Having spent a week checking out FIFA 21, I’m sure that most fans of digitized soccer (or football, for you fine readers outside the United States) will be satisfied. Not wowed, and not disappointed, but satisfied.
The latest installment in one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world brings enough new content to the table to justify a new release, even for those who like to pick up the new FIFA annually but aren’t necessarily at “shut up and take my money” levels of enthusiasm. But, as always when it comes to annualized sports titles, it’s best not to go in blind lest ye be burned by the newest content not having as much of an effect on the way you engage with these games.
Take the newest elements of gameplay, for instance, since that will affect everyone who boots up FIFA 21. Because the series has the formula down pat after decades of tinkering to match the real action on the pitch as best as possible, the on-pitch upgrades are more nuanced. You’ve got a few more skill moves with which to beat defenders at your disposal, while headers are more effective and easier to control this year. Most tweaks are on that level, and it’s possible some of the more casual players won’t even perceive much of a difference.
One new tool does rise a bit above that level: the ability to direct teammates’ movement away from the ball to create scoring chances. Dubbed “Creative Runs” in EA Sports speak, it’s as simple as player locking with a press of both analog sticks, then using flicks of the right stick to direct movement. It’s a nifty little mechanic that’s entirely optional, but it opens doors to better capitalize on scoring chances.
From there, your time in FIFA 21 will probably split unevenly between the two biggest overarching modes of play: FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) and Career Mode. Again, there’s at least a little something added to each this year, but nothing earth-shattering. And The Journey, the impressive narrative-based trilogy from FIFA 17 through FIFA 19, remains conspicuously absent for the second year in a row. I won’t hold that against EA, but I don’t have to like it.
Release Date: Oct. 9. 2020
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PC, Switch
Developer: Electronic Arts
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Soccer Simulation
Career mode offers the most bang for your buck, as you can either go through the life and times of a manager — in the closest thing to a traditional franchise mode as FIFA 21 gets — or take a player through his athletic career before (optionally) becoming a manager. That’s nothing new. What is — and this probably takes the gold as the best new feature — however, is a Football Manager-esque match sim that allows you to make decisions while watching little colored dots, representing all 22 players on the pitch, execute the game plan. The experience includes play-by-play audio to heighten the experience, just the same as if you were playing on the pitch yourself. If you decide to hop into the match and take over, it’s easy and seamless. And you can just as easily pause and switch back to the sim if you’ve had your fill. As someone — and I’ll be kind to myself — who is not a strong FIFA player, I loved this option, and I imagine I won’t be alone.
Also welcome additions to the career experience are Player Development decisions, such as selecting which attributes to focus on with each individual player or even training them to switch positions. It’s a passive system but would be very welcome in other sports franchises as well (MLB The Show, anyone?). This, and the aforementioned sim option, reinforce Career as my preferred way to play FIFA. Although I could do without the drawn out, unskippable dialogue that plays out during negotiations with players, agents, and other managers. A scene that should take a minute or less generally lasts 5 minutes, or at least it feels that way.
But FUT definitely is the driving force for EA’s bottom line, thanks to it’s microtransaction-incentivized setup. The card-collecting, team-building mode clearly is a favorite for many, and dedicated players should welcome the ability to play co-op with friends. It’s a long-overdue feature, but it’s here now at least and could be just the thing you’re looking for to commiserate over all the real-world money you’ve sunk into making your team better. Other than that, the most attractive new feature is FUT Stadium, which grants you a customizable home for your side. Of course, this being FUT, your customization options are limited to the cards you acquire.
Volta Football received a little attention too, although I get the sense I’m among a small minority who enjoy the FIFA Street-lite futsal action. An optional introduction called The Debut features the bare bones of a drama-free story that heavily features retired Brazilian star Kaká, but The Journey this is not. Also new and nominally present is an online co-op feature in Volta Squads which, one week after launch, still will not work right for me. The options to group up with friends or drop in with strangers are essentially broken in their current form. I’d love to play alongside literally any human in Volta, but that’s not an option. Not exactly the right path to winning over new fans to this mode, EA.
For all intents and purposes, this is the swan song to this console generation for the FIFA series. Generally, the game before a new console generation launches isn’t going to re-invent the wheel, and that’s manifested with most of 2020’s sports titles — especially while dealing with a global pandemic that has radically affected game development teams. While FIFA 21 is a far cry from the series’ PS4/XBO peak with FIFA 17, it’s also got a leg up on last year’s poorly-received entry. Take that as faint praise if you like.