EA Sports made it very clear it isn't ready to talk about the next-gen during our first hands-on with the PlayStation 4 version of FIFA 21.
It's a curious stance—players are excited, and the promotion is being led with the PS5 and Xbox Series X in mind—but for now, the tried and tested hardware is the focus for showing off what's new for the October 9 release.
So, what is new? FIFA 21 feels similar to its predecessor in terms of speed, but EA has introduced a handful of advanced options that aim to give you more precision and control over your team, particularly in attack.
Three gameplay pillars were introduced to the press before playing the game: creativity, fluidity and responsiveness. All of these features were inspired by "real-life football and community feedback," and they serve as the game's spine—the Van Dijk, Henderson and Firmino upon which the rest of the design is meant to thrive.
The ideas are good, but the execution is a mixed bag at this early stage. Improvements to dribbling, player positioning and defending are among the headline acts, but upon revisiting our preview of FIFA 20 one year ago, similar advancements were mentioned and didn't come to fruition.
As ever, it's important to overlook the marketing jargon and the excitement of the producers to really decipher how impactful and true the alterations are. The early feeling is that, although the game may improve upon FIFA 20 when playing against the AI, online play could be open to more frustration and exploits than it is right now.
Much of this stems from the new Positioning Personality feature. This is designed to let the world's biggest stars shine through intelligent movement to carve open space and take up smart, contextual positions.
Top forwards are likely to be caught offside less and make more penetrating runs beyond the back line at just the right moment, while better defenders can close danger down quicker or track runs more effectively.
Hard-working wingers like Raheem Sterling can track back to eliminate threats—a prominent feature of our battles with Manchester City—while a lazier winger may let their marking slide in favour of staying forward for the counter. It's a smart idea, and differing work rates are noticeable, but it can lead to messy situations on the pitch.
Sweeping attacks are a common occurrence in FIFA 21.
Players bomb forward with greater intent than before, sprinting at full speed to overwhelm defences that are outnumbered more often than not. And this is before utilising the new creative run mechanic, which allows you full control over where your AI team-mates sprint by flicking the right stick after passing the ball with them. EA called this a "game-changer" in the presentation, and although it's simple to execute, it's exactly the kind of gameplay quirk that will make defending feel like a fruitless chore online.
Triggering runs is not new in FIFA, but being able to pinpoint the exact direction ensures it's easy to open gaps with every forward pass if you want to. It's exhilarating to blast forward, but it's too easy to pound wave after wave without a debilitating consequence on stamina.
Of course, you can play without ever using this method, but it's far easier to create chances this way. Like in FIFA 20, in which it was claimed defenders will react more intelligently and actively going for the tackle would be rewarded, it still feels like you're exposing yourself if you commit to aggressively hunting the ball. And this is without the overpowered lineups from Ultimate Team being brought into play.
You can also request players change the direction of their runs and, interestingly, lock yourself to maintain control of a player once you've made a pass. The AI takes control of the ball, allowing you to manually find space before calling for the return like you would in Be a Pro.
Defensive midfielders gain more personality with this feature, especially if you are trying to maintain possession in a tight match. The Rodri role of distributing and then moving into position to receive the ball again is hard to pull off at game speed but is likely to aid players who put in the time.
This attempt to give players creativity runs throughout the other new features being pushed. "Agile dribbling" feels like strafe dribbling on steroids, and it might actually be too effective in too many situations at this stage. It's meant to give you the edge in one-on-one scenarios, but it's extremely powerful at escaping multiple defenders at the same time.
Bernardo Silva's dribbling style, made up of sharp changes of direction and small touches of the ball, was shown as the inspiration for this. While it's fun to escape perilous situations with possession intact, quickly cutting new angles is too fast and jittery. It's another example of the attack being firmly in control—and one that could be taken to the extreme online.
Everything is tailored to having fast feet in FIFA 21, including new skill moves such as the bridge dribble. Gamers who don't like the flair side of football may find themselves falling behind as offensive responsiveness takes centre stage.
Players have a tendency to take an extra touch instead of getting off a first-time shot on occasion, but for the most part, there's an immediacy to everything when moving forwards. Extra incision on through balls, which reward harder passes with more defence-splitting direction, also amplify those who look to play quick, catch-me-if-you-can football, especially with the greater numbers busting a gut to get up the pitch.
Defending hasn't changed too much in terms of what you need to do to be successful. EA noted tackling is more "accurate" in the presentation, but it doesn't feel noticeably different in practice. You may find yourself either manually trying to track runs more often or holding a tighter line to act as a barrier against the swarming runners from deep.
It's certainly hard to suggest AI defending—the act of chasing back with midfielders rather than switching to your defender in order to maintain solidarity—is going to be any less effective when the online community has settled with the game. Bringing a centre-back out of position and missing the tackle only gives the team in possession more space to venture into.
The one noticeable aid for defences, and indeed ball-winners across the pitch, is a more dramatic blocking system. Players will get their foot, or sometimes body, in front of attempts on goal with greater intention, meaning there's plenty of loose balls dropping in the box. It's a battle—sometimes you'll block two or three shots before a tap-in falls to the opposition's striker—but it does provide the sense you should keep fighting to be first to the ball.
Increased blocking makes midfield battles scrappier and amplifies your players who naturally work hard. Bruno Fernandes chases everything down, even sprinting back to his own area to cut out a certain goal, and he is the perfect example of stars who feel ultrasharp on FIFA 21. Those who are quality on the ball and willing to run are showing the early signs of being meta-defining.
Building that solid foundation in front of goal was pivotal in the preview we played. Finishing one-on-one chances felt more emphatic and less of a lottery. Goalkeepers also have a strange habit of occasionally leaving a huge part of the net gaping by trying to close the angle and getting it wrong. Shots still cannon off the post and land at the feet of the nearest forward, so it's heavily stacked against those who are defending.
This was taken to the extreme in one moment in which we won a penalty with Fabinho. Just before receiving the ball in the opposition's box with his back to goal, the Liverpool midfielder looked over his shoulder and appeared to stick out his leg to initiate contact with the nearest defender.
He failed to do so but then received the ball, which the centre-back cleanly won and booted away. Two seconds later, Fabinho threw himself to the ground, both arms flailing and won the penalty with a terrible dive.
This action wasn't initiated by us and happened automatically. It looked downright odd upon viewing the replay, especially the glitchy leg movement before the foul. Referees are stricter than they have been in years, but unfair calls like that can't be included in the full release, especially as EA hasn't included VAR because the game should be getting blatant decisions correct anyway.
There still seems to be a confusing lack of clarity on different difficulty settings. Legendary mode, supposably the game's toughest, provided less of a challenge than World Class, mainly because the harder AI would look to attack more and leave canyons of space to counter in. Matches against Man City finished 6-1 on Legendary and 2-0 on World Class despite using the same Piemonte Calcio lineup.
EA has included a "competitor" option on Legendary, which turns the AI into a wannabe FIFA pro player. It does a good job of playing more like a top-level human opponent, complete with drag-backs and skill moves every few seconds.
Those hoping to practice for human-to-human matches may get some use out of this, even if it does serve to underline how the game's increasingly arcade design strays away from the realism the developer wants to achieve. This is still a series when it's impossible to consistently score headers, despite it being easy to perfectly pull off skill moves every time you have control.
As such, it's easy to overplay and make a mistake that leads to losing the ball. EA has finally included a super cancel input (pressing the triggers at the same time) to help players who change their mind at the last second, though.
This is helpful in a number of key moments—such as cancelling a quick pass when space dries up—and is a feature that has elevated Pro Evolution Soccer's gameplay for years.
It's clear that EA is trying things out with the future in mind. Many of the aforementioned gameplay tweaks have the potential to be great additions or problematic once players get used to them.
The patterns shown at this preview stage indicate that the developers want you to be scoring plenty of goals after a barren year on FIFA 20, which was defined by defensive fortresses and boring, possession-based football being the most effective way to play.
There's plenty more subtle changes that'll be noticeable when you first try the game, such as players audibly wishing each other good luck when shaking hands before a match.
Inflammatory celebrations, like the shushing finger to the lips, have been removed in order to combat toxicity online. You can also only watch your online goals once and the countdown timer on kick-off and set pieces is lower to stop people taking an age over everything.
One of the everlasting images of this preview, albeit one that will likely be toned down for full release, is the moment a goalkeeper or defender punts the ball back into their own net after conceding.
It happened on a high percentage of goals and best underlines that, after a few months of play, FIFA 21 is currently set up to leave defensive players feeling exasperated and helpless. Until EA tweaks the defence again for FIFA 22, of course.