Despite the series’ esteemed history, the systematic dismantling of FIFA across social media has never been more popular. Mentions of FIFA 20 being unfun to play flooded Twitter and Insta throughout the game's lifespan. In some areas, the relentless sniping and griping was justified: AI defending, the "drop back" instruction, heading’s near-total ineffectiveness. Mercifully, FIFA 21 does make some much-needed improvements. But as PS5 and Xbox Series X approach, current-gen delivers another case of textbook finishes followed up with head-scratching own-goals.
For the best part of the last decade, FIFA's flagship mode has been Ultimate Team. The concept has stayed the same throughout; build your custom squad consisting of any players you like from most major leagues around the world and compete online. You obtain these players by either opening packs – mainly bought with real money because the grind to attain enough coins without financial investment is enough for a full-time job – or trading on the transfer market. Small iterations have come into play, like the removal of formation cards and introduction of squad building challenges, but for the most part, Ultimate Team is the same mode it's always been.
The majority of Ultimate Team play is still focused on the packs you buy using in-game microtransactions, and the same gulfs can be found between different player styles – those who dedicate all their free time to making a profit in the transfer market, those who drop a staggering amount on these packs and can flip players for a profit due to sheer quantity, and the few who have gotten incredibly lucky from packs bought with coins earned in-game. The overwhelming majority of FIFA fans won't experience the elation of seeing Prime Icon Ronaldo walk out with fanfare, but will see an 84-rated goalkeeper countless times.
With all that said, Ultimate Team has improved in certain areas too. The fitness mechanic has been removed entirely, meaning your players are always at full strength going into every match. Hoarding fitness cards like a squirrel with nuts or having a back-up "fitness team" are things of the past. Stadium customisation is here too; from goal songs and crowd chants to pyrotechnics and stadium paint colour, your home ground is now yours.
The above is the step forward. The own-goals come in the form of how the menus are now so much less intuitive. Last year saw a huge change in the form of the action wheel and now it has reworked the FUT hub screen again. The menus are laggy and often delayed in button pushes. The transfer market takes minutes to update after consecutive searches. Switching from searching in your club to the transfer market doesn't remember the search parameters. You cannot bulk redeem rewards in the objectives screen. You can't search for all gold cards, only "rare" or "common" individually. The list is almost never-ending.
A game of two halves
While Ultimate Team is the biggest selling point for FIFA fans each year, every mode in the game (bar Volta) is essentially the same thing; 11v11 football. It's often joked by non-sports fans that buying the yearly iteration of FIFA is a crazy prospect because you're just paying for a roster update. Most of the time, this impression is misled, but with FIFA 21… they may have a point. Unless you're someone who played FIFA 20 from start to finish, this year's title is borderline indistinguishable.
That's not to say the game is identical – there are some new features that will keep veterans on their toes. "Agile Dribbling" is the new close-touch dribbling mechanic, so a player can keep the ball close to their feet with quick, deft touches. Try this with a centre back and you won't see much improvement but whip it out to Rashford on the wing and you can tease the ball past defenders with ease.
You can also instruct players where to run by flicking the right stick either after pressing R1, or when releasing the ball from a pass. When combined with the new Player Lock feature that enables you to maintain control of the player you've passed from – making a custom run, then calling for the ball once in space. These two new features combined make for much more creative and fluid attacking movements, where skilled players can ascend to the higher skill ceiling when stringing together passes. Plus crossing and heading is not completely underpowered anymore, so that's a valid method of putting the ball in the net once again.
Unfortunately, the most effective way to score is still to run the ball to the touchline with your 90+ pace players then pass across the face of goal and smash it home into a practically open net. It's been this way for years, and means the best tactic to counter it is the "drop back" instruction with a very low defensive line – the same as it's been for the last 12 months.
Up the other end, AI defending has been bolstered even further. Not to the point where you can simply control the midfield and let your autonomous defence protect your goal as was the case in FIFA 20 but contextual blocks and auto-lunges for the ball have been buffed considerably. It's nigh-on impossible to simply dribble at a defence, cut inside and hit a finesse shot from outside the box now; you have to get behind the defensive line, making long-range screamers especially, and depressingly, infrequent.
For a game utilising the same engine as the last few years with only minor updates, FIFA 21's performance on a PS4 Pro is abysmal. Frame-rate drops, especially when taking set-pieces and partaking in skill games/career mode training drills, are prevalent throughout. In the menus, it skips frequently, especially when redeeming rewards from modes like Squad Battles and Division Rivals in FUT. Perhaps this is the drawback from having to develop the game across two generations, but the impressions aren't brilliant, especially if you won't be picking up a new system on launch.
A five year contract
The patience of career mode aficionados has finally paid off, because FIFA 21's main offline mode is the most impressive aspect of this instalment. It took years, but this is the area where the community has been listened to and the result is a colossal improvement.
Football Manager has clearly been the inspiration for a lot of these new features: the two main ones have been lifted directly from it. Player sharpness indicates how match fit any squad member is. The more matches they play and training drills they partake in, the higher their sharpness and as a result, their in-game attributes will be boosted. On the other hand, players who don't feature much suffer from depleted sharpness and reduced attributes.
For the long-term managers who want to see players develop over their whole career, the development centre is for you. Track how your squad's performance, morale, and individual stats are progressing, along with any position and role retraining you want to implement. Supplement these adjustments by selecting appropriate training drills, changing the weekly schedule, and motivating them in pre and post-match press conferences.
Career mode also has a brand new match launcher that enables you to jump into a simulated game at any point. You can watch the game, Football Manager style with a top-down view letting the AI take control until you want to hop in. Two goals ahead with 10 mins to go? Hop back out to sim-view to save some time. These are features the loyal career mode fanbase have been calling for and they're finally here, with brilliant execution.
Volta? No, ta.
Volta, the indoor football mode that debuted last year with little fanfare, has also returned. It's generally more of the same though; 3v3, 4v4, or 5v5 football with the same mechanics you find in the main 11v11 game. Skill moves are much easier to execute but the arcade thrill of FIFA Street isn't there, thanks to the more realistic nature.
The Debut is a seemingly Journey-inspired storyline, however. Rather than Alex Hunter, The Debut follows your created avatar as they adventure through the world partaking in indoor football tournaments. Kaka is introduced fairly early on and as expected, your character is utterly starstruck. While The Journey had a real rags-to-riches boyhood dream story, The Debut jumps straight in with the first tournament in Sao Paulo. There's little reason to care and when Volta is lacking anything interesting in the first place, certainly no narrative hook to keep you coming back.
Pro Clubs has hardly been touched, with only two very minor additions. You can customise the appearances of your AI players to the same level of detail as your personal pro player, and custom tactics are finally in. The former has no effect on gameplay but the latter is useful and allows for greater control during Pro Clubs matches.
A bore draw
FIFA 21 certainly isn’t worse than FIFA 20, but it does lack any meaningful sense of improvement. It's been the case for years, but Ultimate Team plays considerably faster than the standard Online Seasons matches, so you're out of luck if you prefer that style of gameplay but dislike FUT's pay-to-win nature. The existence of "scripting" or momentum is still a logical conspiracy, but as any die-hard FIFA player knows, holding a slim lead in an online match is a difficult task when the game doesn't want you to win.
From a casual perspective, FIFA 21 is fine. £50 gets you a lot of content, including a free upgrade to the next-gen version; there's more depth in the moment-to-moment gameplay than ever before and there is a slew of content, from Career Mode to Volta to Ultimate Team.
There's one core problem at the heart of it all though; even when I'm winning, FIFA 21 just isn't especially fun to play. FUT gameplay is where the most enjoyable action is but 90% of my time is spent lamenting my opponent’s forward line of Aubameyang and Salah or – when I'm winning – sweating so hard to not lose control that it ceases to be enjoyable.
Both football games need to step up significantly on next-gen. As home consoles enter an era of unprecedented potential, in terms of pure fun neither FIFA 21 nor PES 2021 get anywhere close to those respective series’ PS2 heyday.