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FIFA 21 Review - Presentation and Career Mode Improvements Held Back By Gameplay

fifa 21 review

FIFA 21

FIFA 21 Review - Presentation and Career Mode Improvements Held Back By Gameplay

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

Presentation

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

fifa 21 review career mode

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.

Screenshot: EA

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.

fifa 21 review volta

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

Agile Dribbling

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.

Defending

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.

Ball Physics

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).

Headers

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.

Competitor Mode

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.

Bottom Line

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.

29 Comments

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Discussion
  1. Spot on review.
    The CM stuff is good. It will definitely add longevity to the mode. Especially with the strict transfers and such. Might be a bit to strict but I'll just take that as an adding challenge. I didn't test it myself but I believe no transaction can take place between rival clubs.
    Volta story once again blah I played about 5 minutes of the story and decided I'm good. It does play better but something about the mode doesn't grab me. Still not sure why they don't give your avatar voice option. FIFA *clap* I *clap* AM *clap* NOT *clap* BRITISH!
    Agile dribbling it would be cool if only the very best technical players could use it but like you said if everyone can do it what's the point.
    Both FIFA and PES just need a foul/ref strictness slider. Why they don't is beyond me.
    Ball Physics EA just need to watch how the ball bounces and moves into open space in PES. EA is to reliant on animations much like Madden. Again PES has a good blend of physics and animation based movement.
    FIFA is very frustrating as it's always so close to being really good. Either through outright lying or broken gameplay they burn up any good will they earn. Hey we fixed CM, but our FUT guys complained about skill gap so gameplay sucks for offline. Hey Bundesliga package is even better please ignore that we lost 2 leagues and the second division in Italy.
    Couldn't agree more. I mostly play competitive clubs and this year just seems like a drag with all the gameplay flaws you mentioned and shocker more bugs on Pro Clubs to go along with all the previous ones. Intrigued by the new career mode changes, but as a previous poster said. Kinda hard to get into with the very subpar gameplay.
    jrnlgrn

    Volta story once again blah I played about 5 minutes of the story and decided I'm good. It does play better but something about the mode doesn't grab me. Still not sure why they don't give your avatar voice option. FIFA *clap* I *clap* AM *clap* NOT *clap* BRITISH!

    They have a hidden way of doing this. It wasn't well advertised so not many people know. You simply put subtitles on and your TV on mute and read the words aloud.
    As for this review, it is 100% spot on. FIFA doesnt go for realism though or some of these things would've changed in the last 10 years. The lack of marking from midfield is probably the worst aspect of this game. It has improved in a few ways though but idle players (ones not within 10 yards) is still occuring after it plagued FIFA 20 all year. The ball is even more stuck to defenders feet as well and this needs to change as dribblers often keep this ball after somehow surviving a tackle.
    Spot on. To me it's amazing that fifa required more skill and was a more competitive game before the e-sports craze. Roll a dice and play any fifa prior to 18. It's a much better game.
    I have no idea what's their thinking behind all the new options. There are dozens of options. You can turn off timed finishing, agile dribbling and many other things (and that's great).
    You can even turn competitor mode on/off. Who wants to play against a fifa pro? lol
    If you could turn off 1v1s and teams defended as teams this would also be as close to football as it could possibly get. And the new defensive awareness stat? Sorry but it should also be an option or a new slider so that we could have AI with a brain. But no.
    I don't think this is by accident, this lack of defending defines the experience and overshadows everything else, good or bad. Maybe they just want everyone to be conditioned to how fut plays so they can feel at home there. I don't know. But with the way the game is (not) balanced, FUT and people who like a football game shall never cross paths anytime soon.
    This game needs AI/tactics that's closer to football, if they can make competitor mode, they can make a sim mode, there are no excuses. Personally not even contemplating buying the full game for the second year in a row, it has nothing to do with a team sport, it's something like fortnite. The only difference is that competitive fifa is a joke & no one even cares to watch it so I don't know why they are so obsessed with it.
    Excellent review as usual. I am stunned at the setback this game has seen for 21. The only hope we have for this and other EA sports titles is for litigation that destroys Ultimate team. Till then, they will only focus on arcade online $$$.
    It sounds like, based on this review and others I've seen on, that the gameplay is largely unchanged from last year. I'm glad headers work properly again, but defensive midfielders not tracking  back was a major issue last season too. Sad to see its not been addressed- thankfully offline sliders were a major help in 20 (loved the community sliders and what they were able to accomplish.) 
    Online play has been bad for years now. Its too fast and arcadey, although I understand that appeals to people to some degree. Regardless, I never play online. 
    I'm looking forward to career mode's improvements + hoping that some slider tweaks will make the gameplay better. Maybe a couple of game updates will help. 
    Great review- the videos in particular were a really nice addition. Definitely one of the best I've seen from the site! 
    Interesting review. I have enjoyed the gameplay more than 20 so far. I've only had the 10 ea access hours, but it played great during that time. We'll see tomorrow when I transport to New Zealand and get my hands on the game for more time, but I thought those impressions were a bit harsh.
    I do have to wonder though... who is playing Volta? Who asked for there to be another story? Why can't that mode be an option in kickoff and they leave it at that and invest those resources into a mode people actually play like be a pro? Very strange.
    I agree on mostly everything except the presentation and career mode. The Presentation  is great but the same as FIFA 20. No changes/improvements at all actually..
    the career mode changes are also more tweaks then big improvements. Nothing special.
    I was really disappointed when I played the free trial,the game has changed so much from the closed beta,which I thought was the best fifa gameplay ever.
    ChrisSwift
    I was really disappointed when I played the free trial,the game has changed so much from the closed beta,which I thought was the best fifa gameplay ever.

    That's interesting. I thought the beta gameplay was rough. Sprint touches were a guaranteed way to get behind the defense. CB's couldn't cover anything like FIFA20. Pace of place was way too fast. All of that has been fixed and it seems much more balanced.
    I know that I can get a totally different offensive experience in past games based on my formation and tactics so that could be why we're seeing different things... The diamond 4-4-2 always seems to expose AI CBs. That's what i used in the beta but I'm using a different formation now so that could be why I'm seeing better gameplay.
    PhillyPhanatic14

    I know that I can get a totally different offensive experience in past games based on my formation and tactics so that could be why we're seeing different things...

    That's a great point and part of what makes it so hard to analyze gameplay and tune sliders (if that's your thing, I enjoy it). The formations, tactics, instructions, and matchups really do matter. Now it might not be in 100% realistic way in all scenarios, but they cause a lot of variation in play regardless.
    PhillyPhanatic14

    I know that I can get a totally different offensive experience in past games based on my formation and tactics so that could be why we're seeing different things... The diamond 4-4-2 always seems to expose AI CBs. That's what i used in the beta but I'm using a different formation now so that could be why I'm seeing better gameplay.

    Qb
    That's a great point and part of what makes it so hard to analyze gameplay and tune sliders (if that's your thing, I enjoy it). The formations, tactics, instructions, and matchups really do matter. Now it might not be in 100% realistic way in all scenarios, but they cause a lot of variation in play regardless.

    You're both absolutely right that you'll see variation when you change up your formations and tactics/instructions. What I tried to hammer home in the review was really focused on what happens when the fundamentals (positioning) mixes with bad AI (midfielders not tracking runs and/or who to mark). Attacking AI overall is pretty damn good but OP'd IMO.
    Here's an example of what I mean. Sorry for the crappy quality lol.

    A clearance by me leads to a 50-50 ball which I win nearly the circle. 2 CPU CBs in the halfway circle too tight to each other. The CB closer to the halfway line sees the threat and points out to the other CB to pass off Vinicius Jr (cool feature btw) but instead of staying with the closer attacker (Benzema) he jockeys and only takes a step forward basically inviting me to play a through ball to Benz forcing other CB to run across his zone which leaves him yards off the pace. Benz isn't even that fast anymore but it's still an easy footrace to a 1v1 vs the keeper which I miss but is followed up by Vinicius Jr who does a great job of staying with his run.
    Because FIFA is generally wide open you'll get in so many 2v2 / 2v1 situations where the square ball tap-in is on. FB's on default line settings get pulled way too far midfield with the CBs bunched up leaving entire wings open.
    Sure you can mess with some sliders and edit formations/player instructions but I played FIFA 20 up until the day I got FIFA 21 early and even at it's worst, FIFA 20 wasn't this bad when it comes to defending.
    Vanilla Graphics at 4k ultra have taken a massive hit in quality
    Thankfully i have a couple of mods(i am on PC) to improve things
    On the pitch the gameplay is awful. just dreadful
    I mod the game and have hold of the new command lines that are used in CM
    I have built my own ini and incorporated these into my mod
    There are so many things wrong with this game
    Transfers are badly broken in CM. I part exxhanged the same player 4 times!!!
    The fixtures are incorrect. Etc etc etc
    This is the worst fifa i have played and I have played every single one.
    As the vanilla game stands it gets 1/10.
    At least on pc the game can be heavily modded. But EA break the mods at will so its a game of cat and mouse.
    There are too many things wrong with the gameplay to list.
    Here we are again
    Improving and enhancing CPU dribbling is more realistic. The lack of CPU fouls is not. There is always an adjustment period when the game is first released. Adapting to the changes in the human controlled defense is going to be a challenge. Any change from the old "sprint down the sideline and cross into the box" is a welcome change.
    What happened to Martin Tyler?
    It is going to be a rough rough year for sports games, we've already seen it with Madden 21, and now Fifa 21.  It is largely because they have the built in excuse  right there waiting for them.
    Culture Rot
    It is going to be a rough rough year for sports games, we've already seen it with Madden 21, and now Fifa 21.* It is largely because they have the built in excuse* right there waiting for them.

    Rough year for EA Sports games maybe (I expect NHL 21 to be a dumpster fire), but PES 2021 and MLB The Show 20 are amazing so far, and Maximum Football 2020 is showing some promise although it still has a long ways to go, for now it's enough of a substitute for the lack of an NCAA football game since 2014.
    I’ve managed 10 games of a career on Legendary and can honestly say it is unplayable. Just a shoddy mess.
    I hope they’ve released this nonsense so that the PS5 version looks truly outstanding when it arrives.
    DaTaFuNkZ
    I’ve managed 10 games of a career on Legendary and can honestly say it is unplayable. Just a shoddy mess.
    I hope they’ve released this nonsense so that the PS5 version looks truly outstanding when it arrives.

    what makes the game unplayable?
    jrose57
    what makes the game unplayable?

    No fouls against the users, so you have no free kicks or penalty kicks
    The cpu refuses to cross the ball. They will just keep dribbling on the wing aimlessly
    CMs play zero defense. When user or the cpu gets past the CMs they will literally just look back at the ball. They will not engage.
    Sent from my iPhone using Operation Sports
    Maybe I only have this question, because the last version I played in career mode a lot was 17, and now I have one particular problem:
    With all the changes to the training, which I find mostly good, for the life of me, I can't find a way to train my goalkeepers.
    Do I miss something, do I look in the wrong menues, or has this option been gone for years?
    alex2202
    Maybe I only have this question, because the last version I played in career mode a lot was 17, and now I have one particular problem:
    With all the changes to the training, which I find mostly good, for the life of me, I can't find a way to train my goalkeepers.
    Do I miss something, do I look in the wrong menues, or has this option been gone for years?

    I don't think you can solely train Goalkeepers anymore since training is all done as a squad with the new drills. Your GK's will grow really quickly as long as they're playing from what I've noticed though.

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