FIFA 21 Review – Good, But Still Disappointing

Another year, another FIFA. It’s not obvious given my general gaming interests, but I’m an avid FIFA player, and have been for nearly a decade. As much as I love your top tier action-RPGs, platformers, indies, etc, I have a certain appreciation for the trashy sports game that is FIFA. This is mostly due to my enjoyment of the sport in real life, but it’s also a good way to kill some time when you’re bored. This is my FIFA 21 review.

This review will be a little different to our others. Normally we’d rate the game in 10 categories, then give you an overall score out of 100. FIFA obviously can’t really get a rating for writing/ acting/ story, so we figured it would be a bit pointless. I’ll still give you a score out of 100 but this is more just to give a number to my overall opinions regarding the game. Take that as you will!

Credit: EA

Gameplay

To get right into the thick of it, this FIFA is the best feeling entry in the last couple of years. The gameplay feels far more robust than it has done in quite some time, and that’s down to the fact that EA have appeared to take notice of the complaints levied throughout FIFA 19 and 20. 

If you don’t know what they are – here’s the brief history. Following years of FIFA where fast players equalled the best players, FIFA 19 neutered attacking pace. This meant that your high pace attackers were rarely able to outrun defenders of any speed. While this had the desired effect of slowing the gameplay down, it also wasn’t particularly realistic. While how fast you are doesn’t dictate how good you are at football (as FIFA 12-18 would have you believe), being able to burn past a defence isn’t something made up. Your Mbappes, Sterlings, Traores, Werners, are frighteningly fast in real life. 

Step forward FIFA 20 – EA took things too far. Here, anyone below a certain pace level was deemed useless, devaluing anyone that didn’t conform to certain statistical combinations. Pace was everything, and it was made worse by the fact that heading, for some reason, was made completely useless. This encouraged heavy defensive and counter attacking football, which made playing a bit of a chore. It also made an entire class of strikers, target men, borderline unusable. Sorry Ibra, not this year fella.

Sorry for all that, but context is important as to why I think FIFA 21 is the best FIFA in years in terms of gameplay. EA had a task on their hands, in which they had to not only balance pace (a deceivingly hard task) but provide enough variety in offensive and defensive tactics that would stagnate slower than previous years.

To their credit, and the team that only gets 12 months (if that) to work with physics, animations, and the rest of it, they’ve done a darn good job. Practically erasing my complaints from previous years, FIFA 21 actually feels balanced. Not only are there a ton of different ways to score, the actual act of scoring feels far more rewarding than it has in a fair old while.

Part of this is due to the newest addition to FIFA 21. If you know FIFA, you know that every year EA adds a new mechanic to the game. Often in an attempt to make FIFA less “random” if you will. Timed finishing was added in 19 to give the player more control over their efforts on goal, for example. 

Creative Runs

This year they’ve added “creative runs”, which is a little ambiguous of course. Essentially this allows you, the player, manual control over the direction of attacking runs. To the best of my knowledge this hasn’t been present in ANY other iteration of FIFA in the past, and I’m impressed as to how well it works from the off. 

As with previous years, LB/L1 will trigger a player you’re looking at to start an attacking run. In the past, said player would just sprint in a straight line forwards, and you’d just have to hope you can get the ball to them eventually. Now, you can flick the right stick in a desired direction, and the player will run that way. A simple change, but an effective one. 

Want to pull the centre back away from your CAM? Look at your striker and trigger a run in behind, causing the centre back to briefly track the runner. Want to push your CDM forward in support? Look at him, press LB, and flick your stick toward where you’ll want him to go. 

This works in conjunction with 1-2s as well, and you’re able to cause any passer of the ball to run immediately after passing it off. Lastly, and this is one that blew my mind, you can lock your control to one player by clicking both the sticks.

This means, bear with me, that you can allow the AI to retain the ball while you control an individual player. If you’re of a cool disposition, this means you can lock your control to (for instance) your rapido striker, choose a forward run of your fancy, and then request a pass back from whoever currently has the ball. This will be a familiar feeling to anyone who’s tried a Player Career or Pro Clubs before, but will be largely foreign to anyone who sticks to FUT or the normal Career Mode.

I won’t lie, these creative run abilities do come attached with a certain skill requirement. It’s extremely easy to accidentally send someone running down the pitch so far they get the bends from being out of position. More than once I accidentally triggered one of my defenders, instead of the midfielder I intended, which led to some awkwardly sized gaps in my team for a moment or two.

I can’t stress how much I appreciate the ability to take some control of the attacking runs though, and now it’s here it feels like a change that should’ve been implemented years ago. Another such addition in FIFA 21 is “positioning personality”.

Positioning Personality

Prior to actually experiencing this behind-the-scenes change, I was rather skeptical of how much it would affect the game. Not to mention dubious of its impact on FUT – FIFA’s premier competitive mode. 

To quote from EA’s page:

“In FIFA 21, increased positional awareness elevates footballers’ in-game intelligence to put them in the right place at the right time. See world-class forwards hold their runs in line with the last defender, creative playmakers find space to play through balls, and midfielders shut off passing lanes as players better live up to their real-world understanding of space and time on the pitch.”

What this means, in short, is that players with better positioning and defensive awareness stats will make smarter positioning choices on the pitch. On the surface this seems like a fairly logical decision, the same applies in real life. More experienced, or even just better footballers will make more intelligent plays either defensively or offensively. 

This does have what COULD be perceived as a negative effect on FUT though. FIFA Ultimate Team, for the uninitiated, is EA’s most popular mode. As a result, it’s also the most competitive by more than fair margin. Generating EA billions every yearly cycle, the massive playerbase are extremely receptive and attentive to balancing issues.

In making higher rated players more intelligent, the gap between the lower rated (and cheaper) players, and the higher rated more expensive players has been widened even further than the upward trend in the last few years. While the lower rated players are naturally less desirable by nature, the viability of such players is at an all time low this year in FIFA 21.

With that being said.

This “positioning personality” is immediately noticeable across the board in all modes that I’ve currently played. I started my FIFA 21 FUT journey this year with a La Liga team, and 79 rated Morales up front. While his attacking runs were genuinely quite good, a side effect of the player-wide increase in intelligence, I did notice he was straying offside a little more than I would like.

I recently changed to a Serie A team, and I have Lautoro Martinez up front. Comparing stats, he has a very minor increase in positioning. Extremely minor in fact, with 84 positioning on Morales, and 85 on Martinez. Maybe it’s a combination of the rest of the stats on these cards (Martinez is superior across the board) but Martinez strayed offside FAR less in a similar amount of games. In fact I actually noticed him curving his runs to stay onside. 

Jump over to career, where I was able to purchase Mbappe as Man City, and the difference is night and day. I’m talking fake runs, dropping back to receive the ball, attempting to move around a man to receive a cross. All that good stuff.

Moving past my point earlier that higher rated players are now far better than lower rated players (a good OR bad thing, depending on who you ask), I really like it. There’s now a higher value proposition in investing in higher rated players to improve your team, whether that be in Ultimate Team or Career mode.

When you combine “positioning personality” with “creative runs” you get a myriad of attacking opportunities opening up that didn’t previously exist in any instance of FIFA that I can recall. Suddenly every avenue is viable, whether that be crossing, skilling, tiki-taka, long ball, you name it. Nothing feels particularly broken, because everything is at least good. 

Unfortunately this increase in goal scoring opportunities has opened up some frailties in FIFA’s otherwise impressive gameplay this year.

Goalkeepers Are Woeful

I really mean it. Goalkeepers in FIFA have been suspect for as long as I can remember if I’m honest, but this year is a special type of bad. Long range finesses, dipping screamers, free kicks, corners, headers, near post power, low drivens, nothing is too risky against FIFA 21’s brand of Goalkeeper coding. I’ve seen so many spilled shots in my 20-25 hours of FIFA so far that you’d struggle to believe it. 

A reworked collision system has thankfully done some work to squeeze out less of the cheese of previous years, goalmouth scrambles are much easier to handle for instance. But I’ve still conceded far too many deflections as a result of my goalie palming a weak shot back into the 6 yard box. 

In previous iterations, the nature of the gameplay meant that goalkeepers were less exposed than you might expect. This year however, with the pleasingly varied offensive play, they’re under fire regularly. In each of my 5 placement matches for Division Rivals (of which I won 4), at least 5 goals were scored between me and my opposition, sometimes 6 or 7. The largest scoreline, a frustrating 4-4 draw, resulted in a near 100% conversion rate for shots/ goals. 

While I’ve nothing against high scoring games, it does take some of the satisfaction and security away when you know a speculative 25 yard finesse could very likely dip over your goalkeeper. Some people may enjoy this level of unpredictability, but I found it more than a little stressful at times. EA are known for their gameplay altering patches, so hopefully we see a change to Goalkeepers going forward.

Career Mode – Interactive Match Sim is Excellent, But Not Much Else

EA had one big responsibility this year. Well, two, but we’ll get into that later. Career mode, in lieu of FUT and Volta last year, has been left in the dust in recent iterations of FIFA. Sparse updates that either didn’t change much or weren’t asked for.

Essentially, if you were a career mode guy, like many of you are I’m sure, you were buying new FIFA games for the improved visuals and updated team sheets. That was about it.

First things first – not a lot has changed. Yep, once again EA have seemingly disregarded the idea of making wholesale changes to the career mode, perhaps in the hopes that the vastly improved AI and gameplay will hide it. It didn’t. 

This year, perhaps due to next-gen being right around the corner, EA can’t even skate by on massively improved visuals. Hilariously inaccurate player and manager faces have been making the rounds on Reddit and it’s pretty bad. There’s small improvements to lighting and animations, but in terms of fidelity? I’d have a hard time picking FIFA 21 out over FIFA 20, and I’m a stickler for this stuff.

Thankfully EA had one trump card, if you will. Interactive match sim. 

Simulating career mode matches in FIFA has been around for as long as I can remember. After all, no-one wants to play 38 matches or more in one season of Career Mode. However, in previous years of FIFA I’ve found myself frustrated at the random (ish) nature of Career Mode. One game you’re smashing Manchester City 5-1, the next you’re losing 2-0 to bottom of the table.

To remedy this issue, thus giving the player more control over the outcome of simulated matches, EA have implemented “interactive match sim”. It’s exactly as it sounds, refreshingly. Taking some notes from the generally impressive Football Manager, a normally more hardcore experience, simulating a match now provides you a real-time (well, it’s sped up, gimme a chance to explain) 2D view of the match in progress. 

While the game is in progress you can make subs, change your tactics, and impressively, jump into the game as and when you want. And back out. And back in. You get the picture.

I RARELY commend any FIFA title for something technically impressive, animations aside. But credit where it’s due, this “jump in” feature is something quite remarkable, at least to someone in the dark like me. For this review, I completed a season as Manchester City (I wanted as much money as possible to get a decent look at the transfers, objectives, and how different players felt). 

Multiple times, against stiffer opposition, I’d find myself 2-1, maybe 2-0 down in the second half. As soon as I would go behind, I was able to hit “X” (Square for PS users), and jump straight into the action. Immediately. 

I’m unsure on how base consoles would perform, but this jumping in and out of matches was completely clear of loading. Not even a hint of background processing before I’m in the game and kicking the ball about.

Not only is “interactive match sim” a radical shift in how career mode can operate, making you feel more like a manager, it’s also a pretty huge quality of life adjustment. Now you can get more of a hand in results, and you don’t have to feel forced to play the entire 90 minutes against Barcelona in the Champions League final. If you get 2-0 up, you can pause, and jump into simulation mode. Concede a goal and get a little nervy? Jump back in whenever you want to see the game out. 

I can’t overstate how much more enjoyable it made my career mode experience, and I do have to grant some credit for how well it just works

How’s The Rest of Career Mode?

Sadly, it mostly feels like a copy and paste jobbo. Drawn out transfer “cutscenes” return, making me miss the days of old where a few emails would do. They’re completely devoid of accurate lip syncing to the subtitles (of course, it’s without any kind of VO whatsoever), and it took FAR too long to get simple things done. Resulting in me just skipping wherever possible to the important stuff.

There does seem to be some new additions in terms of media presence and the way players will react to where/ how/ if you’re playing them. For example, De Bruyne started emailing me about how he was fine to be moved out to right wing as long as he kept playing.

Of course, it’s a bit buggy as I was actually playing him at RAM, not RW. But there we go.

EA’s impressive ability to retain real world licenses returns though, and it’s not more present than in the Champions League, with proper branding, sound effects, and transitions. The loss of Juventus licensing to PES the year before last still feels weird, as Ronaldo is of course playing for “Piemonte Calcio”. Player faces for Juventus also took a slight hit, although this could be said about a lot of teams in FIFA 21, so maybe there’s not a connection there. 

One excellent addition, something I didn’t expect to use as much, is the ability to change a player’s position. Through training, you can shift players into different areas over time. The best example in my season with Manchester City was Bernardo Silva. I’ve always preferred the portugese player in a central role, and with myself wanting to sign Jadon Sancho as soon as possible for the RW, I knew I’d need to do something with Silva.

So, I changed him to a CAM, where he played alongside De Bruyne and promptly became the most valuable player in my attacking lineup. I did this to a bunch of other players as well. I changed Raheem Sterling to a striker, so I could play Ousmane Dembele in his old position at LW. Purchasing Denis Zakaria for CDM, but after 6 months I decided he’d work better as a CB.

As far as I can tell, this ability to change a player’s preferred position knows no limits. In theory you could make Neymar a CB, although I’m not sure you’d want to.

Other than this though, Career Mode is exactly as it was in FIFA 20, and FIFA 19. Thankfully Interactive Match Sim and changing player’s positions really helps level that value proposition a little.

Volta

Okay confession time – I don’t like Volta. As such, I knew I wouldn’t like it this year, because it’s basically the exact same mode. If you don’t know, Volta is FIFA’s spin on the separate franchise, FIFA Street. People had been crying out for a new entry for years, but EA decided to instead incorporate it into FIFA. It wasn’t great last year, sparse on content, and not particularly engaging. 

This is a roundabout way of me saying I didn’t play it. I’ve had a hectic week or so, so decided to focus on people’s preferred modes – FUT, Career, and Pro Clubs. 

The primary addition to Volta this year is “The Debut”. A 2-3 hour narrative mode, where your selected side can meet footballing heroes around the world. This is really just an extended tutorial for the various tricks and skills that you can employ in this more stripped back version of football. 

Thankfully EA repaired their bizarre mistake of not allowing cooperative play in FIFA 20 Volta, and now you can play as a full 5-a-side online against other people, either with teams or randoms. 

Otherwise? It’s really the same as last year. Still, better the devil you know right?

Clubs

Pro Clubs is a long time love of mine. I’m not always good at it, but I nearly always enjoy it. However it also remains the mode that’s long been left in a dark corner in the attic by EA. Despite being one of the easiest modes to experiment with, and probably the mode best suited to a “battle pass”, EA continues to neglect it.

Having said that, Pro Clubs is still a blast. With the vastly improved gameplay of FIFA 21, it feels as good as it ever has, and welcoming to any variety of play-styles that you might be willing to try. 

In my 40-50 games of Clubs so far, me and my squad have faced everything from a team of 6’7 maniacs, to a team of 5’3 speedsters making our defender’s lives hell. We’ve had goalies playing in CAM, we’ve had ultra attacking, ultra defensive, passing play, long ball play. The list goes on.

Unlike previous iterations of Clubs, it’s perfectly feasible to play without pace. This might be the first year where our designated CAM (shout out to Andy, assisting me since 2012) has opted away from pace, instead focusing on his stamina and dribbling. 

AI controlled players still suck on Clubs, but at this point it’s almost in the character of the mode. That’s not to say it doesn’t get annoying. Seeing your AI behemoth CB casually jogging alongside the 90+ pace speedfreak that’s attempting to wiggle through your defence is irritating. Even more irritating when they get sent to Zimbabwe by a simple fake shot cut back. But then you go up the other end, bang in a 25 yard finesse and the world is right again.

Clubs will never STOP being fun, which is why it’s a shame that EA seemingly doesn’t care about adding to it. No objectives, no season pass, no unlockable cosmetics, no control over your AI teammate’s stats. The only thing you play for, aside from the entertainment, is the skill points that you can put into improving your Pro’s stats. I would happily praise this system, but it’s been there since 2018. 

Is Pay To Win Still A Thing?

Sadly, yes. If you’re a fan of FIFA Ultimate Team, the card collecting billion dollar machine, then you probably go into every year of FUT hoping for something to have changed. It hasn’t.

As in recent years, to EA’s credit, it’s PERFECTLY feasible to have an excellent team just by playing the game. Of course, if you have a job, girlfriend, a family, or simply like playing other games this time requirement is an issue. A massive issue.

Once FIFA Ultimate Team gets going you have Squad Battles, Division Rivals, and FUT Champs every week. Competing in each competition nets you pack rewards or coin rewards every week on certain days. If you want to complete every competition? That’ll set you back nearly 100 games of FIFA a week

Assuming 12 minutes per game of FIFA, that’s nearly 20 hours of FIFA Ultimate Team each and every week. Not a reasonable ask of anyone that actually needs to do other things. Of course, you don’t have to play EVERY game, you can scrape middle rankings for bare minimum, but this limits your potential rewards. 

Eventually, especially if you’re an earning adult, the idea of purchasing a few packs doesn’t seem so crazy. You might get lucky, and pack an Mbappe, Ronaldo, or Messi! Except, most likely you won’t. It’s this glimmer of hope that pulls kids into purchasing packs with their parent’s credit cards. Or tempts adults to drop some of their pay cheque on packs every month.

EA makes literal billions from Ultimate Team every year, and their time is coming. FIFA packs are nothing more than thinly veiled gambling, and slowly but surely people are starting to see this. Following the wholesale ban on pack sales in Belgium, the UK government and other countries have lifted their heads and started to pay attention. If I were a guessing man I’d say that EA only has one or two more iterations of FIFA before they are forced to change their practises. 

Moral discussions aside, this financial imbalance causes huge gaps in the community. To the point where I was already seeing top-shelf players in people’s squads mere hours into the game fully releasing. Some of which will never be attainable by your average consumer.

If you have the time, Ultimate Team is always fun. If you don’t, please don’t spend money on the game, the odds aren’t in your favour. Take it from me. As an experiment (and because I have zero self control), I loaded 12,000 FIFA points onto my account on day one of FIFA 21.

12,000 FIFA points is around £70. I got one single player of note – Hugo Lloris. His in game value? Nothing of real importance. I reiterate again – if you can help it, do NOT spend money on FIFA points. You’ll have more fun building your squad the hard way.

Outro

This has been my 4000 word review of FIFA 21, and hopefully it’s been helpful. I’m disappointed I didn’t get the time to try out Volta for this review, but I like to think I’ve covered everything else well enough! 

This is my first FIFA review, and my first sports game review for SeriouslyAverageGamers. Any criticisms, or other feedback, just let us know down below or on Twitter! 

Until next time, have a fantastic week!

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