In many ways, FIFA 21 has the hardest job of any FIFA game yet. For years, we’ve looked to EA to reflect the beautiful game. This year, we’ve not asked for realism - we’ve asked for something better than what’s happening in the real world.
That might sound particularly Black Mirror - but then 2020 has been a bleak avalanche of bad news. Communities have been ripped apart by COVID-19 with stadium turnstiles locked shut - many of them indefinitely. As if money didn’t rule the world before, it now has a vice-like grip over those who didn’t quite feel the pinch. And that’s without delving into the discrimination and administration, which seems to have punctuated news reports this year more than ever before.
You perhaps shouldn’t hold out hope for FIFA to save 2020 - that's quite the job. And given that EA didn't release a demo on this one or announce new modes, there will be some users out there disappointed - especially in these economically testing times. But while that lack of groundbreaking changes might feel like a let-down, there are so many subtleties to FIFA 21 that it doesn’t disappoint.
Take Volta, for example. It was a welcome addition to the series last year and this season’s offering is more stylish than last year - weirdly, too, story section The Debut feels far more plausible than The Journey ever was, despite it being set in a world alien to most FIFA players. Cameos from the likes of Kaka making the mode a worthy distraction to Ultimate Team and Squad Battles is a great new feature to unlock players and consumables.
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Ultimate Team is more streamlined too. The ability to play competitive matches in co-op is most welcome, as is the option to build a stadium for your squad, but EA have very much taken an “Ain’t broke” attitude here and not tried to fix it. It’s Career Mode that was in need of TLC, and boy, it’s got it.
The interactive match sim might seem like a simple idea ripped from Football Manager but being able to jump in to take penalties, for example, is fantastic. The Sharpness option adds some realism, as do the Schedule Planning and Feedback System, while the Player Development area is hugely satisfying. It’s finally possible to develop an Alphonso Davies in FIFA and we’re here for it.
The irony of FIFA 21 is a nice one, though. This is a game that pulls in Stormzy on the soundtrack. It promises that your avatar can perform the worm dance in Volta when they score and you can set up tifos of giant squirrels in your stadium in FUT, while Eric Cantona balls with Garrincha down on the pitch. And yet, for all sheer unadulterated nonsense, the littlest tweaks have really made the difference.
The gameplay is better than it’s ever been before. Passing is easier and it looks better on the eye. Agile Dribbling has made for more satisfying wide play and crossing and heading - both of which are hugely in vogue in real football - are far easier to perform and score from. The AI is massively improved, too: opposition you’re playing against reacts similarly to how they would in the real world. Now that’s realism that we like.
FIFA 21 comes at the end of a console cycle for PlayStation and Xbox. Almost more importantly though, it comes as we’re beginning to come to terms with this strange world we live in. As governments begin to think about letting in crowds, as clubs finalise deals for footballers they’ll commit to pay over months and years that they can’t possibly predict, FIFA 21 represents a vision of how football should be - not how it currently is.
And actually, FIFA 21’s vision of how football should be is a pretty fun one. This is perhaps as far as EA can take the game on this particular generation of consoles. Hopefully, by the time the PS5 and Xbox Series X are household items, football in the real world will be just as bright, colourful and optimistic as Kylian Mbappe and co make it look here.
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