FIFA 21 Hands-On Gameplay Preview

FIFA 21‘s trailer dropped on July 23 and looks to have a big emphasis on playing as a team or some element of playing together socially. I was invited to the FIFA 21 preview event, which was done virtually this year. After the event, all attendees were provided a code to download the FIFA 21 beta to get some hands-on time with the game. I was able to jump in to the full suite of play now options (and Volta). For now, I’ll fill you guys in on what gameplay felt like in the beta, so let’s jump into this FIFA 21 gameplay preview.

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FIFA 21 Gameplay Preview

fifa 21 gameplay preview

As I did last year, I’ll cover each area that was mentioned for gameplay improvements and how they played in my time with the game. The virtual presentation was handled by directors and producers on FIFA 21, including Sam Rivera, Jeff Antwi, Ionel Stanescu and Tyler Blair. Each person covered a different area of the game: gameplay (Sam), Volta Football (Jeff), Ionel (Career) and Tyler (FUT).

I will start with what Sam broke down in the presentation regarding FIFA 21‘s gameplay. One thing to take note of is that despite both a current and next-gen offering of FIFA 21 being released, the FIFA 21 team is making sure to let fans know that information and Pitch Notes being released over the coming weeks are covering changes and features for the current-gen version of the game only. The next-generation information will be released later this year (probably within a month of the PS5/Xbox Series X launch).

Emphasis On Community Feedback (Again)

As I heard last year at FIFA 20‘s presentation, Sam Rivera (lead gameplay producer) took charge in this FIFA 21 presentation to show us how gameplay has improved for this year’s game. The first thing he pointed out was that the team filtered through countless posts, forums, social media interactions and feedback from EA Game Changers to look at how they could improve the quality of the game to make FIFA 21 look and feel better than last year’s game.

He also mentioned that the team definitely took to heart the career mode complaints and that was an impetus to work hard on that mode this cycle. He used this introduction to lead into the breakdown of FIFA 21‘s gameplay improvements for the year.

Gameplay Pillars – Creativity, Fluidity, Responsiveness

The first slide and piece of information we received talked about the main “pillars” that the FIFA 21 team looked at regarding gameplay and where they felt improvement could be made the most. The three pillars mentioned were creativity, fluidity and responsiveness. It was mentioned that real-life gameplay and community feedback were the driving forces behind these gameplay improvement pillars, a similar theme that was given at FIFA 20‘s press event.

These gameplay pillars were talked up as being the main gameplay backbone for the layout of FIFA 21‘s step forward for gameplay. I’m going to briefly detail the new features, but I’ll leave the technical and detailed information for the newly released Pitch Notes (and maybe KG’s breakdown if he goes for it).

Player Personality

An underlying theme that we’ll see in FIFA 21 that’s more of an AI change than anything else is the introduction of player personality to the game. With this new change, you should be able to tell the difference between the top-flight players in the game from the good and subpar players. We were shown clips of Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva dribbling through three and four defenders with barely any space to get by them as he’s done time and again.

Being a premiere dribbler in the world of soccer is a skill that a small number of players have mastered and can pull off at will. This is just a small example of how player personality would make a difference in this year’s game. Player personality will tie in directly with new gameplay features and will be mentioned at several points as I look at each new feature. This also brings in a new way that attributes are used to determine the difference between world class or second team quality in a player’s actions and effectiveness.

Agile Dribbling

Bringing Bernardo Silva back into the fray here (which goes against my code as a Manchester United fan), the clip we saw in the presentation as mentioned above was directly tied into the introduction of the new agile dribbling feature. When you watch games on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, witnessing top players move with the ball in tight spaces while keeping full control is definitely awe inspiring. The creativity to get by or away from a defender while keeping the ball in close proximity to your feet and making space is an otherworldly talent that the best dribblers honed in on and have perfected.

FIFA 21‘s inclusion of this new mechanic will allow you to make space to set up a game-changing play or embarrass your opponent like never before. Every player in the game will have the ability to use this dribbling technique, but dribbling, agility, reactions and ball control attributes will set the second team players apart from the world class players. Contextual agile dribbling was also introduced as an optional mechanic (enabled by default) but can be turned off. This option allows the dribbler to agile dribble automatically depending on the situation.

How It Played – FIFA 21 Gameplay Preview

FIFA 20 introduced strafe dribbling, which I mentioned in my initial early hands-on last year as having the potential to be abused or overpowered. With the introduction of agile dribbling now for FIFA 21, my sentiments are the same but with more concern. Agile dribbling will most definitely be an overused and overpowered feature if the FIFA team does not figure out how to balance its effectiveness against the defense.

The speed with which the top players can use agile dribbling almost looked unrealistic. Using Paul Pogba, I was able to get in and out of spaces with relative ease time and again. It took me two games to understand how the feature could be abused, and I did so constantly. It definitely felt like this feature alone would tilt the favor of the game towards the offensive side of the ball, leaving the defensive side behind. Players who have the stick skills to master skill moves will quickly pick up and add the agile dribble to their arsenal.

Creative Runs

Creative runs are a new feature that looks very interesting and opens up a whole new bevy of attacking options. In FIFA 21 you’ll now have the ability to use either directed runs, directed pass and go, or player lock. Directed runs allow you to send a teammate on a run in any 360 degree direction.

Directed pass and go lets you have a teammate make a run after a pass.

Player lock allows you to lock on to the player you’re in control of and has the AI take over control once you pass the ball. You can then call for a pass to be made back to you when you’re in a better attacking position. All three of these run options will allow players to open up the pitch.

How It Played – FIFA 21 Gameplay Preview

Feelings of another overpowered feature exist within me after playing the FIFA 21 beta and using creative runs. It again took me a couple games to get used to the different run options besides the traditional press of L1/LB to have my player move into space. Once I got down how to utilize the ability to send a teammate into an open area using directed runs, I used this option on almost every single given opportunity.

I was putting players into space and creating a ridiculous amount of attack options that we wouldn’t have seen in FIFA 20. Just the fact that the game could be opened up so much more than last year was very satisfying, but the fact that I quickly came to the realization that this feature could be easily abused left me feeling torn between how the improvement for attacking football would be embraced while being simultaneously frustrating to defend. This looks to be another area where balance will need to be figured out on the defensive end to counter the clear advantage for the offense.

Positioning Personality

Positioning personality should be where the offensive and defensive side of the game balance out — emphasis on should. Again, the world’s best players will stand out above and beyond from their counterparts who aren’t at their level. The FIFA 21 team showed in the presentation that attention to deeper AI player positioning on both sides of the ball has been improved.


Several areas were shown on offense and defense. I won’t go into oodles of detail here as the Pitch Notes released yesterday are very detailed. On offense, the areas that were worked on are:

  • Onside/offside runs
  • Passer readiness runs
  • Faster and more accurate decisions
  • Runs for crosses analysis
  • Fake runs into the box
  • Attacker drop back
  • Passing lane analysis

On defense, focus areas are:

  • Run tracking
  • 2-man marking to prevent counter attacks
  • CDM positioning/cut passing lanes/diligent marking
  • Active vs lazy winger behavior
  • Full back to full back marking
How It Played – FIFA 21 Gameplay Preview

I can say that during my time playing the beta, positioning personality was definitely noticeable. Using my beloved Manchester United, Bruno Fernandes (he has a game face!) and Paul Pogba both worked exceptionally well together in the midfield. Fernandes moved around the midfield freely, getting into space and ensuring he was always around or coming back to the ball. On the wing, Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s pace and work rate were fully evident as he was getting up and down the pitch aggressively shutting down attacks.

I feel like the attention to creativity and the addition of agile dribbling and creative runs will overshadow the defensive improvements to the AI. Also, based on the fact that player and positioning personality are going to separate the best players from the mediocre ones on the pitch, weaker teams or teams that have weaknesses at certain positions will definitely get exploited time and again. We’ll have to wait and see how this will all pan out when the game is released.

Natural Collision System/Smoother Encounters

One thing that all FIFA players would agree on is that FIFA 20 had way too many unrealistic and foolish encounters where players would fall over each other, step on each other or other nonsensical interactions. FIFA 21 aims to correct this with a “natural collision system” and smoother encounters that should lead to more realistic and organic movement on the pitch. Adjustments and improvements to running paths to avoid collisions, as well as better AI recognition to have players jump over or avoid players who have fallen over, are most definitely welcomed improvements.

Several different examples and clips were shown during the virtual presentation to demonstrate what changes were made.

 How It Played – FIFA 21 Gameplay Preview

I noticed the natural collision system minutes into my first game with the beta. After I successfully pulled off a clean slide tackle, I picked up the ball and dribbled upfield. An errant tackle took down my midfielder but the referee allowed play to continue. At that point, my attacking midfielder jumped over the opponent on the ground who had committed the foul and continued down the pitch with the ball.

In FIFA 20 chances are the player would have run into the man lying on the ground and would have seen the ball get caught up in the defender. Several other encounters, including jostles and keeper runs, all had much better collision animations than I was accustomed to seeing. This change/improvement will most definitely improve the way FIFA 21 feels on the pitch.

Competitive AI/Competitor Mode

The FIFA team added a new layer of difficulty for Legendary and Ultimate levels that applies in tandem with the two aforementioned difficulty levels.

Competitor Mode is designed to give players a CPU AI in career mode and FUT Squad Battles that replicates playing against the best FIFA pro players in the world. The CPU AI will use much more intelligent tactics and will make use of spacing, skill moves, dribbling, and tactics and will create scoring chances that players haven’t seen before.

Community-Based Features

One of the final things talked about in the gameplay presentation was the importance of community-based feedback and community-based features. The FIFA team worked on several areas that were a big concern coming from FIFA 20 and looked to address and improve them for FIFA 21. The areas mentioned were:

  • Responsiveness
    • Skill move detection
    • Wrong or no action requested
    • Unwanted or no switch
  • Toxicity
    • Removal of celebrations
    • Reduction of waiting times (celebrations, set pieces)
  • FIFA Attributes
    • Attribute tuning to provide a more responsive and friendly experience in FIFA
  • Control
    • Assisted headers
    • Auto flair pass
    • Auto shot
    • Auto clearance
    • Contextual agile dribbling
    • Super cancel

For more detail on each of the areas above, you can take a look at the Pitch Notes.

Early FIFA 21 Gameplay Preview Impressions

I got to play the FIFA 21 beta for a whole weekend and can say that there was a feeling that I was playing FIFA 20, but a more refined version. I’m keeping in mind that next gen is right around the corner so it’s not outlandish to believe that the real gameplay improvements will most likely be seen on FIFA 21 for PS5/Xbox Series X — with an even bigger jump with FIFA 22 when hopefully things return to a more normal schedule in the world overall (and a more normal development schedule where they aren’t shipping two games at two different times of year).

All of the new features and additions will be in the current-get and next-gen versions, but the power of next gen will most likely take certain aspects to a new level.

Either way, responsiveness has been improved. Agile dribbling and directed creative runs definitely feel overpowered right now. It was simply too easy to get around defenders with agile dribbling, and even after turning off the contextual option and controlling my movements I was able to beat defenders. I’m sure that refinements will be made before launch, and hope that a solid day-one version of the game leads to a good year for FIFA.

Based on what you have seen so far regarding FIFA 21, what has you most excited to play the game? What features that have been revealed are you most anxious to see in action? Drop a comment below and let us know.

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Joel Smith
A father, dedicated sports fan and gamer. FIFA, Madden, NHL, NBA 2K are what I play majority of the time. Manchester United runs in my blood. Chicago Bulls and Denver Broncos drape the walls of my man cave. Play hard, or don't play at all.