EA's soccer sim has been going through the motions for years now. Ever since FIFA 14 launched, it's been hard to shake the sense each new entry has acted as a barely reskinned version of its predecessor. It's an accusation you can definitely lay at FIFA 21's tippy tappy feet. Though welcome tweaks and subtle improvements have been made since FIFA 20, this bumper sports package could do with an overhaul.
Before I start going studs up on FIFA 21, EA deserves credit for making the on-pitch action feel less sterile and predictable. Far too often, players in FIFA 20 felt like they were stuck on an invisible eight-directional axis—like their movement was inhibited by some unseen footballing force. That's no longer the case. This time out, movement feels more freeform, with unpredictable spaces opening up on the pitch in a way that just didn't happen in FIFA 20.
While ball movement occasionally feels upsettingly artificial—more on the series' wayward physics shortly—there's no denying FIFA 21 plays a better game of football than last year's entry. Now that it's marginally easier to dribble past opposition defenders, attacks no longer have to rely so much on brute pace and savvy counters. Are speedy wingers still super effective for those times you catch rival teams on the back foot? Absolutely. Yet even though I've regularly rinsed fullbacks with the likes of Arsenal's Nicola Pépé, FIFA 21 has a newfound respect for careful build-up play.
The game's physics really are stupid, though. And I'm not just talking about in the returning Volta mode—the 5-a-side FIFA Street wannabe remains a silly throwaway, but at least it gives the game's infamously fiddly right stick skill moves a semi natural home. PES has long held an advantage when it comes to believable ball movement, and the gap between the two soccer rivals hasn't closed in 2020. Whereas the football in Konami' series behaves like its own entertaining entity, the ball in FIFA 21 is just… well, flat. Predictable and prone to travelling in identical fashion no matter how hard you hit it, it frequently looks fake in motion.
The most upsetting instances of FIFA's ball misbehaving in a way that feels fundamentally against what the real sport is about? Those times when your striker takes roughly a decade to shimmy their body into position to get a shot off on the edge of the opposition box. Even if they do manage to hit the ball cleanly, it usually ends up pinging off a defender in such bizarrely inconvenient fashion that the opposition almost always sweeps it up and immediately presses into a counter attack. In short, it's nonsense.
At least tackling has improved. Short-range lunges feel more effective, and I'm now making a half a dozen or so successful interceptions a half. Whether EA Vancouver has made tackling easier or slightly more automated, I've actively enjoyed the defensive side of FIFA 21. Winning the ball back occasionally feels so precise, I've temporarily turned Arsenal's normally disastrous David Luiz into a functional centre back during lengthy spells of Career Mode.
On that note, FIFA's non-FUT headline mode has received welcome improvements with a renewed focus on training and squad management. Playing out fitness minigames in real-time ensures your players are as sharp as possible, while simming sessions lessens their impact. Sharpness is also affected by giving players sustained runs in your first eleven. Balancing a competitive squad over a 38 game season is a stressful yet rewarding challenge.
The biggest Career Mode addition comes in the form of new sim features that let you play out matches like Football Manager lite. Presented in top-down tactical menus, you're free to make subs and formations changes on the fly as you chew your nails while the AI tries to win matches for your club. My experience? It's a handy and semi efficient way of skipping games during a seriously long 38-match season. A word of warning though: give the AI the keys to your team and you can expect to concede a lot. The good news is you can wrestle control back with a single button press. It's a decent compromise that ensures the more obsessive of us can take our teams' fates back into our hands at any given moment.
FUT it out
And then there's Ultimate Team. FIFA's card-collecting mode has received a lot of bad press over the years, and the continuing presence of pay-to-win features feel as tone deaf as ever. If you've been stuck on a desert island playing with Panini stickers for the past five years, FUT lets you build custom squads by opening card packs containing players and cosmetic items, like new kits or club badges. While you can unlock packs by grinding through online matches, it's far quicker to buy them by ponying up actual money. If you feel loot boxes should go in the bin right alongside Project Big Picture and Ronaldo's top knot, FUT will continue to leave a bad taste in your mouth.
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