FIFA 21 Review: Offence really is the best form of defence

Like most football fans I know, I'm stuck in an ever-repeating loop, a Groundhog Day scenario that resets upon the release of EA Sports' latest FIFA offering. Every single year I ask myself the same, tired questions. Is it worth it? Should I really be buying FIFA 18 19 20 21, when at the same price I could just get a copy of Breath of The Wild Red Dead Redemption 2 Death Stranding Ghost of Tsushima? What has EA added to the product this year?

For the last couple of years, the answers to those questions have been yes, yes and a lot. Yes, FIFA 19 and 20 were worth it. Yes, buying them over other games made sense. And yes, EA added in some new stuff on both occasions. In FIFA 19, it was the addition of House Rules, a feature that introduced us to the sheer joy of landing a crunching, red-card worthy slide tackle with none of the consequences, or clinching a win despite being a goal down after scoring a long-range belter. In FIFA 20, it was the addition of a couple more slightly forgettable House Rules modes, as well as the fairly entertaining Volta, which was a throwback to those hours you spent pulling off crazy over-the-top tricks in FIFA Street on the PS2.

So after two successive editions with a host of new features, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this time around, you could afford to give the new FIFA game a pass. EA's main selling point this year has been cross-generational gaming, i.e., if you buy FIFA 21 on the PS4/Xbox One, you'll be able to play a jacked-up version of it whenever you sell your (insert valuable organ here) and get yourself a shiny new PS5/Xbox Series X/S. Apart from this sales pitch, however, the rest of EA's promotional material has been focussed solely on the slight tweaks made to gameplay and physics.

This means that if you're expecting FIFA 21 to be worlds apart from FIFA 20, prepare to be disappointed.

That said, you can tell this is a different game within seconds of kick-off in your first match. It is, dare I say, fun. It feels light, refreshing and completely artificial, in the best way possible. EA has found a sweet, sweet balance between the frenzied attacking style of FIFA games in the 2000s and the lumbering, ultra-realistic approach that recent games have had.

The style of play is arcade-like attacking football, with end-to-end goalfests now the norm, instead of a rarity. The shooting is crisper, the passes are more accurate, the defending is tricky and goalkeepers are blundering buffoons who couldn't make a save at gunpoint.

Arsenal's Bernd Leno, rated 85, concedes a goal from a ridiculous angle. Screen grab from FIFA 21

If that wasn't enough, EA has further boosted the ability to play attacking football by introducing a new mechanic which they've chosen to call Agile Dribbling. Basically, you hold either R1 or RB, and then use the left directional stick to pull off a string of cute little dribbles that'll have your opponents tackling thin air every time they get close to you. When used in conjunction with the new and improved player runs, in which you can hold L1/LB and toggle the right stick to direct your teammates into open space, it can be genuinely frustrating for your opponents. This is something I can attest to, having spent most of a FUT match trying to chase down a wily player before just resorting to making sliding tackles out of sheer irritation.

Speaking of sliding tackles, another, slightly intangible change is that the players seem a lot less like lines of code, but instead appear to be real entities, with weight to them. Sliding tackles feel more significant somehow, and more often than not, when you land one, you come away with the ball, instead of it just ricocheting back into the path of an opponent. These changes to the collision system make even the most glamorous of match-ups look like Sunday League football, with defenders flying in full-tilt at whim.

There have also been a couple of other minor changes to regular gameplay, one of which is the ability to forego an advantage after being fouled and to just take a free-kick instead. It's not something that changes your FIFA experience drastically, but it is a nice little feature to have if and when you should find yourself needing it. EA has also given players the ability to time travel in the game. If you find yourself in a decent attacking situation whilst playing the CPU, and you take a shot that flies wide of the goal, you have the option to rewind the game back to that first attacking situation and play it out differently. This does seem like a decent addition, especially for newer players, but seeing as you also have to contend with the ethical dilemmas that go hand in hand with the ability to change the past, it's 50-50 for me.

Career Mode

It's not that difficult to figure out why Career Mode has been thrown under the bus since the inception of FUT. It's money, innit? The whole packs/loot boxes/micro-transactions mechanism works wonders for the finances of gaming studios, and ensures that their products are not just limited to one-time purchases. In the face of all of that cash, less lucrative features often get discarded, receiving only the most cosmetic tweaks and modifications needed to make it look different enough to its previous incarnation. Despite repeated protests from fans about Career Mode, EA has resolutely refused to improve it in any substantial way over the past few years. Until now.

Career Mode in FIFA 21 has received a makeover of Pimp My Ride proportions, with nearly every single clickable tab having some or the other update made to it, with most being quite noteworthy. The first thing you'll notice is training. As soon as you select one of the preset avatars that EA allows you to choose from in manager mode and clear the first loading screen, you'll find that you have the option to put your players through a series of drills.

Training is a lot more fluid than it was in previous editions, with none of those only five sessions per week restrictions. Screen grab from FIFA 21

Training sessions in previous editions were a bit restrictive, in the sense that they only allowed you to schedule five per week, with each one involving just one player. This effectively meant that if you had a couple of promising young academy players whom you'd taken great pains to scout and sign, you could only really afford to develop one of them over the course of a season. That's all been thrown straight out of the window by EA, and you are now allowed to involve up to 15 players on each training day, divided into three sessions. These training sessions can be scheduled weeks or even months in advance, but if you're not inclined to do all that, then you can just go along with the pre-set ones.

This new and improved training system also ties in quite nicely with the morale metric that EA added in FIFA 20, which makes sense.

If you overwork a player, you can expect to see their morale take a hit, as would happen in the real world. On the flip side, train a player too little and expect the same outcome. And if you're thinking that all this is a bit much, we haven't even mentioned Match Sharpness, a new addition whose impact on the game shouldn't be too hard to decipher. If a player hasn't played for a while, their match sharpness won't be as high as their teammates, and over time, this can and will affect their overall, so if you're planning on buying a wagon-load of great first-team players and then just simulating away the years, think again. You'll need to rotate your squad as much as possible, or you'll end up with a bench that's light on muscle.

You'll also have a lot more control over the role that your players can fulfil in the squad, thanks to the new Player Development system. This is perhaps the most managerial of updates in the Manager Mode, because it truly allows you to mould a player into what you envision is their best role. Much like the Pep Guardiolas and Jurgen Klopps of the world, you can choose whether you want your centre-back to be a stopper, a sweeper or a ball-playing defender, and then over the course of several training sessions, they will gradually gravitate towards the assigned role in their style of play.

Marcos Alonso begins his transformation into a striker. Screen grab from FIFA 21

This tool can also be used in more drastic ways, since it allows you to change the very position of a player. In some cases, it makes sense to use this. For example, if the team you've chosen has a very good left-back, but you want to play with three central defenders, you can convert that left-back into either a centre-back or a left wing-back, to make your set-up more efficient. However, I would advise caution on this front. As a Chelsea fan who is incredibly frustrated with Marcos Alonso's defensive ineptitude, I attempted to go for broke and convert him into a striker, an experiment that is going quite poorly at the moment.

Last, but most definitely not least, is Career Mode's new Interactive Match Simulation, a feature that harkens back to the simulations of FIFA 07, when you could see the action unfold in front of you, and make the decision to jump in whenever you felt like. At long last, you won't have to settle for draws against lower-league opposition just because you're playing at their ground, or because your team morale is a little low. You can jump in if your team concedes, and you can also make substitutions and other changes to the set-up whenever you so desire.

FUT

This time around, FUT has been left relatively unaltered, which is something that EA can probably be given a pass for. They have made a few changes to improve it, however, most notable of which is a redesign of the interface, which allows you to move about more efficiently than previous seasons. Also, fitness cards are gone! No longer must we spend our hard-earned coin on consumables to keep our starting XI from keeling over and fainting out of sheer exhaustion. This is an update that players around the world will be really thankful for, because it has frequently featured in FUT pet peeves since it's inception.

You also get to play in a generic stadium in FUT, the features of which you can tinker around with to a surprising extent. The list of things that you can customise include pyrotechnics, goal celebration music, seat colours, chants and much more, allowing for a highly immersive experience if your dream was to roleplay the life of a stadium operations manager.

I've chosen to give my stadium in FUT a lovely magenta color scheme. Screen grab from FIFA 21

EA has also given players the option to play FUT in Co-op mode, meaning you can invite your friends to play with you in Squad Battles, Division Rivals and more. It sounds like it could be fun, but unfortunately, with the sort of friends I have, it's almost impossible to organise a co-op match, so you'll just have to try this one out on your own.

Volta

There's not much here that's worth talking about. Volta was fun for the first couple of months after FIFA 20 released, and after that, there wasn't really enough in there to keep players occupied. The story mode was engaging for a little while, but soon tailed off into repetitive matches against opposition that just looked like barely altered clones of the teams you'd already faced. The online-only mode from last year is still around, and it features a few interesting cameos from players past and present.

There's also a new online mode called Volta Squads, in which you can pair up with three friends or play with three random people from the internet in a 5v5 match against other people. This sounds like a fun idea at face value, but finding players takes a while, and once the initial desire to explore this mode dies down, it will likely be even more difficult to find people to play against.

My Volta character's wearing a purple t-shirt and green shorts, because fashion. Screen grab from FIFA 21

Game reviewed on PS4. Review code provided by publisher.



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