Continuing on from last year, EA gave us a sneak peak of what changes were made via its highly transparent Pitch Notes series. Promising updates to career mode, gameplay enhancements, and a host of changes to Volta and Ultimate Team, it’s time to see if FIFA 21 lives up to hype. In addition, we have already posted an “everything you need to know” guide so now let’s hop into this FIFA 21 review.
FIFA 21 Review – What I Like
Look, EA catches a lot of flack for its approach to licenses. Due to EA’s success, it has been able to put a stranglehold on the world’s most popular leagues. However, EA does a lot with them, and in FIFA 21 it’s taken to a new level.
With the official licensing packages in place for the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga, FIFA 21’s overlays, graphics and stadium experience are top notch. From the commentary to overlay graphics to stadiums, FIFA 21 builds the hype before, during and after matches like no other footy game (I know there’s really only one competitor but you get the point). Playing through career mode as Real Madrid with the Santiago Bernabeu acting as my home base works beautifully from the pre-match antics to the jeers and whistles during the match. Updated PA announcers, like those found in the German Bundesliga, only add to the experience.
Even after the action stops, there are some cool immersive moments like fielding post-match interview questions in Spanish that make you feel like you are really managing Los Blancos. Although the excitement of the Champions League draw is missing, the rest of the competition feels authentic and genuine with its signature anthem only adding to the excitement of Europe’s biggest club tournament.
Career Mode Updates
One of the biggest areas of improvement in FIFA 21 is with its career mode. Often overlooked for its more revenue-friendly cousin, Ultimate Team, career mode received a nice makeover, namely in the area of training and player development. Whether it’s managing the risk/reward that is training or setting development plans, FIFA 21 gives you that hands-on approach that modern managers require.
Sure, things like negotiation transfer fees and contract negotiations aren’t really tasks solely left up to the gaffer in real life but having the kind of control over how your players train makes the world of difference for those of us who fancy themselves as developers of talent. New drills have been added to training, as well as some new features within the calendar that let you automate how often you conduct training sessions. This automation is key because if you were to choose to do these training sessions frequently (every other day except for match day and one day prior/post), they could become a bit tedious.
The league tables seem to be sorted out now so no longer will you see top sides from other leagues run the table without a loss. Simming a few seasons to make sure the tables have been fixed was even easier with the “Interactive Match Sim” that lets you either do a “Quick Sim” to the end of the match or a Football Manager-like live sim that allows you to jump in at any time and either take control or make changes (subs, tactics and so on.
Even just being able to actually see your opponent’s formation and starting 11 is a welcome addition. Transfer negotiations are a bit spicier as the AI will now tempt your resolve with more “cash + player” swaps, and adding the “loan to buy” option adds another element of strategy to transfers as it lets you “try” a player out before you buy — although I’d still like the option to be able to list a player for sale and/or loan.
Even the menus within career mode load faster than last year, namely the news videos. For those folks new to career mode, there are clean and quick tutorials explaining what certain actions mean.
Sure, there still isn’t a practice mode within career mode, nor are there ways to actually give the youth a run-out before deciding to sign him or not, but there’s no denying that the changes to career mode this year are impressive. In a nutshell, the developers took FIFA 20’s career mode and added another managerial layer to it while tightening up on a few things such as player morale. For the first time in years, I found myself getting lost within my career mode off the pitch. You’re able to exert more control on your team from a manager perspective, and if you’ve seen any of the Amazon All or Nothing series on Man City or Tottenham, you know how important the psyche of the players are mixed with expectations by way of results.
There’s A Mode For Everyone
One of the best aspects of FIFA is that there is a mode for everyone. Offline folks have career mode. The online crowd has Ultimate Team (FUT), Seasons and Pro Clubs. Even the casual crowd has Volta. Each mode brings something new to the table this year. I already talked about the career mode improvements above but let’s detail what’s new with Volta and FUT.
Volta, EA’s modern incarnate of the popular FIFA Street, is back with a few tricks up its sleeve. Taking advantage of the new agile dribbling, Volta capitalizes on exciting gameplay with new skills in this area. While the new story mode entitled “The Debut” is a little too lateral story-wise for my liking, Volta Squads where you can team up with your buddies is where the real fun of the mode exists. Being able to customize your team and player with more authentic merchandising options helps take Volta Squads to the next level.
FUT is also (obviously) back in FIFA 21 with a few new wrinkles. New this year for Ultimate Team is “FUT Co-Op” where you can team up with friends online to compete for rewards earning weekly progress in both Division Rivals and Squad Battles with brand new co-op objectives also available. Also new this year is the “Create a FUT Stadium” where you can customize your home ground with tiered options as your club grows.
Human AI Teammate Runs
This year, EA has given us much more control over our attacks when it come to controls off-the-ball:
It’s a little hard to pick-up at first, but once I got the hang of it this added a whole new dimension to my attack both offline and online. Sending runners on “dummy runs” to attract the attention of defenders can open up precious space. The window to send these runners has a time limitation on it (usually 2-3 seconds) but being able to control their runs is great, especially when paired with player-specific instructions.
FIFA 21 Review – What I Don’t Like
In theory, agile dribbling is a good idea. Allowing creative attackers to use their dribbling skills to put pressure on defenders makes sense. Unfortunately, the execution is as good as a Joe Hart goal kick. Performed by hitting the R1/RB while moving the left stick, agile dribbling lets you take short deft touches in tight spaces in an effort to beat your mark. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, it means you can also turn guys who are tanks like Tottenham’s Moussa Sissoko into Neymar.
It’s not uncommon for new features to require a bit of tweaking, but even after I watched agile dribbling for the first time during the preview window, there was cause for concern. And now that I’ve gotten my hands on it, it’s even more ridiculous because it feels like something that should only exist in Volta, not the main game.
Lack Of Fouls
Perhaps you’ve heard this one before, but once again a new FIFA has released without a proper representation of fouls. Look, I know the casual crowd doesn’t like fouls but fouls are a huge part of the soccer. Not only do they punish over-aggressive defenders, but they also bring about scoring chances by way of free kicks. Not only are there a lack of situations where fouls occur, but in those rare moments where players crash into each other they are simply ignored by the referee.
If you play online, the lack of fouls can be taken advantage of as it seems like the old way of defending in FIFA — simply running into your opponent as a way to dispossess the attacker — is a viable way to defend. When you combine this with the overpowered dribbling that often lets you wiggle out of tight spots, the lack of fouls is once again a sore spot.
Last year, FIFA revamped its defensive system by focusing on 1-on-1 battles instead of a unit-based approach for its tactical defending system. I hated it last year and it’s even worse in ’21. While FIFA still wants you to defend every 1-on-1 situation, it’s off-the-ball where your teammates leave you hanging high and dry.
Defending in soccer is a team-based approach and what happens consistently in FIFA 21 is downright shocking. This starts with the midfielders who simply do not care about defending. Whether it’s tracking runs in the center of the pitch or helping to defend the flanks, midfielders simply do not care about defending. The amount of times I’ve seen midfielders jogging and going through the motions is alarming.
When you combine this with how flat and narrow your back four can get, it leads to easy 2-on-1 situations versus your fullbacks. This leads to AI fullbacks coming up far too aggressively and utilizing poor angles that leave their entire flank exposed.
Midfielders aren’t solely to blame when it comes to defending as your back line takes a page out of PES’ tactical setup with your back four often dropping far too deep inside your own box. This allows for easy passes into the heart of your box. The spacing and compactness that was a bright spot in FIFA 19 has gone by the wayside in FIFA 21 as gaping holes now pop-up far too frequently:
Defending has been increasingly difficult in FIFA as EA has searched for an alternative to the abusive “second defender pressure button” that plagued the series for so long. However, between the massive amount of player switching you have to do, the overpowered dribbling, and the fact that your AI teammates are virtually brainless, defending is an exercise in frustration. EA has increased the rate at which shots and passes are blocked, but in a game that depends so much on balance (attack vs. defense), it’s heavily skewed towards attacking.
Ball Speed & First Touch
To continue on with some more issues that plagued FIFA 20’s gameplay and now do the same with ’21, the default ball speed is far too fast. Sure, you could argue that it’s in tune with the rest of the hyper-speed animations, but when you combine the ball speed with the AI’s persistent driven passes, you get an AI attack that can quickly bypass your midfielders — when they’re actually paying attention — and play balls into their strikers at will.
It would be fine if the first touch setting was tuned accordingly (pass with high ball speed = harder to control), but the way players of all skill levels can trap passes they have no business controlling makes for high speed arcade gameplay. Luckily, offline players can address both of these issues with sliders, but if you like to play online you simply have to accept it and move on.
Pinch me if you have heard this before, but ball physics continue to plague nearly every aspect of FIFA. Whether it be parried shots that perfectly fall to the feet of an incoming attacker or FIFA’s infatuation with hitting the posts, ball physics need some serious attention. It might seem like a purely cosmetic thing, but ball physics affect shooting, 50-50 balls, trapping the ball, and various other aspects of gameplay and without a solid system, FIFA will continue to struggle to represent a simulation (if that’s indeed EA’s goal).
Playing the ball with your head is a vital skill in soccer, but in FIFA 21 it seems the outcome is randomly determined when two players go up for a header. It isn’t uncommon in FIFA 21 to see two players of varying heights go up for a header with the smaller guy often coming out victorious. Even though I’ve scored more headers in one week with FIFA 21 than I have with all of FIFA 20, I still never feel in control despite EA introducing manual headers this year.
When you combine this with the aforementioned terrible ball physics, you get some wildly comical situations.
The reasons for adding Competitor mode are beyond my understanding. On the surface, it appears that EA is trying to attract online players to play more offline modes, but if generating in-game revenue is EA’s top priority, then they seem to have gotten this backwards. I don’t see any circumstances where offline players would turn this option on, an option that oddly is set to “on” by default when you play on Legendary or Ultimate difficulty, nor do I see online players wanting to take up career mode saves.
However, if you are curious about this new mode, I’ll leave you with this basic summary of the brand new Competitor mode:
AI’s Reluctance To Send In Crosses
In the middle of the park, FIFA’s AI attacks well. The AI is direct when it needs to be. It holds up the ball in situations where it’s called for and will even take a shot from distance. One thing the AI will not do is send in crosses. Maybe it’s a little bit of FIFA 20 DNA where headers were severely nerfed, but the AI will utilize the space on the flanks by marching it into your half before faking a cross and dribbling back in a straight line instead of sending in a cross.
Playing the ball on the ground is all the rage right now in real life, but teams will still send in crosses when the opportunity presents itself. Sadly, this is missing in FIFA 21. What should be a diverse AI attack (again, there is clearly some intelligence in other respects), ends up being one dimensional and easier to contain if you set your defensive shape to be as compact as possible.
Pre-match, FIFA 21 is an excellent game. The match presentation, the graphics, the more responsive menus and all of the licenses go a long way towards providing the immersion we expect in 2020. Unfortunately, once the match kicks off things falls apart.
Ramped up animation speed, overpowered dribbling — including the almost comical new agile dribbling — and poor AI make this one of the weaker FIFA releases on this current generation of consoles. Perhaps the pandemic stretched resources and the next-gen consoles exasperated the issues, but as of right now FIFA 21 is a letdown.
A divided community (offline vs. FUT) and those competing priorities leave the future of FIFA in doubt. Will FIFA make strides in the future towards being a simulation or will it be a flashy card game? We might never know, but the FIFA 21 I’m playing today is simply not good enough.