It’s fitting that in such an uninspiring year we are graced with such an uninspired FIFA. It makes sense. It’s understandable. FIFA, as a franchise, is three goals up against the opposition, running down the clock until the whistle blows on this console transition.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting when you pay full price for – and this is a slightly less uncharitable critique than usual – what essentially feels like new shirts.
Make no mistake: there are new features here. Which we will get to. But we have once again arrived at the point in FIFA’s seemingly eternal lifecycle where new features are not enough, and a complete AI and moment-to-moment gameplay overhaul is required for the next annual release to feel anything more compelling than, well, new shirts.
FIFA 21 Review
At its absolute best, on the pitch, without distraction, FIFA 21 is still thrilling. When the ball hits the back of the net. When you spot that impossible through-ball and it miraculously comes off. When 75 minutes of grinding stalemate finally erupt into a flurry of brilliant goals. Few games can as reliably trigger excitement and adrenaline. All that is still true.
But it’s the exact same thrill and the exact same excitement as it was last year. And the year before. With diminishing returns now.
The returning Volta football mode gets a headline spot this year. It’s fleshed out, with a globe-hopping rags-to-glory story mode that I found myself enjoying across its brief runtime. It’s not as interesting or as grand as Alex Hunter’s The Journey from a few years back, but it’s not a waste of time either. There’s some charm, some humanity – almost undone by some cringey bravado but not quite – and a few fun cameos.
The small-side, small-pitch Volta matches are given some meta-progression with skill trees, cosmetics, and larger-than-life almost-hero-shooter esque characters. None of it made me care, but as a break from the real football, it’s welcome.
On the full-sized pitch, the most significant tweak – and I use that phrase lightly – is the ability to control the direction of players running onto through balls. It’s something the community has asked for for years, and it’s welcome. It still needs work, though.
After triggering the run, you move the right analogue stick in the direction you want the player to sprint, an arrow on the pitch foreshadowing trajectory. It’s a nice piece of UI work, but in play it’s fiddly. It’s also only useful if your mind and the AI are in complete agreement about which off-ball player should make the run, which happens less often than I’d like. I’m sure pros will be able to make use of it; I’ve all but stopped.
Career Mode has bulked up during the off-season, too. It’s still prone to some baffling transfer and progression logic, but the foundations for a better second draft on the new consoles are there.
The interactive match sim feature lets you play out games in an arcadey top-down take on Sports Interactive’s Football Manager series, tracking stats and match flow from above like a towering managerial deity, but then instantly jumping into the on-field action at opportune or crucial moments, should you choose. There’s nowhere near as much depth as in Football Manager, but Football Manager doesn’t let you momentarily play FIFA either, so it’s a decent compromise.
Pre- and post-match interviews throughout the season are still a nice touch, but they add very little beyond atmosphere. They’re not fully voiced, and, unless you’re a bit of a sociopath, it’s incredibly obvious what the right answer is – the one that boosts your team morale stat – to every single question.
Player development now lets you invest and shape individuals into different roles, and training drills between matches bolster your match sharpness, a new stat that impacts how well your superstars perform during clutch, match-winning moments. All these additions are welcome, but they do compound the stop/start nature of career mode.
If you’re in a “just let me play football” mood, career mode has become mildly irritating, rather than a destination. As the calendar moves along through the season you’ll be interrupted sometimes dozens of times for training (which I ended up always skipping after toying with them briefly), transfer news, and scouting reports, before you can play a match. For people that want that granularity, it’s here, and it’s good. But everyone else is probably better sticking to kick-off mode now.
Or the roulette wheel money pit of FUT, but I need leave that right alone.
I also have an oddly personal bugbear, but it feels representative of a greater lack of overall direction and care, so here goes. It took Leeds United 16 years to get back into the Premier League. This season is a big moment, not just for Leeds fans, but for football fans. The omission of Elland Road – the only Premier League stadium not featured in the game – feels indicative of EA’s finger slipping ever so slightly off the pulse of world football. And that hasn’t been true for a long time now.
The final thing that must be mentioned is the surprising amount of hard crashes I experienced while reviewing FIFA 21. I’m optimistic these errors can be patched before long, but in my week with the game, it happened around a dozen times, possibly more. At least that feels new, I guess?
I love football. And I still love FIFA. But it’s the former carrying the latter here. FIFA 22 will be a crucial game for this franchise.
FIFA 21 was reviewed on PS4 using a digital copy provided by EA.