For the first time in years, I can confidently say FIFA 21
improves more on features off the pitch rather than on it. While previous entries would take hours for me to fully gel with the new gameplay mechanics, this year feels distinctly similar to last year’s entry, for better and for worse.
Take Volta Football
, for example. A fantastic new mode from FIFA 20 complete with a decent story and a litany of things to do through Volta League, sees no measurable improvement this year. Volta Squads, which is effectively Seasons mode, and Featured Battles (think FUT Squad Battles) are good additions, though neither elevate Volta to reaching its full potential. This year’s story mode, dubbed The Debut, is exactly that -- a handful of matches to get you into the mindset of the different match types and how they work, as well as the routine of recruiting new players to build on your squad. There’s nothing significant here, and I found myself yearning for the days of The Journey.
Similarly, after spending a few hours taking on CPU-controlled teams in Featured Battles and experimenting with Volta Squads, I felt like I’d seen all there was to see in Volta. The mode itself is fantastic -- I love how different it feels to 11-a-side and I enjoy the way you recruit players into your team to build a stronger squad. It just needs something more to it, whether that’s an expanded career-type mode (like Rocket League
’s Seasons, perhaps) or a bigger story to hold it all together. The handful of new arenas add to a large roster of locations, though without some sticking power Volta will always feel like a secondary mode compared to other stuff within FIFA.
For the first time in years, I can confidently say FIFA 21 improves more on features off the pitch rather than on it.
Surprisingly, Career Mode has seen a notable face lift in FIFA 21. Things I’ve been particularly hopeful for have finally been brought into the game, creating more options for players that want to dive into the nitty gritty of the sport as a manager. You’re finally able to change player positions over time through training development, assess and rework player roles and, most importantly, jump into simulated matches. The latter is a fantastic addition, allowing you to watch the match play out and join the action if the game isn’t going in your favour. The opposite is also true, allowing you to sim remaining time on a match as opposed to only being able to forfeit.
As someone who’s put thousands of hours into FIFA Career Mode throughout the years, these changes are more than appreciated. The new training system isn’t something I’ve been loving, though. The system, which incorporates player morale, fitness and match sharpness ratings, doesn’t feel like something that ever plays a major role in player performance, as odd as that sounds. I started players during cup games with a ‘0’ rating in their sharpness stat, and they seemed more than capable of banging in goals and executing fantastic switch passes when required. They would, at times, misplace a shot or not get onto a loose ball fast enough, but not often enough to ever demonstrate such a low match sharpness rating. I expected something similar to how players play when they have low chemistry in Ultimate Team
, yet it didn’t feel like that at all.
The benefit that comes from this system, though, comes down to player development. You can now fully customise player training schedules, what they practice, and how they develop as players. Gone are the days of picking a youth player, having them do a handful of drills every week and watching them skyrocket to a 90+ rating. This new system feels more natural and realistic, and I’ve enjoyed the way it makes me think about player development and who should be rested before a big match, as an example.
This isn’t something you need to concern yourself with if you don’t want to, of course, as there are quick sim options available. Players that don’t like diving deep into the simulation side of the game aren’t forced to, yet I’ve loved it. It’s a unique blend of Football Manager and FIFA, and I hope to see more iteration on Career Mode next year -- there’s no doubt this is a great start. I’m also stoked to finally see loan to buy options incorporated into the mode, alongside opposition managers asking for specific players to complete a deal.
You’re finally able to change player positions over time through training development, assess and rework player roles and, most importantly, jump into simulated matches [in Career Mode].
Ultimate Team sees a slight refresh this year, though not as significant as Career Mode. As much as I’m not a fan of the predatory practices seen within, there've been some significant steps made to level the field between grinding for coins and paying for FUT points. The biggest win comes through the recently-introduced seasons, which is, like many other games out there, akin to a timed battle pass. Completing matches will net you XP, which can, in turn, be used to claim a multitude of rewards. The opening season’s big reward is 85-rated Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette -- someone well worth acquiring for an EPL-themed side. Playing with mates rather than against them is encouraged this year as well, thanks to the introduction of co-op FUT. And while it’s a great way of earning rewards together, I found that keeping things competitive always trumps playing cooperatively in FUT.
FUT Stadium is by far my favourite change to Ultimate Team, though. While you still have to earn customisation cards, being able to change the look of your stadium, what music is played when you score, and what the crowds chant makes for a more personalised experience this year. It’s great, but once again -- FUT’s encouragement of player spending is something I never really gel well with, and nothing’s changed my mind this year.
As mentioned earlier, FIFA 21’s fundamental gameplay hasn’t changed too much. No matter what new additions have been toted, I found possession-based play the best way to take on opponents -- something I also primarily relied on in FIFA 20. There are some handy new features, like being able to control off the ball movements so you don’t always have to rely on the AI’s decision making, yet nothing really stuck out to me like it has done in recent entries. That’s not a bad thing -- I loved how FIFA 20 played, and that sentiment is echoed with FIFA 21.
FIFA 21 is great. The small refinements make the biggest impressions this year, and I’m excited to see how the next-gen versions pan out. It’s finally
good to be a Career Mode player again, and I just hope that over the coming years we see a bigger focus on Volta and less on pushing players into paying for FUT coins.