FIFA 21 Review: A Maradona Spin in the Right Direction

On the surface level, FIFA 21 is a carbon copy of FIFA 20. In fact, on the surface level, it’s hard to even distinguish FIFA 19 and FIFA 18 from FIFA 21. But this is just on the surface level. If you peel back this layer, what you will find is a heap of upgrades, some critical improvements, and appreciable additions that make FIFA 21 close to one of the best FIFA games in years. EA still has work to do, but FIFA 21 is a step in the right direction ahead of the next-generation of gaming.

Like every FIFA before it, FIFA 21 is at its best offline and played casually. The better you get at FIFA 21, the worse and worse the game gets, particularly online where players will undermine the entire game through exploitation and overuse. For a majority of players, especially those that play offline, this isn’t a problem, but at the highest levels of online play, the problems of FIFA 21 are exposed, morphing and mutilating the game’s attempt at simulation. That said, this isn’t a problem unique to FIFA 21, and it’s only relevant to a minority of players, and thus not worth harping on.

The moment-to-moment gameplay of FIFA 21 is very similar to FIFA 20 -- maybe too similar. If you liked how FIFA 20 played, you’re going to enjoy how FIFA 21 plays. If you didn’t like how FIFA 20 played, you’re probably not going to be the biggest fan of FIFA 21. It’s that simple. The annualization of the series doesn’t allow for deviation or revamping. The best you’re going to get is refinement, and that’s exactly what we have gotten with FIFA 21.

FIFA 21 is most fulfilling when you have the ball and you’re attacking. From FIFA 20 to FIFA 21, dribbling is the most different, thanks to the addition of agile dribbling, which allows you more freedom and creativity in one-on-one situations. This includes fast footwork, close control, and a variety of skill moves that completely transform stationary dribbling and allow you to attempt your best Neymar highlight reel. Offline, against AI, the agile dribbling is a nice flavor enhancer, however, it’s easy to see it will be exploited online. Beyond this, dribbling feels better than it has in years, however, players are still a little stiff and play like they have 70 minutes in their legs at all times. Turning is especially clunky, and, as a result, dribbling is still too reliant on skill moves.

Better than dribbling is passing. PES has FIFA’s number in a lot of gameplay areas, but I don’t think passing is one. EA has perfected the weight of passing. If you want to play like 2009 Barcelona, you can. If you want to dominate possession in methodical fashion like a prime Sarri team, you can. And if you want to punch the opposition with rapid counter-attacks, you can. The only complaint to be had is through balls, particularly in congested areas, still sometimes fail to recognize the intended target.

Complementing this, players now have more control over the runs of their AI teammates, and this can go a long way when what you envision in your head plays out exactly as planned. This doesn’t always happen, though. Further, while some players will relish the added complexity and control, others who don’t engage with these finer controls will still find AI runs frustrating and unpredictable, and this is partially because AI still isn’t responsive enough to the flow of the game and its circumstances, and is rather running around the field like Jose Mourinho is in their ear telling them where to go, inch by inch.

Then, there’s shooting, and, like passing, shooting feels as good as it ever has, though it’s still afflicted with the same issue as recent installments: long-range finesse shots are over-powered. For FIFA 21, EA has drastically improved 1v1 finishing, though near-post finishing still needs adjustments, as strikers are far too often hitting these with laser precision. FIFA 21 also adds manual headers that give players more control where their headers go, and for the most part, this is a nice touch, yet it does seem to slightly undermine the art of heading by making things too easy.

If the attacking phase is where FIFA 21 shines, the defensive phase is where it’s sometimes exposed, which won’t be very surprising to those who’ve played the last few installments. Where attacking play is electric and sometimes almost arcade-y, defending can be unwieldy and unreliable in its pursuit of realism.

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(Photo: EA)

Despite an overhauled collision system that does help alleviate FIFA 20’s issues, tackling is still undependable due to the physics system, and it’s almost like EA knows this because it feels like the game sometimes forces you into containing. Meanwhile, because tackling isn’t sticky enough, pressing can be fruitless at times.

Tackling is a minor grievance compared to defensive positioning, which continues to be inadequate. Whether it’s defenders allergic to goal-side marking or holding mids refusing to pick up runners out of the midfield, too often goals are conceded because the AI isn’t reacting naturally to the developing play. Thankfully, goalkeepers are improved compared to previous installments. Not only is the positioning of goalkeepers more reliable, but their shot-blocking with their feet and legs has seemingly improved. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like every keeper is having a worldie on the highest difficulty levels. The better goalkeepers feel smarter, not physical freaks of nature, but they all still struggle with parrying the ball out of danger areas.

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(Photo: ea)

A big reason so many prefer FIFA over PES doesn’t come down to gameplay, but everything that surrounds it, like the packaging, presentation, features, and modes. Visually FIFA 21 looks like FIFA 20, and from a packaging and presentation perspective, PES doesn’t even compare. Like every installment, so many resources have been dumped into authenticity, and it’s on display at every opportunity. If this is the allure of FIFA for you, you'll be happy to know the allure is as strong as ever.

If you’re coming to FIFA for Ultimate Team, you’ll find noticeable improvements and changes, but nothing that drastically evolves the experience. New co-op options make playing with your friends easier and better compared to FIFA 20, while the new team and community events will provide you another thing to work towards and a sense of inclusion if you don’t have friends to play with. Meanwhile, new stadium customization options allow you to realize your club and further express yourself.

Even less notable than the improvements, tweaks, and additions to Ultimate Team are the improvements tweak, and additions to VOLTA and Pro Clubs, especially Pro Clubs, which really got the short end of the stick this year, very much like Career Mode has in past installments.

Pro Clubs got such a diminutive amount of attention it’s hardly worth mentioning, while VOLTA football continues to be nothing like the great arcade sports games of yesteryear. VOLTA tries to bridge FIFA Street and FIFA proper while remaining faithful to the series’ addiction to authenticity, and the result is an end product that won’t satisfy either crowd. For VOLTA, EA should lean more into games like SEGA Soccer Slam, Super Mario Strikers, and even Freestyle Street Soccer in order to offer something thoroughly different from the core experience.

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(Photo: EA)

While EA could have done better with VOLTA and Pro Clubs, Career Mode fans will be happy to hear that typically the outcast of FIFA has received a sizable upgrade. For FIFA 21, EA has overhauled match simming with a more interactive experience that, for example, let’s you jump in and out of the game at key moments. The match launcher has also been overhauled and streamlined, yet I’m not sure sidelining the kit selection to a tab was the right call. This was obviously done to save players time, but for players like myself who want to inspect the kits before the match for optimal differentiation, this time-saving change has actually made the process longer.

Meanwhile, players finally have more control over player development, which includes the ability to change a player’s position and focus on the attributes that make sense for their playstyle, and this goes a long way to building a squad. Where FIFA used to feel pointlessly restrictive and limited when it came to customizing your squad, now it feels appropriately adaptable.

Training continues to be monotonous, but to incentivize players to pay attention to it, EA has added player sharpness, which injects another level of immersion and realism into team management. No longer do you need to focus on just fitness and morale, but keeping your players sharp through game time and training. At first, I thought this feature was pure fluff, but it does add a nice layer of complexity to managing your squad.

EA didn’t stop there, though. It’s made improvements and positive tweaks to transfers, player retirement, press conferences, negotiations, AI club management, and much more. The result is the deepest and best Career mode to date. It’s not Football Manager, but much like the game itself, it’s a step in the right direction.

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(Photo: EA)

FIFA 21 is an exercise of refinement, not evolution. The newest installment highlights the downsides of annualization, but also highlights that EA is listening to fans. FIFA 21 doesn’t make a million changes and improvements from FIFA 20, but the changes and improvements it does make go a long way in enhancing the experience.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

FIFA 21 is out on October 9th. A copy of the game was provided by EA for the purposes of this review. It was reviewed on a base model PS4.