Considering the high number of goals so far in the Premier League this season, EA might do well to revive their vintage “if it’s in the game, it’s in the game” tagline. It seems reality may have finally caught up with the frenetic pace of play in FIFA 21.

GAMEPLAY IS SLIGHTLY LESS PREDICTABLE, BUT NOT ENOUGH

It’s easy to tell the difference from last year’s product once you’ve made your way to the virtual pitch. Numerous small, yet effective, gameplay improvements have created a more unique experience. Defenders are smarter, getting into shooting lanes far more effectively to block shots at the edge of the penalty area.

An updated collision system makes knowing how the ball will bounce when two players come together significantly less predictable, and the new Agile Dribbling system rewards skilled players with a new bag of tricks to make defenders look silly. And yet, these improvements – all necessary upgrades from FIFA 20 – fail to truly affect the game in a meaningful way.

The core strategy largely remains the same. Speed kills. If you play an Online Seasons match, prepare for a high-scoring shootout full of pacey wingers abusing fullbacks down the flanks. Sound familiar? It should. Derek Rae and Lee Dixon take over the entire game’s commentary, rather than just Champions League matches.

Their lines, unlike their predecessors Martin Tyler and Alan Smith, are unfortunately too few and repetitive. That will likely get better over time, but for a pairing that already existed in one game mode, it’s somewhat underwhelming.

CAREER MODE GETS BETTER, BUT A LONG WAY TO GO

EA has never been under any delusion that their Career Mode could hold a candle to famous football sim Football Manager, but they did add a few new bells and whistles to one of their flagship game modes this season. After largely ignoring the mode since they introduced a slow and laborious interactive cutscene feature to contract negotiations, Career Mode finally got some valuable attention with an interactive simulation option to play through matches.

Adopted from many other sports games, this new feature allows you to seamlessly jump in and back out of the action at the gamer’s discretion. It even prompts the player to intervene based on different critical situations, for instance if there’s a penalty kick about to take place. Your options when negotiating for a player have also expanded.

Managers now have the ability to loan a player with a purchase obligation further down the line, like so many clubs throughout Europe have utilized in recent years. It’s heartening to see Career Mode get some functional love, and one can only hope that we’ll see more of the same in the next few iterations of the franchise.

VOLTA RETURNS, IF YOU’RE INTO THAT SORT OF THING

A brand new feature for FIFA 20, the franchise’s informal 5-a-side mode VOLTA has returned in a similar way for Year 2. Similar to “World of Chel” in the NHL series, consider VOLTA a way for players to learn some of the finer points of gameplay such as skill moves and ball tricks in a streetball setting that’s set in cities all over the globe, starting in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

You can choose to follow the story’s progress in a single-player mode, earning different cosmetic items to apply to your character. New for this year is the ability to play online with friends in VOLTA, just like you can in FIFA Pro Clubs. It’s obvious that the developers foresee this game mode as a way to engage the eSports audience, especially with such an emphasis in the mode on skill and flair.

It’s worth a try, but your traditional FIFA players will likely continue to tune out. In the end, it’s still really just a game mode that makes you yearn for the FIFA Street days of yesteryear.

ULTIMATE TEAM EASES UP ON PINCH, BUT STILL HAS TO PAY THE BILLS

The game’s most controversial (and most lucrative) game mode remains FIFA Ultimate Team, the team-building game that forces you to open packs to collect players and consumables to build and maintain your squad. In recent years, the development team has attempted to increase in-game rewards aimed at less-engaged users in the hopes that the requirement to spend real dollars on “FIFA Points” is alleviated early on in the game’s lifecycle.

Customization is the big difference in FUT from a year ago. In addition to your club’s name, badge and kits, you can now personalize elements of a fictional “ultra-modern” stadium with different tifos, banners, fan songs and player goal celebrations. With new ways to play such as Division Rivals, Squad Battles (against the AI), and Friendlies, players can make their way through less competitive games while earning rewards to help build their team.

Expect an even further expansion on this from their live content team as the year progresses, but do so with the understanding that at some point, you’ll be required to spend on top of the $60 you invested on the game itself just to keep up with the pack.

VERDICT

FIFA 21 plays like a high-budget team with aspirations of a league title, but ultimately disappoints at season’s end. There’s plenty of flair and personality to go around, and you’ll certainly enjoy yourself along the way. But the new bells and whistles merely paper over the cracks of what’s become an all-too-predictable gaming experience.

Effectively, it’s the video game version of Arsenal. 


Pros

  • Career mode makes strides.
  • Gameplay feels less predictable.
  • VOLTA goes online.
  • Customization comes to FUT.

Cons

  • Gameplay tweaks don’t change much.
  • Ultimate Team still pay-to-win.
  • Commentary leaves a lot to be desired.

Score: 7/10