FIFA 21 Review

October 22, 2020
Also on: PC, Xbox One, Switch
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Every football fan loves a rough diamond. You know the kind of player that, when everything comes together, is brilliant on their day but can still be obtuse and short-sighted when they want to be? Well, that sums up my experience with FIFA 21 — a great game that’s made small but important improvements since last season, but it’s still weighed down by far too many poor decisions and off the field issues. Basically, FIFA 21 is Ross Barkley.

Much like the Villa midfielder, EA Sports’ latest edition has done a lot to please the fans and clean up its act, and from a gameplay perspective there’s a lot to like about FIFA 21. Instead of headline-grabbing, back of the box bullet points, it seems a more considered approach has been made as FIFA takes its (almost) final bow on current gen hardware. 

The solid arcade-meets-simulation style of football that is synonymous with the FIFA series remains, but with a few important tweaks. First of all, the speed of gameplay has been slowed down. Normally making things slower isn’t a good thing, but EA Sports’ allowing players to take a more considered approach really pays off. Being able to take the ball down with a good first touch, flick the ball past a defender, or roll your man to set up a one-on-one with the goalkeeper is great. Similarly, being able to actually utilise midfielders instead of solely relying on fast, tricky, wing-play is a huge plus and changes up online and offline play significantly. Rather than the ball ping-ponging its way up and down the pitch, players now have more time. It’s a very simple change but one that grants a clever, creative, midfielder — like the aforementioned Mr Barkley— the time and space to shine.

Time and space is more available and important than ever before.

Space is an important thing too. Working in tandem with the new, slightly more deliberate, gameplay style are your teammates. In previous games — especially last year’s outing — the frustration of having no one to pass to, nobody running into space, was all too real. In FIFA 21 that’s rarely ever an issue. There always seems to be an outball, an option to pass to, or a player making an all important run. What’s more, you have more control over making runs happen than ever before. Previously, a tap of L1 and a hope for a reaction was all players had at their disposal. In FIFA 21, a new Creative Runs mechanic allows players to set up outstanding overlaps and dramatic counter attacks, or even call for support, by directing their teammates with a flick of the right stick. It’s a great mechanic when mastered, but I found the AI to be just as good when called upon.

Storming through on goal and sending the crowd wild feels as good as ever, especially at a time when crowds at football games (here in the UK at least) are nonexistent. The roar of the crowd has been amplified in big moments and for certain teams, with the mythical 12th man playing more of a role in games like the Champions League Final. Certain chants are now even unlockable in Ultimate Team. 

It almost goes without saying that the presentation in FIFA 21 is good. On the whole, players look the part and big name players play more like their real life counterparts than ever before. Some of the generic player faces may haunt you long after you’ve finished playing though and the lack of the Juventus and AS Roma licenses (thanks to eFootball Pro Evolution Soccer exclusivity) still hurts when Piemonte Calcio and FC Roma walk onto the pitch. At this point in the generation, it seems EA Sports has practically maxed out its graphical capabilities. The same goes for recreating the television experience. FIFA has been consistent in this area for years now, but it’s worth noting that big leagues like the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga look exactly how they do each weekend on TV. The commentary is another question entirely. Derek Rea and Lee Dixon are the only English commentary team available this year, with mainstays Martin Tyler and Alan Smith fully replaced by their once Cup-only counterparts. Unfortunately, the new full-time team began to grate very quickly with few changes to their back and forths from previous editions and too many repeated phrases on a game to game basis.

If you look closely, you can hear the Champions League theme playing

Nitpicks aside, there’s clearly a drive to build on the foundation of recreating a realistic football match or, at the very least, something approaching one. An update to the way the players and the ball collide with obstacles is also welcome, sparking a little bit of danger should an attacker or the ball wriggle free from your defensive clutches. That battle between attackers and defenders has also altered slightly, with pace, trickery and strength playing an even more important role. Agile Dribbling is probably the biggest new addition to the game and it does make a difference. Using raw pace is now not the only way to beat a defender, and quick feet will get you out of plenty of tricky situations. However, it’s still very common both for the player and the AI to fall back on the basics. It’s a battle that is particularly prevalent online, where pace is king. However, even in the offline modes against the AI this new dynamic can be felt. Slicing through a defence or beating a defender one-on-one can be incredibly satisfying. As a defender, a great tackle feels that little bit more rewarding. 

As expected, the veil of realism still manages to fall away periodically. There’s always the odd glitch or occasional bit of clipping, which just comes with the territory. More annoying is the inconsistent goalkeeping, in which a world class ‘keeper like David DeGea can go from being a brick wall in one game to a leaking dam in the next — the comments about the realism of that situation write themselves, but still. The only other minor gripe is with FIFA 21’s crossing and heading. Unlike last year, crosses are effective and you’re able to score headers (and volleys) with ease. How is that a problem? Well, it’s almost too easy. And when you put overpowered heading and hapless goalkeepers together issues do arise, particularly when playing online. That said, I expect both of these things to be an early game issue and nothing more. No doubt they’ll be tweaked multiple times in the months to come and for a happy medium to be found.

Dinking the ball past an onrushing defender is always satisfying.

On the field, FIFA 21 might be the best the series has ever been. So when so much of what happens off the pitch is lacking, it’s particularly bothersome. There’s certainly a refresh required in a number of key areas to improve the overall user experience. For starters, the menu system could do with a huge overhaul. They have tried to tidy some of it up and streamline a few things, but the result is either unnoticeable or you spend ten minutes looking for a menu screen you swear was here last time you looked. With a new generation on the horizon, and load times cut significantly, this could well happen. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like a priority right now. 

Significant changes have been made in other areas though. Career Mode (for managers at least) has seen a significant upgrade. A brand new training schedule has been added, complete with new mini-games. This helps improve your team’s form via a ‘Sharpness’ meter, basically giving your players a boost before each game. A successful training session leads to big gains. Simple. Similarly, would-be managers now have the option of moulding players to their liking. If you think your star right back would be better as a marauding winger then you can do that. All it takes is time. As shallow as these features are, they do add an additional element to what has been a very tired, almost forgotten, mode within the FIFA games. Other improvements come in the form of a new simulation mode which allows the player to ‘jump in’ to a match to try and turn the tide of a game, and small additions to the transfer system. 

Everything here is a big plus, but it’s far from the overhaul Career Mode needed. There are still far too many menus to deal with for the simplest of actions. How scouting a player, arranging to buy (or loan) them, and then undertaking negotiations requires so many menus and needless button presses is beyond me. Writing that out seems petty but, in practice, it’s continually frustrating. The same goes for the stale cutscenes that play out with every negotiation. I don’t need to see my poorly created manager having dinner with Paul Pogba’s agent just to get him to agree to a new 5-year deal. I really don’t.

Lamenting a lacklustre attempt to revitalise Career Mode is one thing, but at least it’s not fallen by the wayside like the 11 vs 11 Pro Clubs mode or FIFA’s other singularly-focused mode Player Career. Neither mode has received anything in the way of a significant change, if any change at all. Even Volta — the street football mode introduced in FIFA 20 — hasn’t changed that much. The new gameplay additions, especially Agile Dribbling, do make a difference here. However, it’s still pretty hollow. Its single-player mode The Debut is a tutorial with some pseudo-story elements tacked on. It’s ok for what it is, but it’s not at all substantial. Granted, Volta is better with friends and now with online co-op it does feel like it’s got an even bigger purpose. However, aesthetics aside, it isn't different enough from the core game to make the splash players thought it would, and EA Sports still thinks it will. The half-baked attempts to recapture the spark of FIFA Ultimate Team aren’t helping this mode either. 

Despite all the changes to gameplay, if you pack this guy in FUT you’re still winning.

Speaking of FIFA Ultimate Team, EA Sports has also taken an ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ approach. For the most part, at least. The admittedly addictive cash cow that is FUT has seen some minor changes. The core concept of building the best overall team with impeccable team chemistry is still very good. The removal of player fitness, and therefore fitness-based cards, from the game is also a huge plus and means you can almost always field your preferred XI. It is, of course, still riddled with microtransactions and a pushy ‘battle pass’ style objective system that takes the shine off it more than a little bit. In my experience, games are naturally dominated by those willing to pay and, after a while, getting pasted just gets irritating and my interest inevitably wanes. There are single-player modes and relevant challenges to complete, but the core focus is definitely aimed online. As with Volta, a suite of new online options means that friends can play together more often: another much requested feature. There’s also a host of new customisation options, allowing players to build a bespoke stadium for their team of FUT galacticos. Whilst additions like this are cool, they also seem pretty unnecessary, especially when other modes seem to have fallen between the cracks.  Alas, not only is FUT a money-printing machine but it’s also FIFA’s most popular mode so these attitudes are unlikely to change any time soon.

Whether it's something as baffling as the gratuitous menu screens during Career Mode or as disappointing like the lack of investment in other key areas, FIFA 21 has a laundry list of issues that can’t be overlooked. Although some may consider them insignificant, they affect the value of the otherwise polished package that EA Sports continues to present.  These concerns aside, and forgiving the odd goalkeeping howler, FIFA 21 may be the best playing game in the series to date. With a few incremental additions the core gameplay is the best it’s been in years and learning the new systems can be incredibly rewarding.

That’s the thing about football: the smallest things can make the biggest difference. FIFA 21 proves that the same is true for EA Sports’ take on the beautiful game. There’s no huge headline-grabbing feature, and its flaws are well documented, but there are plenty of little changes that make what could be FIFA’s last core outing of this generation the best the game has ever been.

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A victory lap for the FIFA franchise on current generation hardware, FIFA 21 manages to combine every positive addition to the series and triumph. Despite it skewing towards Ultimate Team and microtransactions, the on-pitch gameplay is the best it’s ever been.
Ant Barlow

Started with the PlayStation, now I'm here... with a PlayStation. Once skipped school to play the Metal Gear Solid demo repeatedly. I love stories big and small. Trophy hunter. Recent VR convert. Probably a hipster.