Feature Article

FIFA 21 Gameplay Preview - Express Yourself

FIFA 21 aims to put creativity and attacking dynamism front and center.

The world we live in today is very different to the one we occupied 10 months ago when FIFA 20 launched. Football stadiums are empty aside from essential personnel, most European leagues have only just wrapped up their seasons after being forced into a three month break, and August signals the return of the Champions League--albeit in an international tournament-style format. Even Manchester City have only just begun spending monstrous fees on defenders in what is a belated transfer window.

Despite all of these delays and disruptions to not just the football calendar, but everyday life, too, FIFA 21 will roll around in the latter months of the year just like every other FIFA has before it. There's an odd semblance of comfort in this fact, especially when nothing else quite makes sense right now. It also helps that this year's game is shaping up quite nicely.

That's not to say the FIFA 21 preview build we got our hands on suggests that this is a substantial leap forward for the series, however. Significant advancements will hopefully come to fruition over the next fews years with the powerful hardware of both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X in the developer's hands. There's still some life stirring in the current gen, though, as FIFA 21 hones in on refining the moment to moment gameplay with some welcome tweaks and additions.

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In our preview session, Sam Rivera, lead gameplay producer on FIFA 21, spoke about the development team's focus on the game's three core gameplay pillars: Creativity, fluidity, and responsiveness. Each of these building blocks applies to the myriad elements that make up FIFA 21's gameplay, from dribbling, passing, creating chances, tackling, marking, and so on. Each of these features was inspired by both real-life football and community feedback.

Agile dribbling, for instance, is a new dribbling technique inspired by diminutive playmakers like Bernardo Silva. The Portuguese attacker is adept at maintaining possession in tight spaces by utilizing his tight control and quick feet to explode past committed defenders. By holding R1 and moving with the left stick, you're able to recreate this style in FIFA 21, giving you more options on the ball when it comes to escaping the clutches of opposition players.

The faster footwork enabled by agile dribbling grants you more control and responsiveness in one-on-one situations, along with a couple of new skill moves like the bridge dribble and ball roll fake turn. Your success in using this new technique will vary, and there is a learning curve to using agile dribbling effectively. It can be a powerful tool at the feet of the sport's best dribblers, though, and there's no doubting the palpable sense of satisfaction that occurs when you nail it and leave a defender for dead.

Outside of giving you new ways to dribble past opponents, the attacking side of FIFA 21 has been reworked to promote more exciting and creative play. Again, this is primarily geared towards giving you more options when in possession of the ball. Teammate AI is smarter when it comes to making off-the-ball runs, but you can also have a direct impact on how they move up the pitch. Double tapping L1 will instruct a player to run beyond the ball, while flicking the right stick immediately following this will influence the direction they run in. This is incredibly useful for moving your teammates into dangerous positions to receive the ball, or to drag defenders away and create space for yourself.

Player lock achieves a similar function, allowing you to temporarily maintain control of a specific player after passing the ball to a teammate. From here, you're free to move into space and signal the AI to pass the ball back to you when you're ready. This does mean you're leaving possession at the feet of the AI, so it can be a risky strategy, but player lock is simply another way in which FIFA 21 gives you an extra degree of control over how your team attacks and creates chances.

A significant part of your build-up play also boils down to the players at your disposal. EA has made a concerted effort to make players feel more unique and accurately reflect their real-life counterparts in this year's game. This is immediately obvious when you're running at a defense with Lionel Messi or using Virgil van Dijk's strength and defensive prowess to pick an opponent's pocket, but it's also reflected in how each player moves and positions themselves off the ball. EA is dubbing this Position Personality, but all you really need to know is that it essentially heightens the importance of the positional awareness attribute on both sides of the ball. For instance, world-class forwards are better at holding their runs to stay level with the last defender compared to their counterparts a rung below, while playmakers will seek out space between the lines to give you an option to progress the ball into dangerous areas.

Meanwhile, the world's top defenders can close down passing lanes more effectively than an average defender, and a defensive midfielder like N'Golo Kante excels at tracking runs and being in a position to intercept forward passes. All of this contributes to the uniqueness of each team and player. Playing as Borussia Dortmund offers a different experience than playing as Burnley. Not because there's a notable difference in stats between the two teams, but because the players move and react in contrasting ways. That hasn't always been the case in FIFA. Disparate teams have often felt samey, while the only distinguishing trait between players has regularly been their overall rating and pace. That doesn't appear to be the case in FIFA 21.

There are other improvements that enhance the general flow of games, too. The new natural collision system eliminates those frustrating moments where you'd concede a goalmouth scramble because the goalkeeper and three of your defenders ended up in a massive heap on the floor. Players are more aware of their surroundings and can avoid situations like the one mentioned above by, say, hopping over the onrushing 'keeper. FIFA 21 has also upped its consistency when it comes to rewarding you for making successful tackles. The ball is less likely to ricochet and end up right back at the attacker's feet, aided in part by defender's knowing how best to position themselves to win the ball back.

The early signs are promising ... EA still likes to use a lot of flashy buzz words to promote their annual football title, but there's some depth behind those words this year that's immediately apparent in this early preview build

When you boil it down to the familiar act of passing a spherical ball across a carpet-esque pitch, FIFA 21 is shaping up to be an exciting and fulfilling game of football. Animations seem to have been tightened up with fewer moving parts, resulting in more responsive movement and passing. Target selection considers space in a more intelligent way, too, meaning your passes are less likely to go awry because the game selected the wrong teammate. Blocking has even risen in prominence, with a stat dictating how good a defender is at getting something in the way of shots, passes, and crosses. You're no longer forced to commit and charge forward to attempt a tackle on the edge of your own box because simply getting a body in the way is more than enough. It's not a foolproof plan, but the increased reliability behind when and how a player will block the ball gives you another option when holding on to a valuable clean sheet.

Of course, the real test for all of these new systems and tweaks will occur when FIFA 21 is out in the wild and the online community is looking to exploit any of its flaws. The early signs are promising, though. Sure, EA still likes to use a lot of flashy buzz words to promote their annual football title, but there's some depth behind those words this year that's immediately apparent in this early preview build. EA is set to reveal additional details about Volta, Ultimate Team, and a revitalized Career Mode as it gears up for FIFA 21's launch, but as far as the on-pitch action is concerned, it doesn't look like we're in for a disappointment.

FIFA 21 launches on October 9 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions of the game will follow at some point later in the year.

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