As the train keeps rolling along, continuing to deliver the annual glut of sports gaming goodness, the next title to enter our crosshairs is the usually dependable FIFA series. The stalwart footie franchise has long been one of EA’s primary cash cows, and this outing looks to be no exception. In a year that also includes a console generation shift, does the team over at EA Vancouver have enough in the tank to bridge the gap, while also giving the PS4 version the attention it deserves?
FIFA 21 Review – You Can’t Teach an Old Franchise New Tricks
At this point in the console generation, it’s fairly safe to say that EA Sports has a pretty good handle on how to make a soccer (Yes, SOCCER. I live in the United States. Live with it…) simulation. After years of incremental updates, it’s almost starting to feel like they’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, at least when it comes to introducing anything truly groundbreaking. Sure, there are additional augmentations ratcheted on here and there, but for the most part, FIFA 20 players are going to be treated to a VERY similar experience this time around.
If you’re going into this review looking for a marque change to point to, it’s best to save your energy. A high-profile new mode or massive enhancement is nowhere to be found. It almost seems as if the theme of this season was evolution, as opposed to revolution. While there are plenty of improvements to be found, none are going to garner huge headlines in the press. The main problem is that a vast majority of these changes are more of the “under the hood” variety, as opposed to “front and center.”
One of the most straightforward improvements, readily apparent from the moment you hit the pitch, is the dramatically improved passing mechanics. As long as you maintain a proper triangle form, which is taught in any fundamentals course on the sport, you will be able to matriculate the ball down the field with a fluidity that has been missing for years. This alone is enough to speed up the flow of gameplay as well as help make for some legitimately exciting moments that were far more difficult to come by in previous installments.
Several other tweaks to the overall on-field mechanics have been applied to the much-maligned crossing systems. This has been a sticking point for quite some time, so it was nice to see that the upgraded passing also played a role in this success. Ironically, I had become rather proficient with the broken-ass crossing over the last few years, so I wasn’t really able to take full advantage of the enhancements until I un-taught myself and then re-learned how the critical move set should’ve been working all along. It certainly was a bit more of a learning process than initially anticipated, but once perfected, it makes all the difference in the world.
FIFA 21 Review – Running Away From the Competition
In another hefty dose of “well it’s about damn time,” the reintroduction of a breakaway speed skillset has been long overdue. Depending upon the player being controlled, your mileage may vary. However, if you’re using one of the true speedsters of the sport, it can help them quite-literally run away from the competition. While this is especially on display in one-on-one scenarios, the ability to make a blistering run down the sideline, paired with the new-and-improved passing/crossing systems, can also combine to help reinforce the accelerated pace that’s already on display. There’s nothing more satisfying than blowing by the defender, leaving a vapor trail in your wake, then crossing the ball directly onto the foot of a trailer striker, who slams the goal home with reckless abandon.
If it sounds like the traditional simulation feel has transitioned into a slightly more arcade-centric experience, your suspicions would be spot-on. Personally, I haven’t had this much fun with the moment-to-moment gameplay in years. However, it should be noted that this more exciting approach to the sport comes at the cost of some of the series’ trademark realism. I’m very okay with the tradeoff, but sticklers for the simulation run the risk of finding it off-putting.
Career mode has also been a frequent target of ire over the years. After spending far too long hovering around the “slightly better than inadequate” level, it was finally time for the feature to get some well-warranted TLC. In fact, Career has gotten more attention than damn-near any other aspect of the game. One of the most obvious changes, at least when playing in manager mode, would be the simulation UI, which will now draw very obvious comparisons to the Football Manager series. Tracking the performance of individual players and the team’s morale as a whole is also far more convenient thanks to the intelligently redesigned interface.
FIFA 21 Review – You Call That Coaching?
Unfortunately, the player side of career mode hasn’t quite seen as much attention. It feels very similar to prior outings, and suffers some of the same downfalls. One of my biggest complaints is the arbitrary performance counter that is supposed to be used to track a player’s skill progression within a given match. The problem is that this number tends to ebb and flow in ways that don’t necessarily make sense.
A player’s assessment value should absolutely increase if a goal is scored. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure that out. However, the mode’s fixation on player positioning is extremely annoying in the best-case scenario and straight-up off-putting in the worst case. I personally played right-center midfield at every level up through college and intimately know what proper positioning looks like for that role. Despite this in-depth knowledge and instincts to boot, there were numerous times when I KNOW I was in the proper place on the pitch, yet I was continuously dinged for being out of place. It made no sense whatsoever. And don’t even get me started on the commentary continuously droning on about player transfers, because in FIFA 21’s odd parallel universe, apparently every team performs trades exclusively while other games are going on. Seriously. If transfers truly happened this frequently in real life, no teams would have a consistent roster, ever.
Next up, Volta is back again, and this year they brought friends in the form of online multiplayer. This was a very welcome deviation from it’s fairly isolating freshman outing. I’m genuinely shocked that it hasn’t been spun off into its own product at this point, because it couldn’t be more different than the simulation action on the field. That said, I found the frantic action introduced by small fields and limited rosters a very refreshing change of pace.
One aspect of FIFA 21’s Volta offering that doesn’t get enough attention is the short form narrative experience, “The Debut.” Players take control of a small amateur squad, hoping to force their way onto the global stage. As long as you don’t lose much, the core story can be conquered in 2-3 hours and features cringe-inducing facial capture and voice acting from several of the biggest legends in the sport. It isn’t going to be lighting the world on fire by any stretch of the imagination, but acts as a very welcome re-introduction to the world of streetball.
And what would a review of an EA Sports game be without the traditional Ultimate Team tongue-lashing. FUT manages to find a way to force itself into virtually every aspect of the UI, to the point that it would be impossible to avoid the mode, even if you wanted to. At least this year allows you to take the action online, and share the experience with friends. Now if only there was a way to get past the wallet-gouging player packs.
It’s hard to shake the sinking feeling that FIFA 21 has almost been frozen in stasis since last season. While there are the expected seasonal enhancements, nothing stands on its own to make this a “must buy” installment. If you picked up the game in 2019, you’d probably be forgiven for taking a pass this time around. Hopefully they have more innovation in store for next year, because it definitely feels like EA is trying to run out the clock on this generation.
FIFA 21 review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on a launch PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.