Before starting my 10 hour trial of FIFA 21 through EA Play, my expectations for the game were extremely low. I hated FIFA 20 and dreaded the few improvements I could expect with this year’s game. After spending 10 hours with the game, it’s clear that EA played it very safe, not taking any risks before starting fresh on new consoles. Although there are still problems throughout, I was pleasantly surprised how much fun I was actually having.
FIFA is FUT
You can’t talk about FIFA without starting with FIFA Ultimate Team. It’s unavoidable. After the obligatory intro match featuring Liverpool vs Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League Final, the first mode option is FUT.
I don’t hate FUT but I’m not its target audience even though it was what I played the most during these 10 hours. When I was much younger, my friends and I played FIFA against each other to see who was best. Couch head-to-head was where we spent those late-night hours.
When I think about FUT, the focus has been about playing against random people around the world and the whole point of building a strong side was to give you that advantage over your opposition.
That hasn’t changed. You’ll still need to open packs, navigate the market, and hope for the best. You can spend real money to help you out but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll field a winning side. You still need the skill to beat others around the world. But, the shift to more collaborative/social play is also on full display.
When I first started playing FUT, I thought FUT Friendlies was something new, but to my surprise, it was available last year. They’ve added a few more match types and house rules options to keep things fresh. I really enjoyed my time with the different Friendly match types and could see myself spending a lot of time fooling around with them.
Because I thought it was new, I thought FUT had a lot of new content but looking back, it doesn’t really. For FUT 21, they are really pushing hard towards Co-Op play and FUT Events. I didn’t get a chance to play with others during my time with FUT, so I can’t give my impressions on this aspect. I could see it being something influencers will play on streams and videos but I don’t know how much legs it will have with the larger community.
As for FUT Events, it’s also far too early to give an opinion on this. This is tied to Objectives, where the FUT community is working together to unlock various in-game content. Because the game is only a few days old, the ‘good’ rewards haven’t been unlocked, and the early rewards aren’t that great.
Another new aspect this year is the ability to customizable your stadium, removing the previous ability to play in real-life stadiums. It’s kind of fun to change things around to give your stadium some originality. Most of the content for the stadium is unlocked through completing objectives or finding some club-specific items in packs. With a lot of it locked through progression, if you’re not fully dedicated to the mode, your stadium will probably look pretty plain.
Considering I barely played FIFA 20, FUT still feels the same. I didn’t notice any real changes to Squad Building Challenges or Squad Battles. My time with FUT 20 was super limited, so I didn’t really get to experience FUT Objectives, but I did get to Level 7 for the first season of Objectives in FUT 21. I don’t have the time or energy to play Division Rivals or Weekend League, so I can’t really give an opinion on the online competitive aspects of FUT.
My biggest gripe with FUT outside of the monetary and time investments it requires, I just find the menus are both clunky and overflowing with content. Because there is so much in FUT, sifting through each section takes a bit of time (I was playing on an Xbox One S), your Stadium and Squads are accessed by holding the left analog stick up or down and getting sections which you’ll probably use most might not be that easy. I’m surprised they didn’t just try to keep things simple or give users the ability to customize the home screen so that you can access your most frequently used sections to save time.
Volta is better but it’s still not good
One of the things I absolutely hated about FIFA 20 was Volta, its take on street football. The mode was glitchy, recycled the same character assets time and time again, and the story didn’t hold my interest what-so-ever. In FIFA 21, I went through its story mode “The Debut” in about two hours. It’s not too challenging, you’ll play about 10 matches and 12 skill games by the time you finish.
It’s meant to get you familiar with the controls, able to boost your created character to a decent rating and have a solid squad to face off against others. While the story is better than the last time around, it’s still nothing special and outside of the last match, I remember nothing about any of the characters I came across, including those you’re probably supposed to be aware of.
The controls are still wonky. I don’t feel that they tuned the controls to work well with the smaller pitches. Often, my players would shoot completely off-target at close range. Or, run over the opposition, which leads to some head shaking glitches. Glitches happen far too often with the AI making idiotic decisions or losing complete awareness of the ball.
One thing I really did like with Volta was its soundtrack. I don’t know why EA removed the track notifier, so I couldn’t tell the name of the songs I was jamming to but they at least added to the atmosphere of playing street football. Historically, FIFA is a great stepping stone for emerging artists (getting to hear the soundtrack before making it public was one of my favorite parts of my job at EA) and I will definitely seek out some of the artists I heard in FIFA 21.
Playing it Safe
Unless you really dig into FIFA 21, most casual players won’t notice too much new or different. There are no new single-player modes, changes to the Managerial aspects of Career mode were old features brought back to appear fresh, and the Champions League won’t feature all 32 teams yet again.
On the pitch, the game feels more arcadey. I typically start playing FIFA on Semi-Pro just to see what’s different, then I’ll jump to Professional and increase the difficulty more if I feel confident with my play. Chances are, most casuals will play on either of those two difficulties and the challenge is fair. I never had any challenge on Semi-pro but on Professional, if my side was weaker on paper, I couldn’t afford any mistakes if I wanted a win.
Even outside of Volta, there are plenty of glitches and inconsistencies. Players will contort into pretzels, balls will go through body parts, and even AI decision-making can be questionable. I had far too many times when a computer player should have been carded for a slide tackle from behind with none given. It’s moments like these that frustrate the most and take you out of the immersion you’re expecting from the probably the biggest sports game in the world.
I also noticed some odd defensive decisions. If my controlled player was tracking an attacking player, the AI wouldn’t quickly adjust to either cut off a potential passing lane or mark an unmarked player. On the higher difficulty, this often led to the opposition getting an easy shot on target (or goal). In the above gallery, the image featuring Son (in a Celtic jersey) cutting through three of my players, the one at the top of the triangle surround Son actually walks away from the play rather than get in front of the attacker. It makes no sense why the AI did that and it led to a goal.
Lastly, the graphics haven’t seen much of an improvement, and with regards to the crowds, they feel extremely dated. I understand this is the end of the console cycle, so I shouldn’t expect too much improvement in this area. But, after playing PES 2021 and loving the effort they put into their stadiums and crowds, it’s a major let down.
End of an Era
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One era of the FIFA franchise was really interesting. It went through two engines (IGNITE then Frostbite), took a risk with “The Journey” in FIFA 17-19, finally got back the Champions League License, and FUT completely took over. I can’t really say what was my favorite FIFA between 14 and 21 but I think the middle games of the generation were where I spent the most time with and with my name in the credits, they’ll always hold a special place in my heart.
FIFA 21 is an improvement over FIFA 20 but it won’t be remembered for much. With the PS4/One versions out, when will EA begin showing more of the game on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X? Based on early messaging, a lot of the supplemental content like the Copa Libertadores won’t be included, so what else is being held off for next-gen? Will the gameplay stays the same or can we expect some further changes or new content outside of FUT? If EA’s Dual Entitlement is only a graphical upgrade and a higher frame rate, I think most people will be extremely disappointed.