Sometimes, you really just cannot win, especially when it comes to Electronic Arts. Fresh off the more-than-positive reception to Star Wars: Squadrons, we find ourselves at the uncertain crossroads yet again with FIFA 21. The annualised sports franchise continues to be a fun, arcadey experience wrapped with a coat of slight improvements here and there, but at its core, its failure of offering a compelling new mode or feature, and not addressing the plague of microtransactions in Ultimate Team, warrants a sending off.
Taking to the pitch, everything you love about the game’s interpretation of the beautiful game is certainly improved from the previous iteration. FIFA 21 is the epitome of arcade fun, as players and animations are more fluid and responsive, and passing has been ramped up a notch in terms of speed and delivery, and the speed at which everything moves can be a blur.
Defending seems to be a lost art, in FIFA 21 at least. It will take some getting used to, learning the ropes yet again to deal with the new tricks that attackers possess, such as agile dribbling. It can be downright frustrating trying to keep a clean sheet this year, and that will likely see some changes down the line.
Attacking teams can also count on the improved positioning awareness of players, especially the top pros. While you can create new angles by directing teammates with the new creative runs feature, you can also count on the natural abilities of superstars to take advantage of openings. The results are fewer offsides, more intricate plays, and a better time while attacking the goal.
You have to feel sorry for any team defending, and FIFA 21 can border on the ridiculous considering that it is trying to simulate a real-life sport. Sure, it is fun to score goals, but even at the Legendary or Ultimate difficulty levels, goals are flowing at both ends like a dam full of microtransactions money bursting. Balance is key.
The aforementioned AI improvements do lend themselves to a more nuanced take on the game. While most players can find success with the meta team of the moment, the more skilful players can look to cut corners with the help of creative runs and better positional play. Setting a target man off on a run into the box as you work the angles, before delivering a perfect cross for a powerful header is immensely satisfying, even if it takes a while to set things in motion.
Crossing has seen some improvements, allowing for a variety of angles when attacking the ball, but overall, passing in FIFA 21 remains a dilemma. On one hand, the zippy and laser-guided feel of passing definitely sits well in an arcade game, but if you want a realistic simulation, the PES series is still kind. Even with manual controls, it still feels kind of off.
The same can be said of the visual quality of FIFA 21. It almost seems a carbon copy of FIFA 20, albeit with some updated faces and hairstyles that are already outdated. The stadiums themselves feel like empty arenas, populated by crowds that are better viewed from a distance, and the lighting is hit or miss most of the time. Every game is almost detached from the experience of it all, and does not translate the more gritty and raw nature of football.
Volta mode, where payers head to the streets instead of the large swathes of green, remains a confounding experiment. The smaller spaces, the lesser amount of players, the globetrotting story, it all feels like EA should put out a new FIFA Street at this point. EA has tweaked the mode to be more welcoming, and the addition of the new Volta Squads system finally allows for online co-op play. It is playable, but stands sorely inadequate next to its full-fledged sibling.
While EA has focused primarily on Ultimate Team, fans have been crying out about a much-needed overhaul of the Career Mode. Sadly, FIFA 21 is a small step in the right direction rather than a well-timed leap.
There is a new training system that asks managers to balance between sharpness and fitness levels. Get those in the green alongside morale and your players are likely to bring their A-game.
Forcing players to at least take an active part in training is a good thing, but it is likely you will find yourself simulating all the training sessions once you have the best grade for them. The scheduling system is also a new addition, although there were no reasons to deviate from what the system usually plans out for you already.
Player growth is now tied to an XP system, and is largely influenced by their age and potential as well. A prospect will only develop into a star if they do well in matches, so the more you invest in them, the better your returns. Positional changes are also now possible, allowing you to fill in gaps with existing personnel.
The transfer system is still iffy and it is now possible to engineer loan deals with the option to buy for players, although your success will vary. The AI will also start to engage in pure player swap deals, and the better players are less likely to end up as free agents as the AI begins to recognise their value more.
All of that serves to make the journey to the pitch a little better, but not by much. The headliner has to be the new Interactive Match Sim option in Career Mode. If you are not feeling like playing a full 90 minutes, you can let the simulation play out like a Football Manager-lite.
The best part is that you can choose to jump in whenever and jump back out, continuing with the sim. It is not exactly revolutionary, but it is a neat addition in FIFA 21.
At this point, a FIFA game is synonymous with Ulitmate Team. Putting aside all the money-spinning nonsense, there have been some changes made to this cash cow. Weekly caps have been implemented to provide fewer rewards for both Squad Battles and Divison Rivals. This way, less invested players are not going to have the odds unfairly stacked against them.
Stadiums can now get that personal touch with customisation now possible. It is also possible to tweak celebratory songs, chants, anthems, and even sideline trophies.
FIFA Ultimate Team has also added in co-op this time around, which is a solid offering, to say the least. No longer do you have to face the gauntlet of Squad Battles and Divison Rivals alone, and having friends along for the ride is always a good time. The headscratcher, however, is that there is no online matchmaking. You either have to have friends, or there is no co-op for you, it is a true bummer.
The bum train continues with the inevitable discussion on lootboxes and microtransactions. FIFA 21 offers no changes on that front, and with the amount of profit it is raking in, you would understand why. Even if players can enjoy FUT without spending a dime, the option remains for others to take advantage of an obviously pay-to-win situation. When even the pros are condemning the practise, you know it is not sitting well with the community.
The chase for rare players and cards could have been improved with a battle pass system, which many games have smartly adopted recently. FIFA 21 has a pale imitation of that, offering less than useful rewards in a progression system. That is not good enough, not when the spotlight is shining so harshly on microtransactions. Give us a proper battle pass with a premium version instead, and shift the cosmetics into the payable section.
FIFA 21 also lacks any form of cross-play or cross-save support, so players are stuck on their respective platforms.
Considering the scale and popularity of the franchise, this is something that needs to be looked at as soon as possible. Even with the Dual Entitlement allowing players to bring their FUT and Volta progress to the PS5 and Xbox Series X, your Career Mode and other progress will not. At this point, it feels like a constant back and forth that puts the suffering on the players.
Underneath all the bell and whistles, and the unnecessary glare of lootboxes and microtransactions, FIFA 21 remains the go-to arcade option for football. New changes have improved the overall experience, and newcomers will certainly enjoy it.
For veterans, however, the lack of a real defining feature is egregious. Would FIFA 21 have been better off as an update like eFootball PES 2021 Season Update? We will never know, but the money will continue to stream in for EA, and such a change is next to impossible.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
FIFA 21 feels like an old friend visiting with a new look, and sometimes, that can be both a good and bad thing.
Gameplay - 8/10
Story - 7/10
Presentation - 7/10
Value - 6/10