FIFA 21 Review: Goals Galore

FIFA 21 is full of goals. With FIFA, EA Sports is constantly engaged in a balancing act between attack vs defence. And it’s a process that continues after release, with some FIFA titles transforming into a whole new beast by the time we’re ready for the next annual iteration. At launch, FIFA 21 is a goal fest. I’ve had a lot of high-scoring games on FIFA 21 where the result looks more like cricket scores, and I’ve also broken my personal best scoring record, with a final score of 20-0. This is thanks to new attacking mechanics that lead to better dribbling in close quarters and 1-on-1 situations, offer guided teammate runs and allow you to move an off-the-ball player while in possession. In combination with improved AI intelligence in attack, AI defenders who refuse to do much when not being personally monitored, and useless goalkeepers, you get the current goal fest.

FIFA 21 gameplay

The first of the new gameplay mechanics, and the one that’s likely to be hotly debated, is “Agile Dribbling”, which is activated when you hold R1/RB and move the left stick. It’s meant to give you more control over the ball and let you burst past defenders, in what EA Sports claims will offset the rule of jockey defence (hold L2/LT + R2/RT and move left stick). Having used it against top teams like Liverpool and having had it used against me online in Ultimate Team (FUT), I can say that Agile Dribbling on FIFA 21 can be a deadly weapon if used well, helping you retain the ball in Volta street football, or leaving defenders in your wake in 11v11. EA Sports has also added “Contextual Agile Dribbling”, an enabled-by-default menu option that will make your players automatically perform “agile dribbles” when possible.

It’s too early to say if this will become overpowered as did “Drag Back” on FIFA 20 — described as the “most hated move” by a FIFA pro — which is now being brought down a notch on FIFA 21. The player’s skill move rating (scored on a scale of one to five stars) will now factor into how slowly or quickly you can pull it off. Additionally, with Agile Dribbling taking over the Drag Back mechanic, the latter has been remapped to holding down L1/LB + R1/RB and moving left stick.

That brings us to the other new major gameplay mechanic in FIFA 21: player runs. Taking a cue from its brethren Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer, EA Sports now allows you to control the runs made by your teammates (L1/LB and flick the right stick in the desired run direction). You can even do this after you pass the ball — be it a ground pass, air ball, through ball, or a cross — but you’ve to pull it off immediately, EA notes, for it will clash with other mechanics. Alternatively, you can also call your player short (R1/RB and flick the right stick) if you’re running out of passing options. Up to five players can be sent on runs using the new player runs on FIFA 21. And to help you get started, the FIFA Trainer will display the path of those runs.

But that’s not all. You can also lock onto a player, à la Player Career Mode, when you’re in possession in FIFA 21 (click the left and right stick together). AI teammates can be frustrating at times on FIFA, more so around the opponent’s box, and this is a neat way to work around that. Lock onto an attacking player you would like to score with, pass the ball to a teammate, move to a better position, ask for the ball back, and go for goal. There are a couple of caveats: player lock on FIFA 21 lasts for around 10 seconds, and the AI player you pass to holds onto the ball rather than pass it around, as it would in Player Career. At times, we ended up in a position that it couldn’t safely reach us. For what it’s worth, you can transfer player lock to a closer player by flicking the right stick.

You might not need to use the new FIFA 21 player runs too often though, thanks to the smarter AI that better understands positioning. Attackers not only make more runs, but they are also more aware of where the open space is, when to begin a run — and more importantly, when to stop before they end up offside. Top defences, like Manchester City’s, will counter that with FIFA 21’s improved defensive awareness and pull up their defence lines to play you offside. If you’ve two excellent defenders in your squad, they will ensure that the main striker doesn’t have a lot of space to move in. Intelligent forwards, such as PSG’s Neymar, counter that on FIFA 21 by going on fake runs that open more space for others, or dropping back to help retain possession.

If a centre back is exposed, full backs with high defensive awareness, such as Bayern Munich’s David Alaba, will run in to provide cover and intercept balls. Defensive midfielders help out too, sliding in a lot more to intercept passes and at times double-teaming an opponent if they believe it to be necessary. EA notes that attacking positioning and defensive awareness isn’t a linear scale: an 85 value is good, 90 is “significantly better”, and 99 is “exponentially superior”. It’s also worth noting that AI defenders won’t perform at their fullest potential unless you guide them — part of EA’s strategy to increase the skill gap in FIFA — which in turn contributes to more goals being scored if you don’t react quick enough. Get to grips with defence jockeying if you want to survive in FIFA 21.

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Manchester City and Liverpool in FIFA 21
Photo Credit: EA

Beyond all that, FIFA 21 also brings new way to cross and head the ball. In addition to the existing crossing options — regular (square/X), ground cross (double-tap square/X), and high cross (L1/LB + square/X) — there are two new varieties and one modification. The driven ground cross has a new mechanic: R1/RB + double tap square/X. Its old button combination now applies to the driven cross (R1/RB + square/X) which travels at waist height. And then there’s the whipped cross (L1/LB + R1/RB + square/X) which are designed to be headed. The latter two have a considerable whip on them, and in tandem with the aforementioned smarter AI, they make a deadly combination and are a reliable outlet for goals on FIFA 21. Crossing was a mess on FIFA 20, and it seems to have been considerably improved.

Headers have been fixed too, but more importantly, there’s a big new introduction in FIFA 21: manual headers. You know what that means. Manual headers will entirely rely on the direction and power you apply, with no assists whatsoever. FIFA 20 brought in contextual headers, as the ball deflected in myriad ways depending on which part of the forehead it hit, and the player’s body position as they approached the ball. Manual headers in FIFA 21 make the job even more difficult. Yes, you can switch to assisted headers, which are more reliable than on FIFA 20, but manual headers are compulsory in all competitive modes, be it FIFA Ultimate Team (Squad Battles, Rivals, and Champions), Seasons, Co-Op Seasons, Online Friendlies, and Pro Clubs.

There are other minor, but important, changes as well. The overused “Team Press” available in quick tactics (D-pad down button) is not a toggle anymore, but a short-term effect with a cooldown timer. It’s not the same as the “Offside Trap” which triggers instantly, but rather gets activated when applicable. FIFA 21 is also helping attacking teams by allowing them to start play from inside their own box — on by default if you play with the “Possession” offensive tactic, and can be triggered with R1/RB for others — which ensures that the opponent isn’t literally breathing down your neck if you prefer to build from the back.

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PSG’s Kylian Mbappe against rivals Lyon in FIFA 21
Photo Credit: EA

Lastly, you will find some new toggles in the “Customise Controls” settings menu, where Contextual Agile Dribbling sits alongside the likes of Auto Flair Passes, Auto Clearances, and Auto Shots — all of which are turned on by default as well. An interesting new addition is “Competitor Mode”, an added difficulty variant only available with “Legendary” or “Ultimate” difficulty. It’s meant to replicate the playstyle of FIFA pros — EA Sports seems to have finally jumped into the machine learning craze — but it leaves a lot to be desired. Expect a lot more skill moves to be deployed (that are largely ineffective), though it’s nothing like playing against a real human being. Competitor Mode could be the future of FIFA AI; it’ll only get better as it continues to study more FIFA pros.

If you are looking to get to grips with the new gameplay, start with the Kick-Off mode that now has a “Rewind” option (L2/LT + R2/RT + Options/Menu OR Options/Menu + Instant Replay/Rewind). FIFA 21 now allows to literally turn back the clock on the last 30 seconds of gameplay, giving you another shot at a missed goalscoring opportunity (FIFA 21 will even prompt you to make use of it). You can use it to try out the new mechanics, and should you fail to pull it off, rewind and try again. You can’t rewind fouls, penalties, injuries, or substitutions though. And remember, this is only available offline in Kick-Off, nowhere else.

FIFA 21 Career Mode

In response to community backlash, for the first time in ages, EA Sports seems to have finally given more new features to Career Mode than Ultimate Team. There’s a new “Match Sharpness” value that directly impacts player attributes. You need to spend time in training to make sure that your players are ready for the next match, not just well-rested. Players’ success in training can be directed towards developing a new player style or a new position altogether. And we (finally) have an interactive match simulation option that will help you get through games quicker and focus on the bigger long-term picture.

Like all other attributes, Match Sharpness is measured on a 0-100 scale, with 50 as the baseline at which there’s neither a boost nor a penalty to player attributes. You can increase it by involving the player in a variety of training drills, which build on the individual training exercises offered in previous FIFA games. 15 players can now be involved on each training day, split across three slots (usually one each for defenders, midfielders, and attackers). Depending on the drill you pick, how you perform in said drill, and the number of players that take part, their sharpness will rise, at the cost of fitness. If players spend time on the sidelines, their sharpness will fall. FIFA 21 Career Mode gives you a reason to involve your reserve squad, lest you want them to not perform at their level when called up.

You can schedule training days in advance from the calendar in FIFA 21 Career Mode, where new rules let you define what your squad will do on non-matchdays. You can schedule a training day to boost sharpness, a recovery day that helps regain fitness but decreases sharpness, or a rest day that regains less fitness, loses less sharpness, and gains morale. Morale, if you’ll recall, was introduced last year to depict accumulated form. EA has heard feedback on how easy it was to manipulate morale on FIFA 20, and it says it’s made changes to how the system works on FIFA 21. Training will also impact morale. No one likes it when they don’t get a day off from work. That means you’ve to balance slotting it training, rest and recovery days, to achieve a balance that helps you succeed.

With the introduction of Match Sharpness, there are now five values that affect a player’s overall value: age, development, morale, sharpness, and preferred position. In the interest of letting you make quicker decisions in FIFA 21 Career Mode, the team management menus will display the stat buff or damage (say +4 or –2) in green or red next to their overall value. Selecting them will reveal whether they are playing out of position, low on morale, or not sharp enough.

The one aspect that we didn’t touch on there is development. In what’s another cue from its rival Konami’s PES, players can specialise in roles based on their position. A central midfielder (CM) for example can be developed into a box-to-box maniac, a deep-lying playmaker, or a goal poacher who waits on the edge of the box. You can also convert their position, just as Gareth Bale went from being a left-back (LB) to right-winger (RW) in real life. Depending on what you ask for, the time required for the latter ranges from a few weeks to a few years on FIFA 21 Career Mode. Young players will naturally perform better in this regard. Speaking of, every club now has a pre-existing youth scout and academy, and the players therein can be developed as well.

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Borussia Dortmund prodigy Erling Håland in FIFA 21
Photo Credit: EA

That leaves the third big new change to FIFA 21 Career Mode: Interactive Match Sim. The new option is a mix of the existing “Quick Sim” and the match experience. You get live commentary and stadium sounds, while you look at an expanded and more detailed version of the in-game 2D pitch radar, which shows the 22 players moving around as dots. You can make substitutions and tactical changes at any time, and more importantly, you can jump in and out of the action — seamlessly — whenever you feel like. Or you can skip directly to the final result, as you would in Quick Sim, which has a history of not being reliable, delivering draws and defeats even when your team is on a streak of wins. With Interactive Match Sim, Career Mode enthusiasts should be able to play more seasons effectively in FIFA 21.

There are a few more changes. At the start of your FIFA 21 Career Mode, you’ll be asked to choose between “loose” or “strict” transfer negotiations option. The former refers to the one that has existed all these years. Strict is exactly as it says, with big clubs offering little to no wiggle room on fees they offer or what they want you to pay. EA says on strict, clubs won’t listen to rival club offers, players won’t move to a club they hate or a lower league, and those with “One Club Player” trait won’t listen to any offers. While this all goes towards the realism in FIFA Career Mode that we’ve wanted it’s still unfortunately operating as a dumb algorithm. And that means it ends up being too rigid. Liverpool offered us $98.8 million for Karim Benzema, but refused to round out to an even $100 million.

AI-controlled clubs will be smarter on FIFA 21 Career Mode in other ways though. They will now renew contracts of top players, so you won’t see the likes of Kylian Mbappe or Paul Pogba turn into Free Agents that you could easily snap up in years past. Clubs will also approach you or try to counter offer with player swaps in FIFA 21, a feature that was solely being used by humans until now. You still can’t ask for money when pitching a player swap though, and have to wait for the AI to think of it itself. You can now loan a player before you decide to buy them, though.

And lastly, Career Mode objectives have been tweaked so you won’t see frivolous objectives like selling a certain number of season tickets or an average number of spectators. Instead, FIFA 21 Career Mode assigns you objectives such as unbeaten away run, home winning streak, or winning a certain number of games in a season — much more actionable and something you know how to target.

FIFA 21 Ultimate Team and Volta Football

Over in Ultimate Team, the most pleasing change in FIFA 21 is the removal of fitness (and training) items. Until last year, the fitness of your FUT squad would fall as they played back-to-back matches, as it does in Career Mode (and real life). EA says it did that to encourage rotation, and we’ve had experience rotating between multiple squads to avoid spending coins on fitness items as much as possible. EA has realised the annoyance that it was, and finally gotten rid of it. You can now focus more on matters of the pitch, an aspect that has otherwise been a problem with FUT.

The big new introduction to FIFA 21 Ultimate Team is FUT Co-Op. Yes, you can now invite your friends to play alongside you in Squad Battles, Division Rivals, and FUT Friendlies. There’s a handy new friends widget in the bottom-right (R2/RT). The player who invites others will become the “captain”. That means one of your FUT squads will be used. Unfortunately, you can’t mix and match players that your friend has on their FUT squad. EA has made adjustments to the FIFA Trainer so when you play FUT Co-Op, you’ll see your partner’s button inputs, allowing you to react in real-time without having to be on call with the people you’re playing with.

If you play FUT Co-Op in Squad Battles or Division Rivals, the matches will count against your weekly allotment: first 40 (Squad Battles) or 30 (Division Rivals) games. This helps ensure that those with less time on their hands aren’t as disadvantaged. We feel that is still a lot of matches per week though, and it also assumes you’re putting all your game time into the two modes and nothing else. And it’s not easy to compete to begin with, given FUT still allows you to spend money to buy FUT packs.

Beyond that, there are a couple of cosmetic upgrades. The Ultimate Team navigation has been redesigned. It seems cleaner than before, but it did end up confusing us at times, especially when it came to the simple task of swapping players in and out of the squad.

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FUT Champions Stadium in FIFA 21
Photo Credit: EA

The other one is stadium customisation. FIFA 21 Ultimate Team comes with an all-new “FUT Stadium”, which can be upgraded to a “FUT Challengers Stadium” and then “FUT Champions Stadium” as you progress. Over three dozen aspects can be toyed around with, which are unlocked over a period of your first 50 FUT games. One aspect — goal song — is bound to be the cause for an outcry, given the annoying choices that FIFA 21 has made in that regard. It’s (naturally) played every time someone scores. You better hope your opponent hasn’t picked an earworm, or you better have an airtight defence so you never have to hear it. But with defence in the state it is, FUT means a whole new level of hell for many on FIFA 21, in the same year EA removed some “toxic” goal celebrations.

Stadium customisation is (thankfully) not available in FUT’s baby: Volta. Introduced last year, the online-only street football mode is looking even more like FUT now. Club players and kits are now here, as are celebrities from various arenas. Volta has its own version of Squad Battles too — it’s called Featured Battles — where you compete against AI-controlled squads made by other Volta players. They are different in a couple of ways though. First, you’ve to level up to unlock the actual featured games, which involve club players and celebrities. Rewards include only cosmetic items or “Battle Coins” that can be used to purchase more cosmetic items in the Volta store. That’s because you get new players the Volta style: pick an opponent player every time you defeat someone. It does mean it’s much easier to strengthen your Volta squad than in FUT.

There’s a second new online mode called Volta Squads, where games are 5v5 only. (Volta is otherwise 3v3, 4v4, or 5v5.) Think of it as a cross between Pro Clubs and FUT Division Rivals. You play as your Volta Avatar only. You can invite three friends to form a squad or drop in to be paired with three other players — keepers are always AI-controlled — and then compete against other teams. Unfortunately, FIFA’s opaque matchmaking system is even more opaque with Volta Squads where there isn’t any indicator of how many people are online, let alone available in a region near you. We had trouble finding an opponent team after launch despite repeated tries.

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Volta The Debut Streets & Icons in Dubai in FIFA 21
Photo Credit: EA

EA is being very naked about its ambitions with Volta. While the Volta story mode in FIFA 10 lasted around 10 hours, the one in FIFA 21 — dubbed “The Debut” — is hilarious. Lasting just a couple of hours, it features Alex Hunter’s agent Beatriz Villanova (the only connection to FIFA’s erstwhile The Journey story mode), while players such as Kaká and Thierry Henry have select few dialogue scenes. More importantly, your AI teammates fall behind your level very soon. As a result, your team isn’t very competitive and you might have trouble playing on higher difficulties.

Whichever way you decide to play Volta in FIFA 21, your Volta Avatar will grow thanks to “Skill Points” that you earn with each match. And unlike the early 80s value cap last time around, you can take your Volta avatar into the 90s in FIFA 21. You can’t pick up where you left off annoyingly, which is another FUT element in that Volta will reset every year. For what it’s worth, EA claims your Avatar will grow at a faster pace in FIFA 21 than it did in FIFA 20.

Volta gameplay is still unsatisfactory though. Skills aren’t too useful and you can manage your way through by finding the right passes. Or just brute force, as the AI still loves to do — and can be better at, because it’s the computer. 3v3 is the easiest of the lot in that you are one pass away from unlocking the defence, which explains why EA is keeping Volta Squads to 5v5 that involves a bit more strategy.

It’s the only game

While EA is touting a new product in FIFA 21 and will offer next-gen upgrades on PS5 and Xbox Series X before the end of 2020, Konami has essentially decided to skip this year. It dropped a squad refresh with the PES 2021 Season Update, which has the same gameplay as PES 2020. It’s unclear if a separate next-gen version will be released, as Konami is focusing on the switch to Unreal Engine with PES 2022 that will undergo testing in mid-2021.

Pro Evolution Soccer had already been ceding ground to FIFA over the past few years, and for now, it’s completely out of the picture. FIFA has always had the advantage of being the exclusive licensee from the football federation, it was the game of choice for football pros when they were stuck at home during the pandemic, and it seems like the only choice for football fans upgrading to PS5 or Xbox Series X.

(If you’re going to transition between consoles, it’s worth noting that many of your saves won’t go with you. Upgrades are free, for what it’s worth. Also, FIFA 21 looks quite dated and suffers from aliasing on the PS4, very visible signs that current-gen consoles are now at the clear end of their lifecycles.)

EA is competing against itself at this point, and that’s an impossible match to lose.

Pros:

  • Smarter AI positioning
  • Guided player runs, player lock
  • Bunch of Career Mode changes
  • Co-op in Ultimate Team
  • FUT fitness items removed
  • Team Press nullified, sort of

Cons:

  • New crosses can be too deadly
  • Competitor Mode fails to impress
  • FUT weekly match count too high
  • Volta gameplay unsatisfactory
  • Volta (further) going the FUT route
  • Volta story mode is a joke
  • Opaque matchmaking
  • FUT pay-to-win behaviour ignored

Rating (out of 10): 8

Gadgets 360 played FIFA 21 on the PS4. The game is available at Rs. 3,999 on Origin for PC, PS4 and Xbox One. EA Play members get 10 percent off the sticker price. You can also get it on PC with the EA Play Pro subscription for Rs. 999 a month or Rs. 6,499 a year.

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