With next-gen consoles only a few weeks away, FIFA 21 feels like a swan song for the current generation of sports games. It ostensibly wraps up an era that was defined by the increasing prevalence of microtransactions and the game modes designed around them, and FIFA 21 is no different in this regard. Ultimate Team is still front and center as the main draw for many players, but this year's game is also the most robust version of FIFA in series history. Volta Football has been expanded after debuting last year, Career Mode has finally received some much-needed new additions, and there are even new ways to play Ultimate Team. None of this is revelatory--and that remains true on the pitch, where subtle attacking changes make for a more dynamic game of football--but each of these aspects sets FIFA up for the future while also ensuring that this year's game is still worth playing.
The latest gameplay changes aren't immediately obvious when you step onto the pitch for the first time, mainly because FIFA 21 isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead, new features in attack supplement the strong foundations of last year's game, with player responsiveness and passing also undergoing slight tweaks. There's an immediacy to everything you do that makes performing sweeping attacking moves a joy to execute. Passing has been sharpened up, with fewer instances of the ball missing your intended target. Through balls are also more effective when playing a runner in behind the defensive line, with well-timed and incisive passes managing to find the feet of onrushing attackers at a more consistent rate. Even heading has returned after its metaphorical absence in FIFA 20 on accord of how useless it was, with aerially strong players able to power crosses into the back of the net with increased frequency.
These gameplay tweaks improve upon the core pillars of FIFA 21's on-pitch action, while marquee new features, such as Agile Dribbling, elevate its creativity and attacking dynamism. This new dribbling technique gives you greater control when faced with an eager defender by enhancing the speed and responsiveness of your player's footwork. It's designed to help you retain possession and create space in tight one-on-one situations, emulating the play of diminutive playmakers and fleet-footed wingers. Players who excel in these moments like Lionel Messi and Bernardo Silva are more adept at using Agile Dribbling than others, utilizing sharp changes of direction and a delicate touch to escape the clutches of aggressive defenders. It can be a powerful tool at the feet of the sport's best dribblers, but there's also a palpable learning curve that applies to using it successfully and consistently. Once you do get the hang of it, however, there are few better feelings in FIFA 21 than being able to lure an opponent in close before shifting the ball past their outstretched leg and exploding past their hapless frame into open space.
This increased degree of control is evident throughout FIFA 21's other new on-pitch additions as well. You've always been able to instruct teammates to make off-the-ball runs, but these forward sprints were always static, with players only able to burst up the pitch in a straight line. This ability still exists in FIFA 21, only now you also have the option to choose which direction they run in. This is incredibly useful for moving your teammates into dangerous positions to receive a pass, or to drag defenders out of position and create space for yourself. Player lock is another function of this ability, allowing you to temporarily maintain control of a player after passing the ball to a teammate. This lets you move into pockets of space on the pitch or run beyond the defensive line before instructing the AI to pass the ball back to you. It can be a tad risky leaving possession at the feet of the AI, but your teammates are generally good enough at keeping the ball, so long as you don't force them to maintain possession for too long.
Speaking of the AI, Positioning Personality is another new feature that's designed to allow world-class players to stand out with their use of intelligent movement and penchant for finding space. This essentially heightens the importance of the positional awareness attribute, creating a gap between the best and the rest when it comes to the way certain players move across the pitch. Top forwards, for instance, are less likely to be called offside, able to hold their runs and penetrate the backline at just the right moment. Hardworking wingers, meanwhile, will track back to help their fullback, showing up lazier wingers who neglect their defensive responsibilities in favor of staying further up the pitch. Other players will find pockets of space between the lines to kickstart attacks, while the top defenders are able to close down passing lanes and read danger more effectively than their average counterparts.
Defending hasn't been completely neglected in FIFA 21, although the vast majority of new additions are geared towards infusing the attacking side of the game with more control, creativity, and dynamism. Positioning Personality helps if you've got a player like Virgil van Dijk on your team, or a midfield destroyer who excels at tracking runs into the box and intercepting passes. The art of defending hasn't changed all that much from FIFA 20, however, especially when playing against others online. The tried and trusted strategy of maintaining control over a defensive midfielder is still the best course of action, lest you attempt a tackle with one of your center backs and leave acres of space in behind for the opposition to exploit.
Tackles are slightly more consistent at winning back possession, but with the deluge of options available to attacking players, FIFA 21 still promotes caution on defense. A reimagined player collision system creates smoother interactions across the pitch, so at least you don't have to worry about conceding because your entire defense and goalkeeper fell over each other. Players now have the wherewithal to jump over fallen players. Blocking shots has also become more pronounced, allowing you to focus on staying in front of the opposition instead of risking a potentially catastrophic tackle. Despite these changes, there's still a large skill gap associated with defending. It's only a small sample size, but low scoring games are currently a rarity online, with most games quickly turning into eight-goal thrillers. If you're looking for high octane attacking football and plenty of goals, FIFA 21 certainly delivers, but it's easy to feel outmatched when defending.
Fortunately, you don't have to go it alone. Ultimate Team has remained almost unchanged from last year's game, but co-op is a welcome new addition. You're now able to team up with friends and earn weekly progress in both Division Rivals and Squad Battles. There are also new co-op specific objectives that feed into FIFA's version of the battle pass, rewarding you and your friends for playing together. Even if you don't play Ultimate Team, co-op gives you the opportunity to engage with it in a potentially less frustrating environment.
As for other game modes, Volta Football has been expanded since first appearing in FIFA 20. This unique mode is essentially a more grounded version of FIFA Street, ditching the massive stadiums for small pitches and a focus on skill moves. The Debut is a brief story mode found within Volta, acting as an introduction to FIFA 21's brand of street football. There are cutscenes and the smallest semblance of a narrative, but finding any substance is more difficult than packing Cristiano Ronaldo in Ultimate Team. It's worth playing just to unlock cosmetic items and a star player at the end, but there are more enjoyable ways to engage with Volta.
Featured Battles are a notable new addition, repurposing Ultimate Team's Squad Battles with a street football twist. By playing and defeating AI-controlled squads, you'll accumulate points towards unlocking matches against special weekly teams with unique rewards. The first week, for instance, gives you the chance to earn a Liverpool kit and PSG star Kylian Mbappe. The latter is obviously more exciting as you're able to insert him into your Volta Team. Hopefully more star players will be added each week to give you a compelling reason to keep coming back to Featured Battles. It's just a shame you can only play one star at a time, because who doesn't want to recreate a modern version of that iconic Nike commercial from 2002?
FIFA 21's new gameplay features also improve upon Volta's flashy football. Agile Dribbling functions as a relatively simple way to perform skill moves, while the new blocking system makes defending more rewarding. There's an increased variety to Volta this year, too, with multiple figurations of matches, whether it's 5v5, 3v3, walls, no walls, rush goalkeeper, and so on. You'll go from playing within the confines of a concrete pitch in a public park in London to performing in front of fans in an official indoor arena in Berlin. The size of the pitch alters the way you play, as skill moves become less of a necessity when there's space to pass to your teammates. Walls add a new dimension as well, giving you the ability to ricochet passes off their flat surfaces, while the size of the teams forces you to adapt your strategy. FIFA 21 fleshes out Volta in meaningful ways, turning it into an enjoyable side dish that will hopefully become a staple of the series' suite of game modes.
Career mode has been around longer than any other mode, but it's also faced the most criticism for a lack of changes and improvements in recent years. FIFA 20 moved the needle with the introduction of a shallow morale mechanic and overhauled pre- and post-match interviews, but FIFA 21 takes it a step further by adding a raft of new features. The first of these is a Football Manager-esque Interactive Match Sim that gives you control over the outcome of each match, even if you don't play it yourself. You can sim any match and watch 2D dots play it out at an accelerated pace. There are contextual prompts that let you jump in and take control of key moments like free kicks and penalties, or you can opt to jump in and out at any time. If you decide to sim the entire match, you can still make informed tactical changes since match data reveals your player's fitness levels and performance rating, so you can still impact the final score even if you can't be bothered to play Stoke in a cup game on a wet and windy Wednesday night yourself.
Player development has been overhauled with a revamped growth system that lets you change the position of youngsters in your academy to fulfill team needs. When it comes to the first team, training has also been reworked, giving you the option to set up group training sessions that can improve specific player attributes before a game, such as your striker's ability to finish big chances. There's a new match sharpness attribute that determines how likely players are to perform in the most crucial moments of a match. You'll want to schedule each training session in order to balance your player's sharpness, fitness, and morale, but you'll still inevitably have some decisions to make come match day when it's time to pick your starting-11. This makes Career mode more involved than before, forcing you to manage your players on a weekly basis and ensure your best are ready to play.
Unfortunately, the training minigames you need to play each week just aren't very fun, particularly once they begin to repeat. It doesn't take long before you're tempted to sim each one, but even this is a bit of a slog as you're forced to mash your way through multiple menus each match week. The UI is similarly sluggish elsewhere, with one menu required to scout a player, and a completely separate one needed to bid for them. That's a lot of unnecessary navigation for two aspects of football management that are intertwined. Buying players is still a needless grind as well, as you watch the same few unskippable cutscenes over and over again with all of the important information appearing in between via BioWare-esque dialogue wheels.
Career mode is still a mixed bag, then, but it's reassuring that EA has made some additional moves to try and freshen it up. If you do grow tired of simming through training sessions and managing sharpness, FIFA 21 is still chock full of other stuff to do, whether you want to head to the streets of Paris to show off your skills, hop into Ultimate Team with a friend, or play through a season on Pro Clubs. This is a substantial package that's propped up by exciting gameplay that puts the onus squarely on attacking football. There are moments of frustration on defense when the balance doesn't feel quite right, but then you'll go down the other end and score a Puskás Award contender that makes you forget why you were mad in the first place.