Another year, another FIFA. Reviewing annualised sports games always feels like a difficult choice between reviewing exactly what’s in front of me or comparing directly to it’s 12 month old predecessor. With this year’s addition I believe now more than ever that a direct comparison of what’s actually changed is needed because the harsh reality is that it’s not an awful lot.
Over the past generation of FIFA titles there has always been one big new feature that EA can point to. Whether that’s the Journey Mode we got in FIFA 17, the return of the Champions League in FIFA 18 or the reinvented FIFA Street in the form of Volta Football that we got last year. This year however, there’s nothing like that. Instead EA have decided to make improvements across the board to their already established modes, but is it enough?
Starting with gameplay there’s one glaringly obvious change and that’s the attacking. It is now easier than ever to score wonder goals with clean sheets quickly becoming rarer than a platinum trophy thanks to a massive dip in defensive AI. The positive side of these tweaks is obviously how exciting it is, the phrase ‘scoring for fun’ has never been more appropriate. Passes find their way to a teammate with pinpoint accuracy and forwards make clever runs that leave defenders scrambling like a bunch of school kids going one-on-one with Ronaldo.
The flip side of that coin is that defenders feel so dumb that the realism that I play these games for feels almost nonexistent. Admittedly this Premier League season has started with a bundle of goals throughout the league but FIFA 21 manages to take it a step further with the majority of games I play online with Jav now becoming 5-5 thrillers on a regular occasion. This isn’t surprising when I constantly see my back four always out of position and even seeing three players all chase the same attacker leaving acres of space elsewhere. It’s fun yes, but also frustratingly unrealistic and wouldn’t be surprised to see this patched before too long.
The only other noticeable difference comes with headers which now feel way more of a threat. This is a welcome change given how random and unpredictable heading has been in FIFA for the last few years. Unfortunately there are no other gameplay changes. Set pieces remain the same and even the camera angles on match intros haven’t changed at all. This sort of thing always feels insulting because even if EA hasn’t bothered to change all that much, at least give us the illusion that you tried!
The biggest update for a game mode thankfully comes in career mode. Career mode is undoubtedly the go-to for any player who doesn’t like Ultimate Team. Sadly though, it’s a mode which has felt mostly ignored and untouched for years with only a sprinkling of new cutscenes or tweaks added over the last few years. This year we were promised a lot more and although the game mode hasn’t been ripped up and started from scratch, there are enough game changing additions that freshen it up and make it exciting again.
The new match sharpness adds a whole new level of strategy as you not only need to keep your players fit but also keep them match sharp with regular training or game time otherwise suffer the consequences. Players will perform like bambi on ice if you let their sharpness fall too low but if you can keep it high then you’ll be rewarded with a team of boosted superstars as their overall rated can get a nice little temporary upgrade. Having to juggle rest days and training on your calendar to make sure your first team and reserves all stay fit and sharp is enough to keep me invested for longer and adds a whole new dynamic to what was a stagnating mode.
Another big new feature for career mode is the ability to simulate games, watch them play out Football Manager style and then jump into the game in a split second if it’s not going your way. I’m pleasantly surprised with how well this works and how often I’ve used it. There’s barely any loading time when you jump in and out and you can do it as often as you like.
Another cool new feature is the ability to retrain players into different positions. Whether you want to turn your pacey wingback into an out and out winger Gareth Bale style or try your big centre half as a big target man, you can do it all. This works especially well with the tweaked youth academy as you can guide the youth players into a position that suits your set-up before they’ve even been called up to the team.
It’s also quickly worth noting that the bug where teams put out a weakened reserve side that plagued FIFA 20 before it was patched is nowhere to be seen this time round. However the resulting patch that turned league winners into 110 point superstars hasn’t gone anywhere. Having said that, I did get a more varied result which saw league winners Manchester United top the table on a more realistic 84 points when I played with strict negotiations on. This option also restricts unrealistic transfers and makes the game a more challenging experience overall so I’d highly recommend that.
Career mode isn’t the only game mode to get a new coat of paint. Volta football is back again with a new story and some pretty cool incentives to keep you playing well beyond the short narrative. The story itself is what you would expect with a few cool cameos along the way. Once that is done you can carry on building your small side as there’s loads to do. You will be set challenges that will gain you points which can then be spent on cosmetic items for your team. It’s all got a very live service feel to it but it definitely works in this setting. You also have timed rewards such as the current Liverpool gear you can try unlock on launch and unlockable players like Mbappe and randomly Anthony Joshua who you can try to add to your street team.
There are already early signs that EA might…well.. EA the whole thing and turn Volta into the horrible money grabbing system that Ultimate Team is, but in its current form it’s a lot of fun. The enjoyment of Volta is enhanced even more with the ability to invite your friends into your Volta side. I’ve already lost hours to just messing about in Javier’s Volta team and once we start inviting other friends I can only see it becoming more and more enjoyable.
I’ve already touched on my thoughts on Ultimate Team and I’ve made no secret in the past about hating every aspect of it. For the purpose of a fair review though, I’ve given it another crack. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I still hate playing it. The whole mode feels seedy and the little ways they try get you addicted early on just left a bad taste in my mouth. having not played FUT for so long, I’m unsure whether the new FIFA point and FUT point currency is new. Either way, at the end of the day it’s just a more drawn out way of getting you to pay real money for players available in the game for free.. not for me thanks.
However I must give credit where it’s due, the new create-a-stadium feature is really cool and being able to invite your friends to play co-op with your ultimate team is an exciting addition. None of it though was enough to get me to play the mode for more than a couple of hours though and I highly doubt I’ll be going back to it. If anything I was left a little frustrated that the same stadium editor was nowhere to be found in career mode but maybe they’re holding that back for next year.
Overall there’s nothing hugely different I can point to as the sole reason you should make the upgrade from FIFA 20 to FIFA 21. Instead there’s been a sprinkling of improvement to nearly every single mode (not player career, that’s still stuck in 1994). It makes this year’s instalment of FIFA the best version you can buy without having taken a massive leap of any kind. It makes a final score really difficult if I’m being completely honest. If I was scoring it purely on what’s new, we’re looking at a 6/10.. But if I was to judge it purely as its own entity then I have to go higher because the new additions to my beloved career mode will have me hooked for the entire year. Yeah sure, I’d have probably preferred an entire new career mode from scratch but what we’ve got is more than good enough for now. I give FIFA 21