For a few years now, FIFA games have started becoming particularly stale, and though major new headline additions like The Journey, VOLTA, and the UEFA license do keep slightly shaking things up every now and then, it still feels like the series is caught in a rut, like it has settled on a way that it wants to do things and refuses to move outside of that comfort zone too much. Sure, we get some tweaks and improvements to the on-pitch gameplay every year, some of which work out very well, but for the most part, things have remained largely the same, especially these last couple of years or so.
FIFA 21 feels perhaps like the most unnecessary instalment in this franchise in a while. It still makes some improvements to the actual football, and in particular, its attacking gameplay feels smoother and more enjoyable, but all in all, there isn’t much here to speak of by way of necessary, major additions or changes.
"FIFA 21 feels perhaps like the most unnecessary instalment in this franchise in a while."
But let’s speak about the on-pitch football first, because that, after all, is what matters most in any football simulation title. Thankfully, this is an area where FIFA is generally solid every year, and FIFA 21 doesn’t disappoint. The actual action on the pitch is as smooth and compelling as ever, striking the right balance between accessibility and still having a high skill ceiling.
As I mentioned earlier, attacking gameplay in particular has benefited from some tweaks. The addition of creative runs, which allows you to send a player on a run in a direction of your choosing right after passing the ball, is worthy of special praise, because of how quick and snappy it feels to use. Threading spaces, sending out passes, and then setting off on runs to set up your next attack feels so much more enjoyable thanks to creative runs.
Your teammates also seem to be much smarter in FIFA 21 than they did in last year’s game, at least as far as attacks are concerned. Thanks to improved positioning artificial intelligence, your teammates seem to have a much better understanding of where they should be at what moment. The players with higher ratings seem to be especially smart about this, which means making a particular player the focal point of your attack and then building passes around them is often a nifty tactic.
Of course, with more aggressive attacking AI and the addition of creative runs, this means that FIFA 21 once again takes a step backwards with its defending. It’s an area where the series has been wildly inconsistent over the years and has never seemed to manage the sweet spot. This year, the pendulum has very clearly swung heavily in offensive football’s direction, which means defensive AI lags behind noticeably.
"Threading spaces, sending out passes, and then setting off on runs to set up your next attack feels so much more enjoyable thanks to creative runs."
The area where FIFA has most been in need of a number of years now is Career Mode, and once again, this year’s game fails to make the necessary improvements. In fact, it very much follows the same pattern of additions and tweaks that EA Sports have stuck to in recent years. FIFA 21’s Career Mode does make some changes for sure, and one in particular works out well enough, but they ultimately end up feeling like additive improvements, leaving the rest of the Career Mode to feel as stagnant as ever.
The one big change it makes is to training. FIFA 21 allows players much greater control on how to train and retrain players. You can set particular regimens for each player for different positions and playing styles, and the younger the are, the better they will respond to that training. This gives you far greater control over how the players in your team are progressing.
For instance, retraining players into new positions is a much more viable option now, so if you have an ageing winger that doesn’t have the stamina or agility to play in that position anymore but can still easily land a killer pass, you’ll have a much easier time retraining them to play in a deeper, more central position.
Meanwhile, with the new training features, you now also have a lot of control over the young players in your club and how they progress. FIFA games have often tried to push youth development and scouting onto Career Mode players in part years, but it has always felt like an underwhelming system at best. In FIFA 21, given the tools at your disposal, you do have much greater incentive to train and improve players in your own academy in order to help them flourish.
"The area where FIFA has most been in need of a number of years now is Career Mode, and once again, this year’s game fails to make the necessary improvements."
Other than improvements with the training though, FIFA 21’s Career Mode is more of the same. Transfers have a couple more options, such as a loan-to-buy option, but by and large, many of the same issues still persist. Squad and press interactions are at best vapid and unnecessary. There is a new Sharpness system, but I haven’t seen it having any real effect on my players’ form or abilities in any meaningful way.
I feel like I’ve said this in my FIFA reviews every year for the past few years, but the Career Mode needs a reinvention desperately, and I really hope net year’s game, which will be the series’ proper next-gen debut, will be the one to do that.
VOLTA returns as well, offering a different flair and style of football than what FIFA as a package is all about, and is an experience that is much the same as last year’s. There’s a short, roughly four hour-long single player introductory story mode called The Debut, but it’s largely forgettable. The actual football in VOLT mode is as fun, fluid, and fast as ever, but even more so than last year, I found that it couldn’t hold my attention for too long.
On the visuals and presentation front, it’s clear as day that FIFA 21 is the last FIFA game of the current console generation, because it’s beginning to look a little aged. The flash and pomp of overlays, camera angles, snappy presentation, and enthusiastic commentary is all still here, so FIFA still very much feels like an authentic simulation of a real matchday, of course. But the pitches could do with a little more detail, and character models and animations are beginning to look dated. Here’s hoping next year’s game decides to leverage next-gen hardware to deliver a shinier experience.
"On the visuals and presentation front, it’s clear as day that FIFA 21 is the last FIFA game of the current console generation, because it’s beginning to look a little aged."
I have never been as compelled to say this about a FIFA game as I am this year- but FIFA 21 feels rather skippable. Veteran fans of the series probably won’t do that, and sure, there are some good changes to on-pitch gameplay this year, but none of it feels crucial or fundamentally vital. Outside of the pitch, there is, once again, nothing much to speak for either. All of this means that FIFA 21 is solid and still immensely playable, but very stale, and rather unnecessary.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
New training system offers plenty of control; Attacking gameplay feels faster and more enjoyable.
Defensive gameplay needs improvements; Career Mode has stagnated beyond belief; Not a lot of noteworthy changes from last year.