Despite having played over 1000 games on FIFA 20’s Ultimate Team mode (including finishing with a God squad that included Prime R9 and TOTY CR7), I had a relatively ugly relationship with FIFA 20. If I simply saw it from the perspective of a casual football game, then there wasn’t a lot to complain about. However, I take FIFA very seriously. I don’t like to lose, and I certainly don’t like elements of randomness that are critical to the match outcome. FIFA 20 was not an eSports-friendly title. Its Ultimate Team mode heavily relied on a pay-to-win model and the gameplay did no favours to its gamers. However, with the launch of FIFA 21, EA promised us significant changes. They promised better communication with its fanbase and a better gameplay experience that would reward the better players by reducing the element of randomness. With this in mind, FIFA 21 is largely a minor upgrade; it doesn’t provide significantly new modes and focuses on tweaking what needed to be reworked.
If you’re a hardcore FIFA player, you’ll notice many of these changes almost immediately when you start your first match. The pace of the gameplay is significantly better, and manual defending is rewarded a lot more too. If you’re playing as PSG, you can’t just use Mbappe or Neymar’s pace to neutralize Van Dijk. The overall pace of the game is slower, so you’ll also need to rely on the technicians to open up the defence and play a killer pass from time to time. As far as pacing goes, I absolutely love what FIFA 21 has to offer and pray that EA doesn’t change it.
As mentioned earlier, passing is now more important than ever before. Executing basic passes is still easy, however unlocking a defence with a key pass is much harder. It requires precise timing, precision, power and also a reliance on player attributes. As an example, you can’t rely on a player with a 50-rated passing stat to play the same pass as what De Bruyne can. In FIFA 20, you could get away with that. In FIFA 21, you often get punished for it. This is largely down to the fact that in FIFA 20, if a defender intercepted a pass, the ball would often just bounce back to the opponent and give them a second chance. That still happens now, but less so. The same applies to the tackling system. FIFA 21’s tackling system is orders of magnitude better than its predecessor. When you time a tackle well, not only will you dispossess the opponent, but you’re likely to maintain the ball possession too. Bizarrely, during the early access, the tackling felt a lot better than after the recent FIFA patch. EA has been known to release patches that often change the gameplay too much, and I feel that EA has once again made the tackling less effective as it was on day one. I don’t know why they have done this, but it is very frustrating.
One of the biggest issues with FIFA 20 was the goalkeeping AI. In fact, this is a recurring theme every year. In FIFA 19, it was the overpowered time finishing. Last year, it was the overpowered near-post shots. This year, it’s even worse. Goalies are awful at winning crosses. They are awful at stopping cross-goal shots. They are awful at punching shots away from the net to avoid a rebound tap in. It also doesn’t help that shooting is overpowered. If you get through in a one-on-one situation, you’re likely to score. A huge reason for this problem is that EA has placed a huge emphasis on attacking play. They have introduced options for you to control a second runner (which, although is touted as a brand new feature, used to exist many FIFAs ago!). They have made crossing very easy to attack and difficult to defend against. Volleys are like rockets that are almost always on target, even if you have terrible volley stats. These gameplay mechanics are not subtle. You will notice them from day one. Therefore, I cannot blame this on poor quality assurance or even beta feedback. It looks like this is how EA intended the game to be played this year. I’d rather keep conceding to near-post shots than overpowered crosses and volleys. I’m not saying that these mechanics shouldn’t be in the game. I’m suggesting that they should be exclusive to specialist players. Only players with the techniques of Trent Alexander Arnold should be able to cross the way anyone else can, and only the most clinical of finishers should be able to score the types of volley that anyone can in this game.
Referees have also become a huge problem. In FIFA 20, I never felt that they were too strict. I don’t think anyone really complained about the referees. In FIFA 21, you can now completely wipe out the attacker through on goal as the last defender, and you’ll end up with a yellow card. Tackles that are often outrageous and should be rewarded with a free kick, don’t even get recognized as fouls. I have also encountered moments where the ball has bounced off an offside player onto another attacker, but the referee doesn’t blow the whistle for offside since it just bounced off him.
A new and welcome gameplay feature is the ability to press L1+R1 to take the advantage when the referee plays on. If advantage is played, you have a short moment to decide to stop the play and take a free kick. This is a fantastic addition and one that I found myself using a lot if I preferred the set piece.
The biggest gameplay addition is the agility dribbling. By hold R1, you can use the left stick to perform some incredible dribbling techniques. In fact, you can basically hold R1 down and spam the left stick; more often than not you’re going to pull off a move that leaves the defender confused. It’s a fantastic feature, but EA need to considerably reduce its effect. Either that, or change it so that only players with certain dribbling attributes can perform the moves. How is it possible that a player like Matic can perform agility dribbling as well as Neymar?
Despite all of its flaws on the pitch, I still have to admit that FIFA 21 is a massive improvement over FIFA 20 only because I feel there is less randomness on the pitch. In true EA fashion, there are likely to be fixes to reduce the impact of crosses, volleys and make the referees stricter. EA has everything that it needs to give us the best FIFA gameplay experience that we have had for quite some time. It’s not there yet, but I have hope that we’ll get there after a few patches.
Any major additions have come in the form of changes to Volta, Pro Clubs and Career mode. Volta finally has its own mini career mode that will only take you a few hours to complete. You can actually finish it in one sitting. The Debut is EA’s incentive to get you playing more street football, since I don’t think it was very popular last year. The Debut will have you playing across the variety of turfs across the world, and compete against legends of the sport including Kaka! In all honesty, EA did fans a major disservice last year by introducing Volta but not allowing you to play alongside friends online. It seemed like the most obvious requirement, and EA chose not to include it. This year however, you can finally play Volta online with friends. I have already played more Volta in the past two weeks, than I did throughout the whole of FIFA 20, all due to the ability to play with friends.
EA also promised big things for the Career mode, however I don’t see anything substantial. The only major addition is that you can finally simulate a match, but this is nothing innovative in sports games. If anything, FIFA was behind the curve. I do love how you can watch the entire game fold out in a 2D view. If you love Football Manager, you’ll love what this option has to offer in FIFA. The best feature is how you can decide to take control of that simulation if you feel the need to. At any point, you can take control of the players and jump into the match. The Career mode also introduces training sessions to develop your talent. Unfortunately, your players’ stats don’t boost enough to make this an exciting feature. After a while, you’ll stop bothering with this and will just simulate the training too. My favourite feature of the Career mode is how you can truly work on a player’s development. If for example, you acquire talent that starts off as a full back, you can actually develop them into a completely different position if you need to. It’s the closest thing you have to simulating where you’d want your real-life footballing heroes to play.
Pro Clubs has finally received a small amount of love from EA. Again, there is nothing innovative in this mode, but there are new features that we have been crying out for. Pro Clubs is for me, EA’s most enjoyable mode with the biggest amount of eSports potential. Why EA doesn’t focus on an eSports league for Pro Clubs is beyond me! This year, EA has introduced the ability for managers to create custom tactics and instructions. In essence, everything you could do in Ultimate Team last year regarding tactics, you can finally do in Pro Clubs. You can also store many sets of tactics, which each set letting you manage five different formation/instruction play styles (Ultra Defensive to Ultra Attacking). What’s great about this is that you can have a unique tactic set depending on how many numbers you have available to play Clubs with you. If you only have 4, you may want to go with a completely different set of tactics and formations compared to if you have a full 11. More than the formations, it’s the ability to finally configure instructions for the players that makes this such an important feature. You can finally tell your full backs to stay back. You can tell your attackers to stay forward and get in behind. All of this was available in FUT last year, but Pro Clubs was left behind.
Pro Clubs also lets you rename and customize the AI! If you only play in a squad of 4, you can rename all the AI players and even change their heights, builds, features etc. You can’t customize their actual gameplay attributes for obvious reasons, but it’s a fantastic feature to have in clubs. Unfortunately, Pro Clubs still suffers from the same system as the past few years when it comes to ranking up your club and player. There is a skill tree and as you play games, you unlock skill points. The skill tree helps boost your player stats. Your club has an overall ranking too, but progression is mainly done through divisions. If you ever manage to win division 1, the rest of the experience becomes quite a bore. The nature of Pro Clubs is such that it completely exposes all of the gameplay deficiencies in FIFA. This year, it’s the crossing and shooting. Since a human player can run down the wing faster than the AI can track him, most players are using this gameplay mechanic to constantly cross the ball to score goals. The goalies struggle to handle the crosses and the shots are overpowered. In addition, Pro Clubs features some game-breaking glitches. There is a glitch where an attacker can run all the way to the opponent’s box, and the AI defender will track him all the way rather than maintaining the defensive line. It results in the defensive shape completely breaking apart and keeping all the other attackers onside. Again, how EA didn’t pick this up in testing is beyond me.
I also want to stress that EA has announced that any progress you make for your virtual pro on the current-generation consoles, will not make its way to next-gen. This is poor and shows a clear lack of attention to this mode. EA has made it clear that FUT progress can be seamlessly migrated. Therefore, why is it that I can’t carry over my virtual pro from PS4 to PS5, despite having played over 100 games to boost my pro on PS4? I will not be willing to restart my virtual pro career from scratch, and will therefore continue to play Pro Clubs on PS4.
Ultimate Team is where EA’s focus has clearly been. It’s what brings in the most amount of revenue and for better or for worse, FUT 21 is no different. Every year, EA works out ways to try and prevent gamers from getting rich unless they are either super lucky, or spend a fortune on packs. In FUT 20, EA started clamping down on transfer market traders by making it more difficult to predict what EA would release or announce in advance. This year, they have already started to put gamers in a timeout if too many actions are recorded on the web app in a short amount of time.
Despite EA trying to force gamers to either play matches (rather than play FUT as a trading card game) or buy packs with real money, there are some significant changes to the mode that I really love. Firstly, gone are the fitness cards. You no longer need to spend coins on cards to get your team’s fitness levels back up. After every match, the fitness resets. Instead, there is a huge emphasis on customization. You can customize your stadiums in ways that weren’t possible before. It may frustrate players who end up spending real money to open packs only to receive a heap of customization cards instead of rare players, but I prefer this direction.
EA has also placed a cap on how many games you can play per week in Division Rivals (essentially, a competitive ranked mode that can be played any time, as opposed to the Weekend League). With the introduction of this cap, you can still play as many Rivals games as you want, but only the first 30 count towards your final Rivals rank. I believe the reason for this was to stop gamers from ranking down just to complete objectives against easier opponents, and then afterwards ranking back up to get better rewards. Although the intention was great, there has been a lot of fan backlash on this. Gamers are still ranking down since they care more about the objectives than their final rank. Secondly, people who are truly trying to get the highest rank possible within 30 games, are realizing that if after a certain amount of losses, there is no way to reach the next rank, they will just stop there. Division Rivals was already more stressful than Weekend League in FIFA 20, but EA has made it even worse. Since players know that they only have 30 games to gain the best possible rank for that week, they are resorting to tactics that suck the joy out of playing FIFA. I hope EA reverts this change and also changes the way objectives can be earned. Objectives should not be reliant on you being forced to play a competitive mode every week. Some people just want to play FUT casually.
My favourite addition to FUT is co-op. Here, you can play Rivals and Squad Battles with another friend. This was a much-needed addition to the game, however I feel it may be too late.
My biggest problem with FUT 21, and the main reason why I will not be investing time in it this year, is because EA has done nothing to address the pay-to-win aspect of the game. Why am I being matched against players in weekend league who have already spent over £1500 on their squads just to get the best players? Why doesn’t EA silo such players so that in competitive modes, they match up only against other gamers with a similar first XI rating-wise? Why can’t EA go back to having weekend leagues with certain restrictions e.g. you can only play with teams with a max rating of 83? There is no other game that I can think of that claims to have a competitive eSports mode, but at the same time heavily favours gamers who have spent thousands of pounds to buy a team that helps them get to the top. In less than a year, all of that goes to waste, since you always start from scratch. I really want to play FUT, but there is no mode apart from Squad Battles (which is offline only) that lets me compete against opponents with a similar squad rating to mine for decent rewards. EA hasn’t any plans to change this model either.
FIFA 21 overall is a better game than its predecessor, however FIFA 21 is what FIFA 20 should have been. EA has introduced Volta co-op one year late, custom tactics to Pro Clubs one year late and co-op to FUT many years too late. Whilst I appreciate that EA has focused primarily on improving the gameplay, they seem to have gone backwards with the goalkeeping and referee AI. I just don’t get the impression that FIFA 21 is as polished as I had hoped it to be. However, I do appreciate that 2020 is not a normal year, and it is very possible that COVID also impacted the product roadmap for FIFA. In addition, EA probably had to focus on making sure that FIFA 21 works seamlessly on next-gen consoles. FIFA 21 will certainly appease fans for another year, and I remain very optimistic that FIFA 22 will provide the evolution that we have so desperately needed in the franchise.