We’ve waited a few days to write this article. FIFA 21, the latest in the very long-running line of annual soccer game releases from Electronic Arts, was released on October 6th. In the two or three days after it was launched, everyone took to the internet to give their opinion on it. Some people loved it, and some people hated it. That’s inevitable with a launch of this magnitude. We wanted to wait a little longer and spend more time playing it before we weighed in with our own opinion, but the time has now come. We’ve played FIFA 21 every way it can possibly be played, and here’s our honest take on what’s wrong with it.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room straight off the bat. Ultimate Team is still there, and it’s still mostly based on loot box mechanics. It’s almost unbelievable that EA is persisting with loot boxes at this point. Belgium has banned them because they use identical mechanics to online slots. The United Kingdom is also very close to banning them because that country’s government also considers them to be too similar to online slots. Think about it. You’re spending money – real or “in-game” money – on a Real money casino, with no way to influence the outcome. How is that any different from what a player does at an online slots website? It isn’t. You’d never let a child gamble, and the morality of allowing them to simulate gambling is dubious at best.
That side, Ultimate Team, is largely unchanged. Fitness and coaching have been removed, which has proven to be a popular choice with the community, and you can customize your stadium, which is a nice (if meaningless) touch, but everything else is basically the same. If you liked last year’s Ultimate Team, you’ll like this. If you expected significant evolution, you’ll be disappointed.
There were a few things that players badly wanted to see done to the balance of gameplay compared to FIFA 20. They got some of them. Crossing, thankfully, has been dramatically improved. It’s now possible to score a headed goal, and it’s nice to get that experience back. The defensive IQ of your computer opponents is better now, too. The same goes for your teammates. They’re less likely to fall over because of the most innocuous of challenges. They’re more likely to run into space to receive a pass when space is so obviously available.
The downside is that dribbling is now even more complicated than it was last time around. We don’t think anybody asked for that. There’s now a third mode of dribbling to go with skill dribbling and strafe dribbling, and we can honestly say that we still don’t know what it’s for or how it makes the game any better. The game has also (re)introduced “creative runs” – a feature from years ago where you can briefly switch control to off-the-ball teammates to have them run for you. This is a good idea in principle, but the player on the ball has a dreadful habit of losing it as soon as you surrender control of them. There are some nice ideas here, but they’re not fleshed out.
Here’s one of our major gripes with this game, and it won’t be one that everybody agrees with. VAR – or “Video Assistant Referee” to give the system its full name, hasn’t been popular with everybody. In fact, it hasn’t been popular with the majority of people. Fans hate it. Players hate it as well. It’s been accused of everything from spoiling the atmosphere of individual games to ruining the sport completely. For a supposedly foolproof system, it makes a lot of mistakes, and the decisions it makes about goals – especially those where there’s a possible offside or handball – are egregious. It’s far from a perfect system, and we wish it weren’t there.
Even with all of that said, hating the system doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. That makes it inexcusable to leave it out of FIFA 21. This game, above all other things, is supposed to be a football simulator. VAR, for better or for worse, is very much part of the modern game. Not including VAR in this year’s edition makes it feel stuck in the past. We know that not every player would want to deal with it, so give them the option to turn it off if they want. The exclusion of VAR feels lazy and doesn’t help with the impression that this ‘new’ version of the game is really just a slightly tweaked version of last year’s with new kit designs.
There are a few surface-level improvements with career mode, so here they are. Transfer negotiations are a little more flexible and realistic than they used to be. You can now loan players with an agreement to buy them at the end of the loan term, and the clubs who come in for your players tend to be a little more realistic. When you’re training young players, you can now train them in groups instead of individually, and you can encourage them to learn new positions. That rapid 17-year-old left-back you’ve been nurturing can be turned into a left-winger, becoming the new Gareth Bale in the process.
Simming games in career mode is a better experience now, too. You can watch the gameplay out minute by minute as if you were playing Football Manager, but jump in and take over if you go a goal down or the game isn’t going the way you want it to. That’s a lot better than pressing one button and immediately being given a result you can do nothing about.
These changes don’t make career mode feel any less empty, though. The same teams still go up and down from all the leagues. You can’t edit kits. The same managers keep their jobs for as long as you play through your career. Whether it’s 2021 or 2031, Jurgen Klopp will still be in charge of Liverpool, and Sean Dyche will still be at Burnley. The world is stale and static, and so after a while, it becomes dull.
We should have known better than to expect too much of this version of FIFA. It’s come out at a difficult time, during the transition from the current generation of consoles to the next one. Next year there won’t be a current-gen version of the game, and so more focus will hopefully have been placed on making the most of the capabilities of the newer hardware. FIFA 21 is very much a placeholder game, and so because of that, it might be one to miss.