Like clockwork EA Sports has rolled out a new iteration of its longstanding football franchise with FIFA 21. The new game comes at an interesting time, with next-gen consoles on the horizon, along with the promise of cutting edge graphics and gameplay.
While we wait for that promise to be fulfilled, we still have to contend with FIFA 21 on current-gen consoles (PS4 in the case of our review).
Unfortunately for EA Sports, however, many of the problems that have persisted in past titles remain in this latest iteration, and while the addition of some much-needed features helps things, they do little to paper over the growing cracks that the franchise as a whole suffer from.
Have we been here before?
As such, FIFA 21 might look new and shiny, but beneath the veneer is a game that will likely frustrate its player community in time.
Having dedicated several hours to the game since launch last week, here are our thoughts on FIFA 21, and why we’re hoping that the next-gen versions will offer a whole lot more.
Booting up and signing into the game, and EA Sports has retained a very familiar feel. Before you even head to an in-game menu, you’re thrown into a match. This specific one is the Champions League Final, between Liverpool and PSG (which did not actually take place), and is used to highlight the game’s cover star – Kylian Mbappe.
As such, nothing new is being served up here. Ever since EA Sports got the licensing to feature UEFA tournaments in its games, back when Juventus were still a part of FIFA, the developer has not held back in punting its status as the game to have official access to the tournament.
While that is all well and good, it feels like exactly the same trumpet that’s been sounded over the past three years.
The one thing this match does offer, however, is a quick taste of the new gameplay that has been applied to FIFA 21. Here, it is a bit of a mixed bag. Passing is more varied and natural, which means if you hit a pass with a player’s less dominant foot, it may skew off course more than normal.
Weighting of passes is also far more realistic, although shooting has changed for the worst in my opinion, with it being a little too easy to rattle the back of the net, and no I’m not humble bragging about my skill level.
Next we need to talk about defending, and when the opposition has the ball. Again, the changes made by EA are mixed. We like the intelligent way that AI teams press. It means that the higher difficulty you play at, the more skilled you need to be to avoid the press and turning over possession.
By contrast, when you’re defending against AI attacks, it seems like the ball is almost magnetised to their feet, with even the most unskilled holding midfielders doing Cryuff turns and capable of dribbling against three opponents at once. It can be a rather frustrating gameplay element at times, and on more than one occasion drew a “wait, what?”
One aspect of gameplay we did like, though, was the way in which momentum dictates the outcome of a game. On this front, if we can score a goal and quickly apply pressure thereafter, the chances of scoring again seem to increase significantly. Much like a real football match then, momentum plays a crucial part of gameplay.
Copy and paste
Once you’re done playing with Mbappe and co., it’s time to explore the different gaming modes. Here, the career mode has likely seen the biggest changes, many of which we’re quite keen on. The ability to develop players into different types of roles, as well as positions, is something we’ve been yearning for some time now.
But, when EA gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. This comes in the form of an extension of the training mechanic introduced last year, with sessions happening every other day in between matches. As such, you’re often forced to skip training just to get to the next in-game event, which can become rather frustrating.
Apart from those elements, career mode is much the same.
And this brings us to the larger issue in FIFA 21 – as everything feels the same as last year’s game for the most part. There might be a new colour scheme for example, but menu layouts are much the same, with in-match menus and other aspects of the title showing no sings of change either.
Added to this is the fact that the in-menu aspects feel quite slow, which does not seem like it would be a problem considering we’re playing on a PS4 which has not given any issues to date (knock on wood).
Sign of the times?
One interesting aspect that we thought was worth bringing up here, is that no mention has been made of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it did not throw off EA’s plans for the release of FIFA 21, the impact that it has had on world football cannot be overlooked.
Yes, there might be some that say this is a game, and therefore a form of escapism for players and fans, but EA has a history of highlighting world events in FIFA, especially recently, with Black Lives Matter notifications of support appearing in FIFA 20 in past months.
Seeing something similar would have been nice in our view, as would any acknowledgement of the pandemic, or the fans not being allowed to go to games, by the in-game commentators.
If you were wondering, yes, all stadiums are full in FIFA 21.
FIFA 21 is not a terrible football game, but neither was FIFA 20 or indeed FIFA 19, and that is the big problem that needs to be tackled by EA Sports.
The iterative nature of sports games needs to be shaken up, and this latest offering simply does not do that. When you factor in that this game will cost you in excess of R1 100 on console, apart from updated kits, there is little to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.
If the gameplay or visuals are not markedly better on next-gen consoles for FIFA 21, you could soon find more players looking to next year’s PES title to give them what they’re looking for.
For now, this is the best available to us, and it is sadly not good enough.