It's no secret that FIFA devotees have been crying out for a complete reworking of the game's core mechanics for some time now and many hoped it would come with FIFA 21. Last year's game received a lot of criticism when it came to the moment-to-moment action. Heading was nigh-on impossible, pace was still the most important attribute despite EA's efforts to temper it, and AI defending was seriously overpowered. The best way to defend was to sprint back with a midfielder while leaving your AI-controlled teammates to regain possession.
FIFA 21 is a very minor upgrade over FIFA 20. This won't come as a surprise to many, although it may disappoint. The Frostbite engine is still the foundation for the annual best-selling football game and as a result, unless you played last year's instalment to death, you're not going to instantly spot any big changes. In fact, the FIFA 21 beta feels like the smallest development jump year-on-year that the series has seen in a long time, which is saying something when it's a series known for seemingly incremental changes as it is.
So what's new this year?
Earlier this summer, EA released details on FIFA 21’s new gameplay features. While there were a couple of headliners, improvements to how players make runs off the ball was one of them. In FIFA 20, pressing L1/LB triggered an AI player to make a run for you to pass the ball into their path. They'd usually always run towards goal – not a problem most of the time – but now you can tell the player where to run by flicking the right stick in the direction you want them to go. The same works after making a pass too.
While it sounds like a minor improvement, this should be the biggest game-changer for high level players because you get so much more control over the fluidity of attacking play. If you're feeling ballsy, you can click both sticks in simultaneously to activate Player Lock. Pass the ball to a teammate and the AI takes control of the player in possession, while you can make an off-the-ball run and call for the pass back when you're in space. It’s a relief to not yell "no, not him, the other guy!" a hundred times per match as has often been the case for the last decade.
"Agile Dribbling" is another new feature. Hold R1/RB while moving the left stick and your player uses quick, deft touches to move the ball between their feet. It takes a while to get used to and is ultimately not going to have a major impact on the game, but if you do it with a player boasting high dribbling and agility stats, you can tease the opponent into lunging forward before rolling the ball past them. This is on top of the strafe dribbling (L1/LB + LS) introduced last year.
When you're playing against the AI, there's also the new rewind function. If you've played an arcade racer like Forza, you'll know how this works; press a button (both triggers + options in this case) and the game will rewind, so you can undo a mistake and resume from whenever you like to give it another go. It's only in kick-off mode though, so you can't go abusing it in Career Mode to win the treble with Leeds in your first season.
One other aspect to note is the introduction of Competitor Mode, which is an AI difficulty setting meant to "simulate the play style of some of the world's best FIFA players". You can enable this on Legendary and Ultimate difficulty only and… well, in theory it should make the matches harder, but that's not the case. Believe it or not, the AI doesn't just do 500 drag backs all game, but instead is more deadly on the offense, rarely missing a shot and penetrating the defence with ease. But when you're on the attack? It's like you're playing on Semi-Pro difficulty at best. For context, my first match on Legendary with Competitor Mode enabled finishes 8-5 to me, as Man Utd vs Chelsea.
The problem is that none of these additions fix the core problem with FIFA's gameplay; it's just not hugely enjoyable to play. When everything clicks, there are moments of magic; I fed a delicious lobbed through ball perfectly onto Modric's left foot just inside the box as he volleyed it straight into the top corner, past ter Stegen in El Clasico, but those memorable goals are few and far between. This is still the beta – there's time for alterations to be made, I hope – but in my matches against the AI on World Class and Legendary difficulty… It's like deja vu for the same reasons I ditched FIFA 20 before the turn of the year.
Career Mode has had an overhaul
Other than kick-off, the only other mode in the preview build is Career. For the most part, this is a vastly improved Career Mode that has been a long time coming. With only a weekend to play, I’m unable to play through multiple seasons and see how the game fares years in, but it looks like Career Mode players will be thrilled with the latest offerings.
Multiple leaves have been taken out of the holy bible that is Football Manager, with plenty of inspiration drawn for the new features. For example, match sharpness now exists, which "indicates how likely your players are to perform in the most crucial moments during the course of a game". As manager, you've got complete control over training too, so you can change drills on a whim.
There's also the development centre which is where long-term managers will want to spend a lot of time. You can retrain player positions and keep an eye on their growth here, which is ideal for nurturing those wonderkids. You're not getting as much depth and detail as you'd find in Football Manager, but it's much more accessible for the casual FIFA audience.
Career Mode still has nonsensical signings from other clubs though. As a United fan, my first job was to ship Lingard somewhere. Who bought him? Manchester City, for a few hundred thousand shy of £30m. Guardiola would be sacked on the spot in real life. FIFA Career Mode has always been more on the arcadey side of things, but let's have at least an inkling of realism please, EA.
Technical issues are worryingly plentiful
The biggest surprise I find while playing the FIFA 21 beta is its myriad technical issues. Of course, it's a beta – if anything, it's there to help identify bugs and iron them out before launch – but for a game that barely changes on the face of it year-on-year, the amount of stuttering and frame-rate drops are highly concerning.
Taking any set piece whatsoever sees the frame rate drop considerably for a few seconds, along with starting training drills in Career Mode. The odd drop is interspersed throughout standard gameplay too with seemingly no pattern. This is all on a PS4 Pro and absolutely must be fixed before launch, because fluidity and smooth gameplay is utterly crucial in FIFA.
I also encounter two gameplay bugs. Neither are gamebreaking: one occurs in a training drill, the other sees Marcus Rashford try to do skills without the ball at his feet and expectedly lose possession. But it's something to watch out for in the full release. On this showing FIFA 21 does little to prove it isn't just a re-skin of the last game, which begs the question of how on earth these sort of bugs can suddenly appear.
To reiterate, this is a beta preview build of FIFA 21. Things can be fixed between now and launch. But for the most part, this isn't looking like the overhauled FIFA that week-in, week-out players were hoping for. I'm yet to play Ultimate Team, Pro Clubs, or any of the other modes which could have plenty more surprises in store, but don't go into FIFA 21 expecting a rework of the engine and the common gameplay issues that have been complained about repeatedly in the last few years. This is more of the same, whether it worked for you last year or not.