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FIFA 21 Review – Parking the Bus

fifa 21 review
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FIFA 21 Review – Parking the Bus

FIFA 21 on PlayStation 4

With PES taking 2020 off to focus on a move to Unreal Engine in 2021, FIFA 21 is a great chance for EA Sports to take advantage and cement their position as the best soccer game around. For the most part, FIFA 20 was a frustrating experience, so the end of one generation and start of another is the perfect time for FIFA to see an improvement across the board.

However, as has been the case for the last few years too, FIFA 21 only inches the series forward with a few small improvements, while other long term issues remain unaddressed.

FIFA 20’s biggest issues were on the gameplay side. The meta was so rigid, almost making it a requirement to have a team full of high agility players with five-star Weak Foot and Skill Moves. Players would set their team up to sit deep and play passively, requiring the opponent to break down compact lines.

With mid-range finishing, heading, and finesse shot ranging from unreliable to completely useless, players resulted to spamming drag backs in the box to get a bit of space for a quick finish. It was incredibly boring.

Thankfully, FIFA 21 seems to have somewhat fixed that main issue. Attacking play is certainly more balanced when facing the AI or coming up against players who use more attack minded tactics.

While pace and counter attacks are still key (the former possibly more so than ever before), the fact that one-on-one finishing, crossing, finesse shots from the edge of the box, front post pile-drivers, and quick passing moves are all viable options ensure that it’s not just a case of spamming through ball for the likes of Mbappe and Aubameyang.

However, that improved shooting balance is seeing the resurgence of the dreaded drop back/one depth tactic that played a sizeble role in making FIFA 20 so dull.

A reliance on pace in attack means you have to limit the space in behind your attack when defending. The only way to do that is to drop the whole defence back and use midfielders to mark passing lanes, just has been the case in the last few FIFAs.

fifa 21

The increased balance does give you more ways to try and break down those defences, which is where the improvement over last year’s game is, but it’s still horrible to play against when you’re facing long through ball from deep after long through ball from deep.

Some of the time and in certain modes, FIFA 21 is more fun that FIFA 20, and that’s a huge thing for a series that been on a downwards curve for a few years. I’m just concerned that frowned upon tactics will slowly reduce that fun factor over the weeks and months to follow.

The gameplay is far from perfect in other areas too. Some of the issues that have been in the series for years still haven’t been fixed. Defending is tough, especially with how prominent pace is, but it doesn’t help that tackling is still so unreliable.

You can’t drag CBs out of position or spam tackle to try and get the ball because you’ll only be punished for it. Defenders will often get a foot on the ball, only to see attackers morph through them somehow to give them a clear run on goal. The issue isn’t so much that it happens but rather the inconsistency of it. As a result, keeping a clean sheet is as much a game of luck as skill.

Passing suffers from the same inconsistency problem. At times, it’s quick and accurate and then suddenly a pass will go nowhere near where you aimed it, drift out of play inexplicably, or be wildly under-hit. It makes playing out from the back risky, again playing into the tactic of getting fast players in behind the opponent’s defence with one long through ball.

Neither defending or passing feel any different to how they did in FIFA 20. They were problems there, especially before the players with 99 Passing came out later in the year, so it’s frustrating for them to be left unimproved.

The lack of improvement extends to the keepers and referees. Goalies will still fumble the ball at inopportune moments and roll the ball out to the opponent striker, putting you under pressure out of nowhere. Referees are also inconsistent, ignoring blatant fouls in the penalty box that they often give anywhere else on the pitch.

The issues all come down to flaws in the physics system and how collisions are detected. Strange player interactions and odd ball movements have been prominent in FIFA for a few years now, with very little sign of improvement, and it’s no different here.

FIFA 21’s New Gameplay Features article boasts a “re-imagined collision system which creates smoother player interactions all over the pitch” but I’ve seen very little evidence of that in the 100 plus games I’ve played so far.

fifa 21

I’m starting to worry that it’s an engine problem that’s unlikely to ever be fixed. PES is taking a year off to make a move to Unreal engine and I think a similar move would be smart if EA Sports want to leave FIFA’s gameplay issues behind.

To get a better understanding of where FIFA 21’s gameplay will go in the long-term, I wanted to leave this review until after the first FUT Champions Weekend League (Ultimate Team’s most competitive mode) had begun.

While the improved attacking balance does give you more options, don’t expect for it to be vastly different to 20’s iteration. It’ll still be a frustrating experience, marred by a reliance on boring tactical play, frequent input delay, and losses caused by gameplay flaws.

It’s still the best place for Ultimate Team rewards, but its structure still makes for a toxic, frustrating time.

The opponent AI has also been changed a little for FIFA 21. On the higher difficulties (World Class and higher), the AI has learned all the skill moves. They’ll keep the ball for long periods, but still offer no consistent attacking threat.

They play the ball around to the point that they’re dull to play against. The online gameplay, particular in Ultimate Team (due to the stats boost Chemistry Styles offer), is a lot more enjoyable.

I’m yet to get to grips with the other important gameplay changes, but Creative Runs and the ability to deviate from the norms of AI runs could be something that separates the best players from the rest if they’re able to take full advantage of them.

In terms of other new features in FIFA 21, there’s not a whole lot to shout about. There’s no big new mode or dramatic alteration, with co-op in Ultimate Team being the most exciting addition.

It’s something that fans have been asking for for years and it’s great that FUT finally has a more social side. The likes of Warzone and Fortnite have stayed popular because they’re a way to hang out with friends, which is especially important while we’re all confined to our homes more than usual.

However, as good as what’s there is, FUT co-op is inexplicably limited. First of all, you cannot play two friends vs. two friends, with co-op only being available against randoms or the AI.

The modes you can play co-op in are limited too. It makes sense that FUT Champions isn’t included, but Draft isn’t either. You can play couch co-op in that mode, so it makes no sense that you can play alongside a friend online.

While co-op makes offline modes like Squad Battles less tedious, playing with a friend doesn’t count gameplay towards all objectives. It’s not a case of none or all – some count and some don’t, with there being no rhyme of reason as to which do. Therefore, you can’t grind challenges with a friend, forcing you to play alone to unlock certain players and level up quickly.

It’s also frustrating to play Rivals with a friend because of how the matchmaking works. Say two friends play together with one in Division 5 and the other in Division 1, the matchmaking system will match them against players in the higher division.

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That means a co-op partnership who might be inexperienced together then have to go up against an opponent who’s better than them, since you’re not guaranteed to play against another co-op pair.

There’s also Skill Based Matchmaking in Friendlies now, which removes any chance of that being the fun casual mode is should be.

When it comes to FIFA 21’s other modes, some have had a lot more attention than others. Volta squads adds some very welcome social play to the street football mode.

While I still can’t come to love the gameplay, which I think would be better served by having its own, built from the ground up arcade gameplay rather than a tweaked version of the 11-a-side FIFA gameplay, 21’s mode feels better to play.

You’re still more rewarded by quickly passing around and tapping the ball into the net than actually doing skills, which I think is the mode’s main flaw, but it’s easier to do tricks if you want to than it was in 20.

Holding L1 does a variety of floor moves and a simple wave of the right stick will do a rainbow flick without any issue, so it’s easy to show off if you want to. A FIFA Street re-imagining this is not, but VOLTA does have something going for it if you’re not focused solely on winning. That being said, you’ll have to overlook some absolutely painful voice acting and dialogue writing if you want to enjoy VOLTA’s The Debut story mode.

Career Mode is actually the mode that has been given the biggest face lift this year. Some of the small quality of life changes are nice, but the ability to drop in and out of matches is a fantastic addition.

If you’re winning comfortably and don’t feel the need to keep playing, you can auto-complete the rest and get on with the season, and you can jump into a sim’d matched in an instant to make sure your team takes advantage of an important moment.

It’s a great feature than makes Career Mode feel a lot more like a manager simulator, minimizing the amount of time you waste and the impact of the RNG of simulating matches.

Once again though, Pro Clubs, which has the potential to be the best mode in FIFA, has been largely abandoned once again with very few new features or tweaks, which is disappointed but expected at this point.

At its heart, FIFA 21 does a lot really well. Its overall presentation, recreation of the match-day atmosphere, variety of live content that builds hype every few days, and how players feel with the ball at their feet are all excellent, as they have been for years at this point.

Now though, EA Sports’ series really needs to be analyzed in regards to how and where it improves, and FIFA 21 is a mash up of incremental steps forward, baffling design choices, and seemingly ignored issues. It simply doesn’t do enough to make the overall experience significantly more enjoyable than it was last year.

Review Block

FIFA 21

3
/ 5

Fair

FIFA 21 Critic Review
Reviewer: Tom Hopkins

Pros

  • – Attacking balance has been improved.
  • – Presentation, match-day experience, and live content are still great.
  • – The addition of co-op to to FUT is very welcome, if limited.
  • – VOLTA is a little more fun than last year.
  • – Career Mode new features are great.

Cons

  • – Tackling, passing, and refereeing decisions are still awfully inconsistent, even though EA Sports said they would be improved.
  • – FUT Co-op is missing key features.
  • – Pro Clubs has been largely ignored once more.
  • – Much of Ultimate Team is frustrating and slave to buying FIFA Points.
  • – Pace. Pace. Pace.
Release Date
Oct. 9, 2020
Developer
EA Vancouver, EA Romania
Publisher
EA Sports
Consoles
PS4, Xbox One, PC
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