necessitated bigger changes. This is probably the most fundamental set of advancements to FIFA since the introduction of Ultimate Team in '09.
"Physical, war of attrition gameplay is not what we want."
"Every single year the challenge for us is to make people understand [the changes]." says McHardy. "This year, more than any year, people are going to feel the impact right away. We’ve just come off our first producer tour in Europe, and the feedback from everyone was that they were immediately feeling the difference."
He says the most significant feature might be something that happens off the ball, and out of the player's hands. "The active intelligence system is a new bit of positioning technology that allows us to better to understand the space available on the pitch, and also better categorize that space to make intelligent decisions about where players are going on runs."
The change came about after feedback from players that, at the highest skill levels, defenses were able to trump attackers, yielding too many 0-0 draws. "Very physical, war of attrition gameplay is not what we want. We want to express the creativity of the game," he says.
"We needed to do something in the final third to get more activity and make more intelligent runs. We needed to get fun and creativity and excitement in front of the goal, but without losing the engagement of having that build-up play be core to the game. That led us to come up with this new technology.
"You see immediately that the members of your team are much more active in getting open and giving you opportunities. In that final third there are things you can do to link two or three options together and find a way through."
All the set pieces, including corners, free kicks and penalties, are being rejigged in FIFA 17. In the past, EA Vancouver has tried various ways to make incremental improvements, but there's always been a slightly arbitrary feel to these dead ball situations.
"We needed to make a wholesale change," says McHardy. "We put a team together to go at it and start working on a different mechanic."
In previous games, the corner taker whipped the ball into the box and then jammed hard on a button to get a striker on the end of it. Now players have more control over exactly where the kick is being aimed, as well as a faster transfer over to players in the box.
"You really feel the reward when you get on the end of it," he adds. "You’ve succeeded at executing a skill. It creates that jump out of your seat moment. People are looking forward to those set pieces, especially the corners, a lot more than they have in previous years."
Penalties have also been redone, with a new kicking aiming and approach mechanic seeking a more organic and free feeling than simply timing a solid kick. "We’ve given you a lot of controls to handle the pace and the angle of your run-up. You can move around before the penalty. Likewise, for the new free kicks, you can move around before you take your free kick and pick your setup position. We’ve opened up the ability for you to take outside of the foot free kicks as well. There’s a lot of stuff going on in our set pieces rewrite that’s really changing the look and feel of all of them."
Back when FIFA 12 was being developed, EA introduced the Impact Engine, a new technology for handling player momentum, collision and recovery. Over the years, that's been tweaked significantly, allowing the game to make calculations based on the individual movements of players, and the resulting action. For example, does he fall over, or does he recover? This created more potential outcomes than previously.
Now EA has added what McHardy calls "the next iteration of the Impact Engine" which "gives you the intelligence to be able to handle a collision and recover from it, to balance yourself and be able to ultimately push back."
Now you have the ability to drive a strike long, hard and low.
This means players can choose to be more physical when they are holding off a potential tackle or making a run. By holding down the left trigger, the player puts up a shield or jostle that pushes back against an opponent.
"You have that level of control all over the pitch, to be able to impart physicality on your opponent. That’s a shift, a change, that the physical play overhaul brings."
As in real football, there is a potential trade-off in terms of speed. Some individual players on the pitch are going to be better off relying on speed to get away from opponents, while others can rely on physical strength to boss the encounter, including challenging for headers or backing into other players.
The left trigger also works as a physical boost for defenders. "Whether you’re on the attack or defense, if you’re in a 50-50 ball situation, you don’t have to know whether you’re the attacker or defender. You just have to know that you want to be physical. You pull that trigger and get a response."
McHardy says there's a whole stack of changes, some of which will be obvious, and others that just work in the background.
For seasoned players, there are a few new moves that mostly affect the attacking game. One, which has been demanded for years, is the ability to drive a strike long, hard and low, pulling off those goals in which the ball never seems to rise more than a foot off the ground. Players can also execute downwards headers which, in the real game, are a big part of the striker's repertoire.
There's also a new modifier on through balls, which can now be pushed farther into open space, and with extra curve. Attackers can now flick on oncoming high ball over a defender, and run onto it. Goalkeepers can punt with more purpose and urgency on the ball, just as outfield players did in last year's update.
"We’re tuning our first touch error this year," says McHardy. "It’s a significant change in the way the game plays fluidly. There’s going to be less trap error on the ball, especially in easy situations. That’s not because we want less error. It’s an important part of the game.
"When you’re doing difficult things they should be difficult to accomplish, unless you have the best players in the world. But we wanted to be specific in where we apply that. We’re going to use things like our new pushback engine to give us more information about balance, to make sure that difficult things are difficult because of the game context. That allows us to make them slightly easier in more straightforward situations, which improves the flow of the game.
"That's just one of a long slew of things we don’t get a lot of chances to talk about, things that go go into our fundamentals bucket. But it’s a testament to how much is going on in gameplay this year. Even though we have so much going on outside in other areas of the game, there’s still a ton going on in gameplay."