FIFA 21 Review — All the Fixins', No Main Dish
FIFA 21 continues the recent trend of mediocre gameplay being held up by shiny features, new modes, and an overreliance on the Ultimate Team cash cow.
Switch, PC, Xbox One
Review copy provided by the publisher
Where to start with FIFA 21? Last year I gave the game a 7.5 and then a few months later wanted to drop that grade by three or four points. This was largely because of various title updates EA made to the game really screwed up the gameplay and changes to Ultimate Team in the middle of the year made it even less user friendly. My early time with the game has me worried they’ll do the exact same thing with gameplay this year, but I can only judge what they’ve put in front of me.
That’s the problem with a live game. FIFA 21 will never be static. It will change all the time. Regardless of the mode you play, the FIFA I’m playing today will likely change dramatically over the next few months. That makes it incredibly difficult to review, but I think I can say with some confidence that FIFA 21 is a decent enough game.
Let’s start with gameplay. That is, after all, the most important factor in whether or not you want to buy this year’s version. Well, I think it’s safe to say that it’s pretty much the same as pre-release FIFA 20 was. Manual defending is important, it’s harder to abuse things like drop-back defense, and, in general, the arcade-style football is kind of fun to play. I guess.
“Everything feels held together by the tiniest and weakest of strings.”
However, everything feels held together by the tiniest and weakest of strings. The ball physics are still atrocious. Not only is the trajectory and speed completely whacko when compared to real-life, but the thing is magnetized to players’ boots. You’ll see a ball careen off of a player, which would make you think it’s a 50/50 ball. It isn’t.
Instead, the FIFA algorithm has already decided who’s getting that ball. Heck, half the time you can’t even switch players, even if one of them is closer than the guy EA has decided you need to be locked onto. It’s madness. You’ll watch your AI player wave at the ball as it passes them by while your opponent just picks it up because the whole thing has been decided beforehand.
Speaking of player-switching, it continues to be broken. I don’t what it is about EA games, but between this and Madden it’s like they’ve coded it to always switch you to the wrong player at all times. It’s not as bad as Madden here, but it’s darn close. Expect to give up several goals again this year.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of legacy issues. The FIFA series is badly in need of a new engine. Frostbite just isn’t cutting it anymore. It’s also worth noting again that we saw a version of FIFA 20 that had great manual defending and then it was patched out almost immediately. So, even the good stuff might not be long for this world.
That said, the team certainly has some neat ideas for improving gameplay. I really love some of the stuff they’ve done with triggering player runs. You have so much more control over where your AI teammates go on offense. Unfortunately, it’s a small drop in the positive bucket in comparison to the sea of negatives.
Outside of gameplay, FIFA 21 is the definition of a mixed bag.
“All told, now is an excellent time to be a career mode player.”
Career mode is probably the mode that got the most love this year. Which is amazing given how long EA has let its old standby lag behind other modes. Some of the changes are, on their own, game-changing, but the total package could still use some tweaking.
For example, one of the bigger additions is the new training programs you can put your players on. These let you tailor their development toward a specific set of attributes. No longer will those high-rated strikers from your youth academy be stuck with a pitiful one-star weak foot. Now, you have so much more control over their growth.
Heck, you can even train players to switch positions now. In my save, I was able to grab Youcef Atal and change him into an absolutely beastly CDM by the end of my first year. He bossed that midfield and has my salivating at the thought of what players like Alphonso Davies and Trent Alexander-Arnold could be once they’re unlocked in the right system.
All of this good does come with a caveat. In overhauling player training, they’ve also changed how you handle weekly training. In the past, you simply had a training regime to run through once a week. Now, you have training days, rest days, and recovery days. Every time a training day comes up, it stops everything. So, if I’m simming through a two-week stretch without a match, the game is constantly stopping me to train. Sure, I can sim the actual training, but it still stops me from quickly getting into the next match. It just makes the whole thing feel a bit too much like busywork.
One area that does feel like a total improvement is the changes they’ve made to transfers. Now you can set transfers to either “strict” or “loose” before you start your save. Under loose, things function pretty much the same as they have in the past. However, with strict settings, teams from your league won’t trade players with you. It forces you to look outside of your league and makes it feel a little more true to life.
On top of that, AI managers can now use the same deal structures the player uses. So, you’ll see teams try to get players on a loan with the option to buy or trying to add players into the deal to bring the transfer fee down. Unfortunately, it seems like they only use these with you, which makes it feel less realistic. That said, it’s a net positive for career mode fans.
“It seems EA has about as much love for you all as Liverpool fans have for Aston Villa after the weekend.”
Plus, the new interactive sim mode is a dream for people who want more control over their team, but don’t want to play full matches. It lets you dictate the on-field strategy while monitoring your players’ stamina. If you want to jump in, it feels pretty snappy hopping in and out of the game. The mode really makes you feel like a football coach, which is a welcome addition.
All told, now is an excellent time to be a career mode player. EA is finally giving that base some love and hopefully, it’s a relationship that continues into the future. That said, there’s a couple of features in other modes that would translate beautifully to career mode.
On the Volta front, this continues to feel like a fun diversion that almost no one will play. The inclusion of new featured battles is great and lets you add some of the world’s best to your Volta squad. However, Volta is still held back by being handcuffed to the main FIFA 21 engine. If this were its own game with more over-the-top controls, it could really be something.
It also continues to be super weird that all of the cosmetics you can earn can’t be taken over into career mode. I’m sure there are a few old fogies who don’t want a coach on the sideline kitted out in the latest designer clothing; however, for those of us who like fun, it sucks that they’re all segmented away in Volta. And this year, EA seems to be working with clubs to bring in team-specific gear, which makes even crazier that it’s all locked onto a mode most people don’t play.
I’m very sorry to report that Pro Clubs have nearly nothing new to look forward to. It seems EA has about as much love for you all as Liverpool fans have for Aston Villa after the weekend.
“It’s quite the racket, but people keep dropping all their savings into it, so EA’s going to keep making it.”
Now onto the money-maker. FIFA Ultimate Team is one of the biggest cash cows in video games. Year in and out, players across the world spend entirely too much real-world money for the chance to pack the world’s best players and use them in FIFA’s main competitive mode. It’s quite the racket, but people keep dropping all their savings into it, so EA’s going to keep making it.
This year’s edition is mostly the same as last year. I really love the potential the team has with the new community events. These let the community come together and earn points to unlock new content. So far, the offerings are paltry, but I think they’ll fill it out more at release.
The same will hopefully become true in the objective section. Right now, too much of it is locked behind co-op play. Being able to play against the AI or other players with your friends is awesome. Locking content behind it isn’t. As someone who struggles to make time to play FIFA with friends, I hope they don’t ram it down our throats too much as we move through the game cycle.
The other big addition is the new FUT stadium. This is a grounds that EA has made from the ground-up which lets you fully customize your stadium’s look. Again, it’s a really great update that feels tailor-made for career mode. Imagine how much more fun it would be to slowly grow out your stadium as you take a team from the dregs of League Two all the way up the Premier League. Yet another missed opportunity for career mode fans.
That said, it’s a neat addition. Sure, it’s going to fill your packs up with stadium cosmetics, but they’ve gotten rid of fitness, so they needed something to gum up the odds. Now that you don’t have to manage fitness from game-to-game, you’ll have more money to spend, which feels like a win-win to me.
“FIFA 21 feels like a game with a ton of potential that’s being held back by its engine.”/pullquote]
The big problem in Ultimate Team (outside of the frankly insidious business practice of selling packs to kids) is how bad the servers continue to be. I played around 40 games in the mode for review and was kicked out at least a dozen times. That’s not a good sign considering the bulk of the player base can’t play yet. Hopefully, they sort it out, but the servers have been dodgy for a while now, so I’m not holding my breath.
I also think the menus are terrible in Ultimate Team this year. There are just too many of them and they’re slow. Last year, I could, for example, flip between playing and looking at objectives relatively quickly. In FIFA 21, I have to go through two or three slow menus to do so. Much like training in career mode, it just slows you down too much for seemingly no reason.
So, at the end of the day, FIFA 21 feels like a game with a ton of potential that’s being held back by its engine. Konami decided to take the year off and switch to Unreal. I can’t help but feel like EA really needs to do the same. For all the bells and whistles the team adds every year, the on-field product leaves so much to be desired.