In these uncertain times, you can always rely on the two football behemoths of the gaming world, FIFA and PES, to go head-to-head each year. We’ve already seen what Konami’s eFootball PES 2021 Season Update has to offer – nothing overly fresh – but now it’s time for EA to play their hand. Will FIFA 21 on Xbox One merely be a carbon copy of the previous title, albeit with some team updates just like its rival, or can it deliver an improved experience and score a hit in the process?
It’s fair to say EA have stepped up to the plate with FIFA 21 boasting numerous gameplay improvements and a few much needed additions to certain modes. While there’s a lot to admire, it does suffer from an assortment of strange issues affecting various aspects, which really takes the shine off.
Let’s face facts, FIFA 21 isn’t going to reinvent the wheel here, it’s still a football game; a football game that creeps ever-closer to being more of a simulation experience than an arcade-y one. There is however a whole host of gameplay altering features, ensuring the freshest offering in years. In fact, the overall feeling is that there’s a more considered approach to proceedings now, as many elements are less assisted and likely to go wayward if rushed.
Passing is where you’ll notice the difference, with the success of a pass reaching its target reliant on a number of player attributes as well as the strength of your input. This is never more true than when crossing takes place, which sees the assisted setting offer less help. There’s also a great selection of cross types, enabling whipped efforts at multiple heights and floaty balls, depending what the situation calls for. Given that everything crossing-oriented was essentially pointless in FIFA 20, it’s great to see it being given an overhaul. To complement the new crossing techniques, headers have gone through a bit of a transformation and are completely manual to execute.
On top of that, initiating fancy overhead kicks is easier than ever, but just because you can perform the movement doesn’t mean it’ll go in without plenty of space and good aim. And for those who love to show off, the dribbling system puts extra options at your disposal to allow the most agile attacking players to send defenders in a spin. Shifting the ball from side to side has seldom been easier and could be the difference maker in trying to outwit the opposition. When you’re on the receiving end of such direct dribbles, it can really test your focus on timing that tackle for fear of overcommitting and conceding unnecessary fouls.
The changes have come into play in relation to off-the-ball antics too, such as new ways to influence your teammates’ movements. Player runs can not only be triggered by you, but also directed via a simple flick of the analog stick. As someone who uses the pass and move feature a lot, it’s great to be able to send the passer on a run trajectory that suits the next stage of your plan as well. But that’s not all, with the new ‘player lock’ meaning it’s possible to keep control of the passer, before calling to the AI to return the ball. While they may take a bit of getting used to, all of these new features, alongside the best aspects retained from the previous game, ensure FIFA 21 offers a never-before-seen level of control over the play.
So, EA have more or less cracked it on the gameplay front, especially in regards to the fresh ideas. There are some peculiar goings on though, the worst of which could do with being fixed pretty sharpish. Although not a regular occurrence, the ball occasionally magnetises towards a player it’s never meant to reach, seeing it abnormally change direction mid-flow. What’s more costly in the midst of a match however – yet not overly frequent – is when goalies do the stupidest and most inappropriate dive to stop a goal, failing as a result and looking like a buffoon that wouldn’t get in the Dog & Duck pub team. They also have a tentative outlook on picking up a ball close to them in order to diffuse an attack, which isn’t ideal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the usually reliable Jan Oblak or often criticised Adrian between the sticks, both could succumb to these anomalies.
Moving onto more positive things, and there are various game modes that have received improvements, starting with the Career mode, which is full of depth these days thanks to the multi-faceted development and player growth systems. Players can be retrained in new positions, learn specific roles and have fluctuating attributes that are dependent on getting game-time and performance in training drills. There’s a real onus on making sure players aren’t left unused, otherwise they’ll begin to deteriorate and become rubbish – just like real-life really.
Sometimes, as a manager, you just want to send the lads out to play and take a more hands-off attitude by simulating matches. I have done that regularly over the years, but always get frustrated when my highly rated squad struggles against Fulham or Southampton. That’s why I adore the new ability to jump-in at any point of a simulated match and finish them off myself. Literally at any minute, in the middle of a counter, during a set piece or when on the back-foot, FIFA 21 gladly lets you smoothly enter the fray. As such, the managerial side of Career mode has arguably peaked.
For years, Pro Clubs has fallen by the wayside while EA conjured up ideas to help the 11vs11 mode evolve and get better. Finally then it appears that Clubs has received a fair amount of improvement with the re-introduction of custom tactics and the opportunity to customise the AI members of your team. Yet while the tactical additions are welcome, the customisation is quite limiting by only allowing name changes and visual alterations. Things like height, weight and anything attribute affecting are off-limits, meaning you can’t tailor the squad to suit your play style.
On the contrary, the FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) inclusions see some of its most enjoyable game types playable in co-op. The likes of Squad Battles against the AI, Division Rivals versus humans, and Friendlies are available to play with a friend online. You can use either person’s team and both of you will earn ranking points as well as progress towards weekly and season-long objectives. Aside from that, there are community objectives to fulfill, with people contributing collectively towards a grander target.
Additionally, a shed load of customisation is available for your stadium, including seat colours, pyrotechnics, goal music and even pitchside areas to display trophies. There was already a ton of choice in terms of what to play and how to make your club stand out in FUT, but now the fantasy team building exercise is on another level. The only negatives surrounding Ultimate Team are in regards to unintuitive UI, which over-complicates the navigation to your squad, and the fact success can practically be bought. The latter is annoying for folks who work hard in-game to earn rewards, but alas EA garners lots of money through this method, so you either live with it or leave it.
Should offerings outlined above not be enough for you, there’s always Volta, the street football style mode that’s down with the kids and proper sick. Only it isn’t ‘sick’ in the slightest. Credit where it’s due though, Volta has had a revamp and the narrative on offer is much more streamlined. Titled ‘The Debut’, you’ll be tasked with travelling the globe, to places like Sao Paulo and Milan, hoping to win enough matches and reach a prestigious competition in Dubai. Lasting just a couple of hours, it’s a decent way to get to grips with the fast-paced matches, ranging from 3v3 to 5v5, where the first to five goals wins. The cutscenes are still cringeworthy sadly, but at least there’s less of them.
The longevity of Volta is definitely in growing your team outside of the story, completing Squad Battles akin to those in FUT, and allowing you to recruit superstars like Kaka. That’s fine, however the gameplay against the AI is incredibly dull and matches are done swiftly, either because of the AI difficulty being too high that they annihilate you or too low that they’re lifeless. Since its inception, Volta came across as one of those modes that’s geared up to be fun alongside a couple of mates. Now, you can squad-up with people you know, or randoms, and rise through the rankings in Divisions. On paper, it’s a great addition, but in reality, it all falls apart with matchmaking issues.
Volta isn’t the only mode affected though, as Pro Clubs and FUT Co-op has its moments too. During many hours on FIFA 21, I’ve failed almost every time to connect to anyone in Volta and on the rare occasion it finds someone, there’s an immediate connection problem. While Pro Clubs and FUT Co-op aren’t quite as bad, there are spells where you’ll have to put up with failed search after failed search. If it solely affected Volta, then the blame could be placed on a lack of player base, but there’s more to it than that and, hopefully, the developers are working on it.
Keeping on the subject of drawbacks, there is also currently a bug in Pro Clubs which ends up with you controlling someone else’s player and they get yours. Another persistent problem is actually an issue first noticed in FIFA 20; the atmospheric stadium noise cutting in and out at random intervals. Despite a fair few patches since launch, none of the outstanding issues have been fixed as of the time of writing.
Nevertheless, one thing EA have kept on top of so far is the updating of teams by ensuring the latest transfers are reflected in-game. Given the sheer amount of leagues in FIFA 21, with the popular English leagues, La Liga and Serie A featuring alongside the J-League, MLS and the K-League, it’s great to see up-to-date teams for fans around the world. The only criticism is that there still aren’t any women’s club teams included, which makes the yearly offering of International teams to use in pointless Kick-Off matches, for example, a mere token gesture.
At the end of the day though, FIFA 21 on Xbox One provides the freshest gameplay of recent times and really gives you more control on the pitch to play it your way. The FIFA series has already collated a good selection of game modes, but now the Career and FUT modes especially have benefited from improvements. Volta is still one of those things you’ll either love or hate though. There’s no doubt FIFA 21 is a great game, but a few issues, including matchmaking, curtail its ambitions of being a top, top football experience.
It’s testament to the newly implemented features that FIFA 21 is worthy of your cash and, if certain aspects are patched, then this will be the best FIFA instalment in years.