Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Genre: Yearly football roster update

How do you improve on something that has hit its peak?

In the footballing world, title-winning managers have differing yet almost identical approaches. The Great Sir Alex Ferguson, during Manchester United’s rampant years, added one or two new players who are significant upgrades in key areas yearly. Jose Mourinho, during his first stint at Chelsea, didn’t let up on the spending, reinforcing an already impressive first eleven with substitutes who would easily qualify as starters in his rivals’ squads. Reigning Premier League champions manager, Jurgen Klopp took a more subdued approach yet still skirt along the lines of bringing in incremental improvements to an already impressive Liverpool team.

So how does EA Sports and FIFA, undoubtedly the leading and most popular football game in the market these past few years build on last year’s game? Sadly, by pulling off a 2019/20 Pep Guardiola. You know, Pep Guardiola who not only failed to shore up his defense cover, but also in easing the burden on some key players including Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling. As a result, not only did their rivals were able to close the gap, but overtake them so convincingly which leaves Manchester City as pretenders rather than leaders. In short, FIFA 21 serves very little when it comes to improvements and features that I find it baffling that they even considered releasing it in its current state. This is rather damning when their closest competitor, Konami’s eFootball PES managed to pull off what us sports games fans have been asking for so long.

It’s In the Game

For a start, FIFA 21 plays almost identical to FIFA 20 save for very minor tweaks in player movement. One of my biggest gripes with FIFA 20 was how the players sort of glide on the field, as if they’re playing on an ice rink while wearing sneakers. In FIFA 21, EA Sports gave them proper skates. Hardly an improvement and the game still felt as if football is being played on ice. Any quick change of directions result in cumbersome and weird inertia onto the player you are controlling, making it almost cartoonish despite EA’s attempt at realistic player movement.

Thanks to the bulk of licensing and rights they own by virtue of using the “FIFA” brand, presentation is still top-notch with realistic stadiums, fan atmospheres and chants, and palatable commentary. You won’t need to worry about editing or downloading a third-party mod to make the team names, logos and jerseys resemble their real-life counterpart. This alone is and has always been EA Sports’ FIFA franchise’s main selling point over their rivals.

Even in 2020 though, player likenesses are still hit and miss affairs. I found it hard for FIFA 21 to not nail the likeness of Takumi Minamino when he plays for Liverpool. I get that they basically recycled last year’s character model when he was with a lesser-known team in Austria but come on guys. A simple face edit would have been nice, right?

I do enjoy that how, regardless of difficulty, you can string passes like the Barcelona team which featured Xavi, Iniesta, Suarez, Neymar and Messi back in the day. Ramping up the difficulty will make the AI much more alert and more proactive in trying to block passing lanes but overall, clever flicks, through balls or a timely one-two could instantly carve the defense open and see your striker clear on goal.

What I don’t like, is the defending part. It is as if EA Sports only thought about making scoring fun. In FIFA 21, defending is a chore and very unenjoyable. I have never played a football game where even the slightest of touches results in a yellow card for the defender, while similar challenges from an attacking player gets a pass. Believe me when I say that in FIFA 21, defenders and goalkeepers are after-thoughts. If you somehow miraculously are able to stymie an attack, prepare to be disappointed by your alligator-armed goalkeepers. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your keeper will punch out an incoming ball rather than catch it. You should consider buying the lotto if he catches a shot. Because that is a rarity. And on occasions where the A.I. finds room to shoot, you can expect to see the net bulge as long shots are overpowered. Like everyone’s Gabriel Batistuta all of a sudden.

Changing from Doubter … to Non-Believer

If you spend most of your time on FIFA playing against the A.I, prepare for more pain as the ugly head of ‘scripted’ accusations pops up. If you aren’t familiar with what ‘scripting’ is, it’s the scenario where the game subtly, in real-time, tweaks minor features during a game to give the A.I an advantage. This is so much more prevalent once you’re leading by several goals, or defending a slim lead. Prepare for an uncharacteristically underpowered, wayward pass from your most reliable midfielder. Or your striker to sky the ball despite being presented with an open goal. If controlled by the A.I, Jack Grealish is suddenly Leo Messi while your own Virgil van Dijk starts defending like Harry Maguire just as your keeper will suddenly change from being Alisson Becker to Kepa the moment the clock match clock hits the 80th minute. Into extra time and facing a shot? You might as well turn off that console of yours because that ball is definitely going in. For my own sanity, I concentrated on playing against human opponents or where possible, simulate a match when I’m on Career mode.

Like last year, the story mode revolves around Volta which chronicles your journey from kicking it about in the backstreets to the tippy top of street football. Along the way, you’ll get to meet several real-life football legends like Kaka and Eric Cantona – essentially hollow additions to a very predictable and mundane couple hours worth of story. First introduced in FIFA 20, Volta is a fun party mode when it first came out, invoking the street football excitement we had via FIFA Street back in the day but a year later, feels more like that extra piece of honey biscuit to an already overloaded fast-food value meal tray you just ordered.

Those who enjoy the career mode would find very little to be excited about FIFA 21’s take, as it is pretty much the same experience save for a roster update from the last. The days in between games are filled with scout reports, player feedbacks and requests from the club board. Come matchday, EA Sport is definitely trying to encroach into Football Manager territories here with specific training modules for you to experiment with. Just like Madden’s Franchise mode, you can opt to simulate the games or jump right into the action at any point.

Fancy converting your defensive midfielder into a center back? You can now with some very instant and interesting results. Then again, I find this to be only useful during transfer windows and only when I’m down to barebones in squad depth as I rather promote youth players rather than moving my chess pieces about.  Funnily enough, FIFA 21 managed to turn the most interesting part in managing a club, which is player transfers, into a boring process.

You’ll almost certainly get the player you covet if you have enough cash. Does the player fit your system, or do they have reservations joining your team as it’s considered inferior to their present one? Not a chance. Transfer negotiations are also cumbersome with canned animations and apparently, EVERY player is represented by the same guy! Then again, in spite of all this criticism, the managerial Career mode is the most enjoyable portion of FIFA 21 but it’s like picking the best player from the Fulham squad. Ain’t nothing to shout about.

And no FIFA review would be complete without mentioning the cash machine. The raison d’etre for a majority of returning players. The one and only, FIFA Ultimate Team. Like the modes mentioned earlier, this year’s card-collecting, team building FUT modes adds very little. In spite of the heavily-promoted and fan-requested FUT Co-op, I do not see it diverting the attention away from the core mechanics FUT users have always been investing into for the past six to seven years or so. You build a team, do some weekly challenges, buy packs, improve your team, rage because for the -nth time, get Jesse Lingard instead of Erling Braut Håland, and spend more real cash for coins. What are you: twelve?

Post-Match Report

FIFA 21 is far from being a terrible experience. It is essentially a polished version of FIFA 20, which is one of the best football games to date. But instead of having, say, Thomas Partey in for Mattéo Guendouzi, it’s more of a case of Victor Lindelöf in for Harry Maguire.

In other instances, FIFA 21 deserves a solid 70/100 in spite of its quirks. However, and I cannot stress this fact enough – that when Konami is able to release eFootball PES 2021, a full game with incremental improvements yet still are able to price their offering at a significantly lower price than FIFA, EA Sports’ product suddenly appear lacking. True, you would still have to fork out an extra US$5 for a mod pack to ensure your PES teams and jerseys look like the real thing, the overall package is still significantly cheaper (and better) than FIFA 2021.

Pros

  • Astounding presentation
  • Optimized to the max – as it should be
  • Crazy amount of licenses and almost true-to-life representation of the beautiful game
  • Satisfying passing game

Cons

  • Massively scripted especially if going against A.I
  • Player movements are still wonky
  • Defending takes a backseat.

Final Score: 60/100

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