For some, FIFA 21 might prove to be something of a cathartic experience this year. It’s not because the gameplay has changed for the better or that Ultimate Team is now some stress-free mode that doesn’t force microtransactions down your throat. Instead, it’s the fact that football, like the rest of the world, is going through a tumultuous time at the moment and EA’s latest entry in the yearly sports sim cycle provides some normality. Fans are in the stadiums, there are no bizarre VAR decisions, and most clubs aren’t facing the prospect of extinction.
In that respect, FIFA 21 provides some welcome escapism from 2020. It is a game all about football rather than everything that goes on around the sport and that’s a pleasing notion in such difficult times. But the truth is, players could just as well stick with playing FIFA 20 or even FIFA 19 if they just want to forget about real world issues and concentrate on football. There’s no need to upgrade to what is perhaps the least innovative game in the franchise that has been released in recent years.
EA face a lot of criticism for the way they handle their annual sports franchises. The likes of FIFA and Madden can seem like they barely change at all with each edition, bringing very little to the table in terms of new ideas. Most fans come to accept this and know that they are generally paying for some graphical enhancements and roster updates rather than groundbreaking mechanics. But this year feels particularly lazy with the latest installment acting as little more than a stopgap as the next-gen consoles appear on the horizon.
The most notable gameplay change comes with the crossing. Every year, EA seems to focus on one particular element of the beautiful game that it hasn’t managed to get quite right and screws around with it. In FIFA 20, crossing was nerfed to the extent that it was almost pointless to try and play with traditional wingers who can whip the ball in from out wide. That was a response to some other recent entries making scoring from a cross too easy. This time around, things do feel more balanced. You won’t score a header from every set piece or cross, but it definitely feels like more of a viable option than it was in last year’s game.
There have been some other minor mechanical alterations that do actually improve FIFA 21 a little bit. This includes a new one-two feature that gives the player the opportunity to design an attacking move themselves on the fly. By pushing the right stick in any direction after making a pass, the player will immediately make a run in that direction, providing you with the chance to perform a defense-splitting pass. Dribbling has also been made slightly more intuitive in a system known as Agile Dribbling, with the aim being to let players move the ball around more effectively when in a 1v1 with a defender. Agile Dribbling is not a game-changer, but it definitely adds some extra strategy to trying to get through on goal past the last man.
Perhaps the most welcome quality of life improvement in FIFA 21 is a tiny change that now allows you to tell the referee that you don’t want to play advantage. There have been many times that I have been fouled playing FIFA and just want the free kick, but the game forced me to try and play on. That’s no longer the case as a simple press of the triggers signals that you’d rather have the set-piece opportunity. The developers have also added a rewind feature to single-player matches so players can wind back the action like in racing games, though this feels like an addition no one was crying out for.
The fact that these small alterations are the only real changes to the basic gameplay in a name as substantial as FIFA 21 is hugely disappointing. It really does come across like EA knows it can get away with this type of behaviour and still sell millions of copies. Most casuals will probably not even be able to tell any difference between FIFA 21 and FIFA 20 without putting dozens of hours into the new game.
One of the few major additions to the formula comes in Ultimate Team, a mode that EA has been traditionally wary of messing around with. After all, it is FIFA’s most popular aspect and is a cash cow for the publisher, so somehow botching it could be disastrous for both player enjoyment and the company’s bottom line. For the most part, Ultimate Team is exactly how fans will remember it. The only difference now is that players can play co-op, teaming up with a friend in the signature modes like Squad Battles and Rivals. EA has put a lot of emphasis on this new feature, so much so that it means those who prefer to play solo might miss out on some bonus rewards that require completing co-op missions.
Unfortunately, it still feels as if Ultimate Team is pushing players to spend as much money as possible. Although it is possible to play through the mode and build a great team without digging into your wallet, EA constantly reminds you of the premium options available to purchase and has done little to address the main concerns with loot boxes. That’s a real issue when you consider that opening packs is always a gamble and could well be pushing youngsters into dangerous territory with its pay-to-win model.
FIFA 21 Microtransactions
FIFA 21 features FIFA Points, which can be used to buy randomised packs/loot boxes of different prices and rarities in FIFA Ultimate Team. As packs can give you the best players in the game, FIFA 21’s microtransactions should be considered pay-to-win. Prices start from 79p/99c and go as high as £79.99/$99.99.
The other game modes are much the same as they were in FIFA 20. Friendly games feature the same house rules and Mystery Ball settings, which feels like a missed opportunity to really let players customize matches and add some weirder rules or modifications. On the other hand, Career mode has been refreshed and given a slight overhaul. Players can now manage games through a Football Manager-esque tactical screen where they can make changes to the formation and tactics. What’s nice about this mode is that you can jump into the action yourself at any time and play out the rest of the game.
Volta, a kind of FIFA Street mode that was first introduced last year, also makes a return to FIFA 21. Only this time, the more extensive story mode has been replaced with an introductory narrative called The Debut, which is a sort of pale imitation of The Journey. This isn’t an in-depth story mode that lets the player explore characters through dialogue, but rather a cheap and cheerful way of trying to get users to try out the mode. It only lasts a couple of hours and adds very little to the overall experience. However, the new Featured Battles is a nice addition, providing rewards like exclusive kits and players for achieving certain seasonal goals. The actual gameplay in Volta remains fun and a great change of pace from the full matches, yet EA has once again done little to differentiate it from FIFA 20’s own Volta mode.
FIFA 21 is arguably the least innovative entry that EA has released in years. Last year’s installment felt like a transitional period as the publisher prepared for the leap into the next generation, but this game feels like the developer has already completely shifted its focus to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. While FIFA 21 still looks great and plays pretty well, the lack of any sort of innovation or new modes means that players can happily sit this one out and wait to see what the next-gen version brings. You simply aren’t missing out on all that much by sticking with FIFA 20.
An Xbox One code was provided by EA for the purposes of this review.
**While a Switch version is available, it’s a Legacy Edition that is basically just a roster and kit update. It’s FIFA 19.
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FIFA 21 does little to innovate and has almost no meaningful gameplay changes, making it little more than a roster update to FIFA 20 that most players could happily miss.
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