FIFA 21 Review: Fun, Attacking Football with a Real Defensive Challenge

Nick Akerman@NakermanFeatured ColumnistOctober 6, 2020

EA Sports

You are going to score a lot of goals in FIFA 21. EA Sports has reacted to feedback from FIFA 20, a game in which grinding out 1-0 wins was common, by adding vital attacking tools that produce as many high-scoring matches as the crazy Premier League season we're currently going through. 

If goals were knockout punches last year, they are jabs in FIFA 21, each tap to the chin a reminder that you will need to properly learn to defend if you're going to dominate Career Mode or get to where you want to be on Ultimate Team.

Responsiveness is key to the increased number of goals. Players turn quickly and take extra touches to remain in control of the ball, making it easier to escape pressure. 

Agile dribbling, triggered by holding R1/RB, amplifies this and is an overpowered way of luring defenders from position to open space. This allows you to move side-to-side at cartoonish speeds to wait for runs that are now triggered almost every time you get the ball.

Your team-mates are far more inclined to burst forward even if you don't manually send them. Runs are brutally smart and penetrate back lines relentlessly, forcing the defending player into quickly switching control to track the player if they're to have any chance of crushing the danger. 

Through balls are too effective, but even so, it's difficult not to smile after the defensive mundanity of FIFA 20. Players who could just sit in position and automatically mop up the ball last year are going to be shell-shocked upon firing the game up for the first time. 

Combine defence-splitting through balls with creative runs that can now be manually directed, and there's a system that's open for experimentation every time you get the ball. Even being able to trigger runs wide rather than homing in on goal changes the possibility of each spell in possession. 

It's not perfect, and there needs to be a more impactful drop in energy for players who keep sprinting forward, but, crucially, FIFA 21 challenges players to take responsibility in defence. You will lose more games, especially online, and you will get frustrated. A change in tack makes all the difference, though.

It's pivotal to spot forward runs and switch to the defender who is closest to manually track it. Jockeying the player in possession can give you a second to get ready for the race, but flying into tackles is a sure-fire way to concede. Most of the time, your defence will remain tighter if you cut passing lanes and shut down those not on the ball. You need to set yourself up for the pass that is going to be made. 

This is especially true when you consider every player feels faster in FIFA 21. Even central midfielders whose pace and acceleration hover in the low 70s have a noticeable spring in their step. Slow centre-backs don't feel quite so cumbersome, although they will be well beaten if you don't maintain positional sense. 

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The fastest players, your Mbappes and your Sterlings, are so quick that they may be through on goal before you even have a chance to work out what you need to do to stop it. Let's make no mistake about it—pace is the most prominent factor of every match, but at least EA is being blatant about it this time and challenging players to rise to the task defensively. 

There is a tremendous skill gap here; top players will thrive and others will need to get used to fighting for clean sheets.

Some problems do arise with the new creativity and freedom. Goalkeepers are practically useless in every scenario, resulting in unrealistic scorelines like 6-1 and 7-2 because they simply don't save one-on-ones. 

If they do pull off the stop, the ball is likely to fall to the feet of the nearest striker for a simple tap-in. This still happens far too often for it to seem anything other than unfair.

Shooting is more emphatic than before, especially with no finesse or timed finishing applied. Just applying a decent amount of power and direction will see the goalkeeper beaten more often than not. Goals are more varied, even if there's a temptation to simply sprint down the wing and cut the back ball for a simple finish. Chip shots are also vastly overpowered and will need nerfing ASAP.

Visual glitches and strange animations do appear regularly. It's not uncommon for players to float or slide after getting stuck in a basic movement, and shoulder-to-shoulder clashes can send the loser spiralling to the ground way too easily. There's also a slight inconsistency when players receive the ball: Sometimes they are sluggish to react and other times there's a slight speed-up, making them react too quickly, causing a mistake.

Perhaps the most unexpected thing about FIFA 21's responsive gameplay is how it elevates Volta to being somewhat playable. The introduction of street football fell flat last year—it tried too hard and gameplay didn't translate well—but there's an improvement this year. 

The increased fluidity places more of an emphasis on needing to win the ball than pulling off tricks. There's still a narrative mode for those who want it, featuring superstars like Kaka, but in general the series' desperation to try to be cool is toned down. Chipping the ball up and volleying it remains too efficient, though, and it needs to be sorted if Volta is to progress further.

Other steps in the right direction are made in Career Mode. Hideously neglected in favour of Ultimate Team, some meaningful changes have been implemented to varying degrees of success.

Being able to sim a match at different speeds, while hopping in and out to take control of situations as they appear, is an excellent touch. Jumping into the action is seamless and ensures you can still define matches without needing to play every single second. It's by no means a bad thing that this is straying towards Football Manager territory.

EA Sports

An increased emphasis on training schemes, match sharpness and fitness also adds depth, although that will be a little too time-consuming for players who just want to hop in. Players are noted as being rusty if you don't give them opportunities, even if it's difficult to see this consistently play out on the pitch.

Alternative ways to improve your team go the other route and take effect too quickly. Converting positions is a nice touch that is dampened slightly by retraining only taking a few weeks. With so many group-training mini-games between matches, there's also an argument that every player gets better and learns new skills at an over-the-top pace.

Away from squad improvements, you'll now receive player-plus-cash deals from other teams for your stars. There's still no option to immediately loan young signings back, though. 

Transfer negotiations on the whole remain unrealistic (such as Barcelona making an offer for Donny van de Beek a week after he signed for Manchester United), and there's still more attention needed to get the mode back to where it should be. 

If you've played Career Mode at all in the last decade, you'll be familiar with what it offers, albeit with a sprinkling of clever additions to add some depth and control. 

Ultimate Team will still take centre stage for many players. Like other areas of FIFA 21, some slight refinements make a decent impression. Getting rid of fitness cards eliminates the dull task of constantly needing to make sure your squad is fit, and FUT Co-Op finally allows you to team up with friends. 

It's still incredibly difficult to remain competitive with the legions of players who spend cash on the game, though. Even before the full release, there are plenty of people using teams laced with icons and top-tier names. 

It takes hours of grinding to unlock gold packs, which are still unlikely to land you a star player, so it's a frustrating experience for those who aren't willing to pay for goods. This has been the way for years, so it doesn't come as a surprise that EA isn't willing to compromise on the competitive mode that leads to huge cash for the company.  

By now, it's likely most FIFA players know where they stand with every game mode. Changes throughout are smart and do improve the overall experience, even if alterations to the on-pitch action take the headlines.

FIFA 21 is an arcade game; matches are dramatic, back-and-forth affairs that prioritise goals over anything else. Player likenesses, badges and real-world overlays shouldn't hide the fact this isn't a simulation, and that's fine. 

For the first time in a while, FIFA has the ability to make you smile, to be creative and to score goals using your football IQ. Defending is tough, but now there's something to learn and improve at. 

It is absolutely vital EA continues down this path and doesn't patch out the difficult aspects of the game to appease players who are struggling. Too often FIFA is dumbed down just days after release because gamers aren't used to the new systems in play. 

Getting excited about the annual release and then it falling to pieces has defined FIFA's current-gen performance. There's genuinely hints of a better future here. However, like Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, you can file it under "fun" and "cautiously optimistic" with the note that it is likely to crumble at some point in the season.


Score: 8/10