The FIFA series can be incredibly difficult to review. It faces criticism for putting out the same game every year, and while I don’t necessarily think that’s true, trying to pick apart the finer issues of the game does seem to highlight a lot of similarities to last year, and the year before that, and the year before that…
But then, the single biggest problem with FIFA 20 was that crossing didn’t work. In FIFA 21, crossing is back – not so easy that every game features five headers apiece, but no longer a complete waste of time to be avoided. As far as the visuals go, it looks great, with hundreds of lifelike player captures, but it also looks stale, with everything bar Romelu Lukaku’s hairline the same as last year.
FIFA 21 feels like a picture of food on a restaurant menu. It looks nice enough, but it’s missing the smells, the textures, the warmth and the emotion. It’s not food, after all, just a picture of one. And you order the same food because it’s your favourite, and it comes and it’s nice and then it’s gone. Until you go back and order it again. It never looks quite like the picture, but you’re hungry, so you eat it.
As sport franchises go, FIFA is a great football sim. It’s realistic yet puts a huge emphasis on pace and attacking play, it comes with a range of difficulty options and lots of different game modes, and also runs incredibly smoothly. It’s a brilliant game, and it wouldn’t be this popular if it wasn’t. But if you were to ask me what makes the latest instalment different from last year’s FIFA 20, I’d just shrug and tell you the crossing is better. What this basically means is: you know the one thing that was bad in the last game? Well, that’s not there anymore.
Okay, I lied, that’s not the only thing different in FIFA 21; the game also adds co-op to Ultimate Team, which I think is a perfect example of a feature very few people will use, but the ones who will will probably love it. My favourite thing about FUT co-op though is that it’s experimental, and FIFA is badly starved of experimentation as a franchise.
Go back five or ten years, and FIFA was the best sports sim out there. Since then, other sports titles like NBA 2K has taken huge Dame Lillard-sized strides forward in its gameplay, and while the basketball sim overcooked the shooting controls this year, the franchise has consistently made the on-court play better and continuously captured the feeling of the NBA. FIFA, on the other hand, has stood still. They’re top of the league and refuse to make any new signings to improve the team.
The game fiddles with this and that each year, introducing slightly better tackles or dribbling mechanics, which it usually fails to adequately explain to its own casual audience. Creative Runs, where you can switch to off the ball attackers, is the latest in this long line. The developer keeps refining free kicks and penalties every few years, making them more and more complicated, while corners – the most tactical set piece – is still just a cross into the box. It has all the graphics and team names (Piemonte Calico and Roma FC notwithstanding), and it has added the Champions League recently, but it feels like it lacks heart.
I hate VAR (video assistant referee). Or at least, I hate the way the Premier League used it last season. But surely we all agree that it is currently a huge part of Premier League football. It’s not part of FIFA 21 though, which is where that feeling of standing still starts to really hit. It’s not even that I think VAR would make the game better, it’s that FIFA 21 looks and feels so similar to pretty much every previously FIFA game I’ve played on the PS4, even as football has demonstrably changed at large. The franchise is caught halfway between capturing the raw feeling of actually being on the pitch and the spectacle of watching on TV, and never quite grasps either.
One experimental area is Volta, a FIFA Street knockoff. While I had a lot of fun with it, the shoehorned narrative added nothing, the player feedback didn’t fit and was stolen from The Journey, and the camera and gameplay system was clearly designed for the base game. It was too wonky and rough around the edges to really enjoy, which was a shame because it is a genuinely new concept (or was when it debuted in FIFA 20, at least).
Online Volta was literally impossible too, with ten different attempts with different settings and in different modes all coming up dry. Players’ names were often wrong or and models were duplicated here too. It felt like they made a vibrant new mode then didn’t expect people to care, so they cut its budget and left it feeling isolated. There’s typos and rough edges to career mode too.
I’ve resisted talking about Ultimate Team so far. Personally I don’t find it as fun as career mode or general online play – or even Volta – but I know for a lot of people it is what FIFA is for. It certainly is the best looking mode, comes with as much depth as always with added co-op, and adds more creativity this time around. And, as always, it’s perfectly possible to build a great team for free, but the game constantly pushes you towards spending money. I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand the appeal of FUT, but the microtransactions don’t influence any other modes, so it’s all good as far as I’m concerned.
If you play FUT, you’ll probably not be happy with the incessant push to spend more money, and if you play any other mode, you’ll probably feel like it’s been ignored in favour of FUT. On the pitch, there’s not much to find fault with, but there’s nothing particularly new or heartfelt either.
FIFA 21 is just FIFA 20 with better crossing, but then isn’t that what we all wanted? I would like to see more time invested in offline modes without reliance on superstar carried narratives, but I don’t expect it.
I’ll probably sink 50-100 hours into FIFA 21 this year, because the gameplay is great, career mode lets you make your own fun and it fixes FIFA 20’s biggest gameplay issue. Yeah, it’s pretty much the same as last year, but if we keep ordering the same thing off the menu, why should we complain that the kitchen hasn’t changed the recipe?
- Crossing has been fixed
- FUT co-op is great for those who’ll use it
- Still a hugely attacking game
- Only marginal upgrades on FIFA 20
- Volta and other modes feel neglected
- Yet another narrative mode that flops