It’s been a while since I’ve bought a new FIFA game this close to release. I got FIFA 21 a few short weeks later when it was already on sale, so I don’t feel too hard done by. I usually wait for the previous game to end up on EA’s service, which is now part of Gamepass, and play that. Before that, I’d wait until the new game is out, then collect my bargain bin copy of the previous year for less than a tenner.
But this is a new generation and as EA doesn’t want to share its wares with us, I’ve taken a punt on this year’s release. Bear in mind, I’m not at all interested in football these days. As a younger man, I was all about football. I played down the park with my mates every day, and I look back with fond memories of watching my team, Manchester United, playing those late evening games in the Champions League on ITV. The good old days, then.
Football has since moved on and I have too. My favourite football game is actually Championship Manager 03/04, mainly because I actually know who the players are. Booting up FIFA 21 and selecting Manchester United as my team to manage, I only recognised Marcus Rashford, and that’s due to his excellent campaign work for poor kids in the UK.
I’m not completely daft, though, so I have the basics locked down in my gaming muscle memory. A is pass. B is shoot. X is cross. And Y sometimes feeds a sexy through-ball through the heart of the defence. Other times, it goes in the opposite direction to where I wanted it. Yep, this is the FIFA I know.
The first thing that struck me was that the story mode, The Journey, is no longer a part of FIFA. I get it, the story played out over a trilogy and it’s done. I also know that some hated it. Me? I liked it. It was something different and I’m always open to trying something new within an existing franchise; it’s what keeps games interesting. It’s a shame, then, that EA decided not to replace The Journey with something else. I’d have been happy with another story of another player if that’s all they had in the writers’ room. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and we’re stuck with the usual format of Career Mode and Online Modes, as well as Volta Football, but I couldn’t give two hoots for Volta, so I barely count that as a thing.
For me, Career Mode is where the action is. I normally create my own player and rise him through the ranks, but I decided to go for the simpler option of playing as the manager. And you know what? It’s basically the same as playing the Career Mode in any of the last five or six games. There hasn’t been any major shake-up to the format, and that’s to the game’s detriment. Though I will say that the amount of money getting thrown around is ridiculous, with some players valued at over 100 million pounds, or even 200 million pounds. Trading in human flesh has literally never been so lucrative.
It’s the same clunky menus, albeit a bit more responsive on the fancy next-gen hardware, and similar issues to past games. Bugs that haven’t been resolved, but have instead been left to seemingly breed and multiply. There are countless errors in the game’s text, which might not sound like a big deal, but it just shows a lack of care for a mode that plenty of people do play. Instead, the focus has been shifted elsewhere. First, let’s go to the pitch.
Honestly, I can’t say it’s much different to the last few releases. Fast players are stupidly fast. Slow players might as well be stones sitting on the sidelines. Pace wins, and so does ultra-attacking football. Pile the numbers on up in the final third, apply pressure until you’re in a position to knock in a finesse shot, rinse and repeat.
That’s not to say it isn’t fun. It is good fun, when the game goes your way, at least. And, to be fair, the A.I feels like it has had a step-up since the last time I played FIFA 20 last year. Derby matches are brutal wars fought with cleated feet. Playing against Liverpool was like playing against a rando online; an endless barrage of dirty sliding tackles and shirt grabs. At least it felt authentic.
Speaking of authentic, FIFA 21 takes the cake this year by adding… hair physics. I can’t say I care much for it and I doubt you will either. Some players have been given a special makeover for the next-gen version of FIFA 21 to make them appear a little more lifelike, specifically, in the hair department. These players, picked out for their high profile and/or luscious hair, now have locks that bounce and bob as they run along.
For most players, it’s hard to see this effect in action on the pitch. Where you’ll really notice it is in the cutaways. Even then, I wasn’t all that impressed. What do I care if Lionel Messi’s hair flows properly? I just want to exploit his speed, not his shampoo. But, keeping those Messi fans happy is what puts pennies in EA’s coffers, I imagine.
The attention to detail is impressive, to be fair, but it also makes me wonder if half the effort that went into perfectly recreating Ederson’s silly tattoos, or Ronaldo’s wimpy running was put into the Career Mode, we might actually have something worth playing for longer than a couple of weeks, because that’s about as much time as I’m willing to give FIFA 21 at this point.
Online is obviously where EA wants you to play, so I did play a little. FIFA Ultimate Team? I couldn’t give a poop about collecting players and cards and all that other crap that’s designed to make me want more and to get me to part ways with my cash for it. No thanks. So I stuck to Seasons for a little while but eventually gave it up as a bad job. It’s not the game’s fault, to be fair, but more the playerbase that FIFA charges.
Out of five back-to-back matches where I scored the first goal, five opponents disconnected. It just becomes a little tedious and when my free playtime is so limited (yes, I play lots of games, but I rarely get to play what I want) I don’t want to be wasting it with little boys playing as Barcelona, Liverpool, and Juventus, which has been renamed due to Konami winning the official license for Pro Evo.
Another gripe for me is in the commentary. I actually despise it, but I know that without it, the game would be less. But really, Lee Dixon? The guy is annoying whenever he opens his mouth to spew out some ridiculous pundity like “they’ve just got to score goals, it’s simple.” He sounds like he really enjoyed his time in the recording booth, and perhaps took it a little too seriously. He sounds like he’s begging for his next job as a floating head on Sky Sports. And the main commentator, do not get me started. His insistence of trying to pronounce every foreign name in an accent is cringe-worthy, and not always on-point. Take Dutch midfielder, Donny Van der Beek, for example. Derek Rae will slap on a bit of Dutchness, saying Donny Van de Beek whenever he gets the ball. Smash home a screamer from outside the box, however, and he’s suddenly “Van der Beek!!!”
I know, it’s a small thing to complain about, but bring back Martin Tyler and that prat Alan Smith any day of the week.
FIFA 21 is a decent football game, but it really does feel like the series has stagnated, again, as it always does every few years. The tackling is still dodgy. Running fastest means you’ll win. And, as always, the referee is a total dickhead. Want to find out for yourself? Turn on handballs in the settings and watch the ref piss away your Champions League with a stoppage-time penalty. Dick. Head.
In the end, FIFA 21 is more style over substance, prioritising personalities, presentation, and profit. With the way FIFA Ultimate Team is going, don’t expect EA to overhaul Career Mode anytime soon. I’d love to be proven wrong though.
FIFA 21 Xbox Series X|S Review
Overall - Good - 6/10
FIFA 21 is more of the same, which means a decent game of football for casual fans. However, as always happens, FIFA has entered a period of stagnation and the focus on FIFA Ultimate Team means another poor outing for the lacklustre Career Mode.
- It’s the same pick-up-and-play game we’ve been playing for years, for better and for worse
- Set-pieces have never been better than they are now (in other words: I can actually score from free-kicks!)
- The graphical upgrades over the last-gen versions are minor, but appreciated
- Career Mode has been left out in the cold
- Volta Football isn’t fun
- FUT is the main focus
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game bought at the expense of the reviewer. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Reviewed using Xbox Series X|S.