Another year, another new FIFA title for football fanatics to get stuck into. It’s the way that the world of gaming has worked for years now, and I personally wouldn’t have it any other way – especially with the abundance of changes and new modes that EA have introduced to the mix over the last few years, with FIFA 20’s addition of Volta one of my favourite modes to play across the entire franchise.
FIFA 21 doesn’t feel like a revolution though, but rather a tweaking as we move onto the next generation of consoles. Don’t get me wrong, the overall footballing is still sublime and there have been some very welcome changes made to the Career Mode, but this year’s entry isn’t really an evolution on the formula that EA have established. It’s not a bad thing by any means, especially since the game adopts the whole ‘why fix what isn’t broken?’ mindset, but it does mean that those hoping for a completely spiced up experience to kickstart the upcoming generation of consoles may have to get their expectations in check.
At its core, FIFA 21 will feel very familiar to those that are acquainted with last year’s edition of the game. It all looks pretty much the same – I mean, sure, the menus are different this time around, but when you’re in the midst of the action you could easily think you’re looking at FIFA 20. I expect that will change a fair bit by the time the next-gen consoles launch, but for now it’s hard to see too many differences from a visual standpoint.
That’s not to say that the gameplay experience hasn’t been improved in some ways though. As someone who’s a fan of sending through-balls out left, right, and centre, having more control over the runs of my players was a treat. By flicking the right stick, you can control runs to make them more direct or more creative to try and find gaps in the defence of your opponents. It’s a nice little touch and one that eases the frustration that came with previous entries in the series when your players didn’t quite do what you hoped they would during a quick attack.
Players’ movement feels more realistic than before too, as do the collisions between them. Whilst FIFA has a bit of a reputation for players pulling off unnatural movements (some of which can be monstrous on occasions), there’s an improved level of refinement in the animations to be found this time around that helps the action flow a lot more smoothly. It’s a minor enhancement, but one that players will certainly notice if they’ve shifted directly from FIFA 20 to FIFA 21.
If I was to make any complaint, it’d be that defending hasn’t seen enough of an improvement. Whilst intercepting passes and the pressure-play feels slick, the actual tackling itself still demands precision if you don’t want to leave your opposing player in a heap on the ground – especially in online matches where players seem to be able to glide into your slide to pull the foul or dance around you as you remain motionless on the ground.
Between all of the different aspects of play though, FIFA 21 still remains a lot of fun thanks to its neat blend of simulation and arcade-style footballing. If you enjoyed how it felt in FIFA 20, you’ll still enjoy it now, with the changes made hardly revolutionary but still maintaining the finesse and slickness of last year’s entry.
The biggest change of FIFA 21 come within the Career Mode, with players able to simulate the matches in real-time and make changes based around the circumstances at hand. Are you defending a slender lead desperately? Adopt a more defensive orientated formation and bring an extra man in the back. Need to score a quick goal in the last few minutes? Make a super sub and up the attacking ferocity of your team. Feel you need a superstar’s influence to change the tide of the match? Just jump in yourself, take over the control of your team, and turn that one-nil deficit into a ruthless seven-goal victory.
That’s not the only area where FIFA 21’s Career Mode has seen development either, with managers having more direct control over their team’s development. There are more training options in place to help diversify the positions that your individual players can utilise, whilst the introduction of the ‘Active Training Session’ means that you can improve groups of your player’s capabilities in pre-set training sessions that focus on independent skillsets. It’s a really neat concept and gives managers the ability to really fine-tune the development of their squad, which is something that’s been missing in previous entries.
Add to that some new options when it comes to transfers, more complex player feedback that plays into their sharpness, and improvements to your opponent’s AI, and it becomes pretty clear that this is the best that Career Mode has been in the FIFA series for a long time. It’s something I particularly appreciate, especially since I’ve spent a TON of hours in it over the years, whilst the additions offer more than enough incentive to establish and develop your team over multiple seasons.
Whilst the Career Mode offers the more realistic and pure footballing experience in FIFA 21, it’s in Volta where I have most of my frantic fun. There’s more of the same fast-paced five-versus-five action that players would’ve experienced in last year’s entry, though the addition of co-op options this time around does add a welcome team-orientated flair to each match. I’ve spent hours playing Volta with my friends online so far and it feels COMPLETELY different to how you’d approach co-op play in a standard match. It certainly diversifies the experience for players and offers a really entertaining way to approach… well.. teamwork.
There have been some tweaks made to the overall gameplay of the mode too, though there was nothing ground-breaking that stood out too much; in fairness though, Volta didn’t really need to change up too many aspects seeing as its attack-focused gameplay is meant to be simple in design. It’s not as if it’s considered the core mode of the FIFA franchise either, but rather a fun side endeavour that allows players to get their footballing fix in a more casual and street-orientated form. It’s certainly a lot more exciting, whilst modes such as three-versus-three (sans goalkeepers) and Professional Futsal add a welcome twist onto the formula to keep players hooked in.
Of course, it wouldn’t be FIFA without Ultimate Team, with the mode returning once again and giving players the chance to build their own dream team – both through in-game grinding and via their own wallet.
I’ve never really been a big fan of Ultimate Team. Not because of the whole lootbox-style aspect of it, because that is what it is… you’re not forced to pay for packs of players, but if you want to, you can. There’s plenty here for players to dive into without having to spend a penny and you can put together a half-decent team, albeit without the superstars that players who are willing to spend a bit of cash might have. I’ve just always preferred a more ‘pure’ footballing experience in the FIFA series without having to worry about collecting cards and finding ways to help them sync up with each other. If I wanted to collect footballers, I’d get a cheap Panini sticker book rather than a digital representation that’ll be out of date by the time next year’s entry comes around.
Are you all about Ultimate Team? Well, you’ll be glad to see there are some additions, with new co-op options in place, plenty of events to dive into with objectives to complete, and even the ability to take your Ultimate Team club to next-gen consoles without losing any of your progress along the way. I’m sure that’s nice stuff… it just isn’t really for me.
FIFA 21’s sublime footballing action remains as enjoyable as ever, even if it doesn’t really evolve upon the formula too much compared to last year’s entry. At least those who enjoy Career Mode will be happy though, with the improvements brought in offering a more refined and in-depth experience that’s more worthwhile to invest yourself in, with the long-term developments allowing you to feel like Sir Alex Ferguson as you turn your youth player into formidable footballing superstars.
Add to that some new co-op options in Volta and some improvements to Ultimate Team and it becomes clear that FIFA 21 is certainly a worthy upgrade over last year’s entry, even IF the core gameplaying mechanics do mostly look and feel the same. Why fix what isn’t broken, though?
Developer: EA Sports
Publisher: EA Sports
Platform(s): Xbox One (Reviewed), PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, PC