FIFA 21 Review – Strong Online Improvements, Offline Left in the Cold

Normality was restored in the football world on September 12th. The new football season kicked off and, in usual style, EA Sports have released a new title. Here’s our FIFA 21 review.

This year’s title boasts upgrades to the fan-favourite Ultimate Team mode, as well as changes to Career Mode and VOLTA. However, seasons and offline tournaments have largely stayed the same from last year’s title, FIFA 20.

VOLTA

The Debut

VOLTA mode returns after it’s FIFA 20 debut. Players can take to the streets to play football in all sorts of locations. This year, there are new locales to enjoy, such as Paris and Sydney. In FIFA 21, VOLTA also introduces a new story mode named The Debut. This lets players create a character, build up their squads and face off against others in an attempt to become the best street football team. Building on from last year’s story mode, there are more football legends to gather for your team in FIFA 21. There are also a few non-football celebrities, such as Anthony Joshua and Diplo.

Ultimately though, this mode is largely the same as FIFA 20. There’s new cinematics and players to obtain, so if you like VOLTA, you will enjoy playing through The Debut. However, for users coming in expecting a brand new experience, they’ll be disappointed this time around. If you didn’t play VOLTA on FIFA 20, there isn’t anything new in The Debut to bring you in. The mode is also a lot shorter than its FIFA 20 counterpart, clocking in at about 60 minutes.

volta

VOLTA Squads

VOLTA in FIFA 21 also boasts a brand new mode named VOLTA Squads. This allows you to hop online with friends and play against other teams in the 5-a-side Online Team Play mode. VOLTA also features a new mode named Featured Battles, which works like the Squad Battles mode from Ultimate Team. Users will be able to recruit players from teams they beat in this mode. This mode features everything from players playing today, such as Kylian Mbappe, to the legends of yesteryear.

These additions definitely add to the VOLTA mode, giving players a reason to come back after they’ve completed The Debut. However, if you’re not that interested in VOLTA as a whole, these modes will also fall by the wayside. There isn’t a lot here to draw in the Ultimate Team crowd.

volta

Career Mode

Interactive Match Sim

This year, Career Mode has added a lot of fan-requested features. First up is the Interactive Match Sim feature. Interactive Match Sim allows you to watch the simulation of the game and make team changes in real-time. This gives you the chance to swing the match back in your favour. It also allows players to take control of key moments, like penalties and free kicks, and then drop back out to the simulation again. Much like previous FIFA games, you can jump into the simulation at any point and take control.

For me, this is a huge improvement to Career Mode, as I often lack the effort to play out every single game of a season. Now, I can watch the games and if something is going wrong, I can jump in to fix it and keep my season on track. I am very happy with this addition.

Player Development

Next up with Career Mode are the changes to Player Development. In past FIFA games you could not change player’s natural positions, outside of Ultimate Team, without going into the Edit Player feature and doing it there before starting a new Career save. This year, you can do it in Career Mode itself. You can retrain your players into positions you would like them to play. For example, you may think Trent Alexander-Arnold should play right-wing rather than right-back. In FIFA 21, you can retrain him to become a natural right winger and have his attributes reflect this.

Growth Plans

Also new in Player Development are Growth Plans. This feature is one of my favourites from the new Career Mode. It really allows you to specialise your players for your team. After you complete a match, the players from your team will be given XP depending on how well they performed. This XP will be distributed to their Attributes. By default, all players are on the Balanced Plan, which dishes out XP to all Attributes evenly.

However, you can also create a custom Growth Plan that channels XP into specific stats. For example, you can make Nicolas Pepe focus purely on his attacking work rate. This will make him a better attacking player in the long term, but his other stats may be poor. The rate at which you earn Growth XP depends on a few factors. The player’s playing time, their potential, their current form, their age and their current ability are taken into account. For example, a promising young player like Bukayo Saka will earn XP much faster than James Milner.

The system works well, and does what it says on the tin. It allows users to have greater control over their players development, but with some older players you may have a tough time changing things to your liking. This system is geared towards the younger generation of players and building them up from the ground.

Active Drills and Sharpness

Career Mode has received another key change this year. The Match Sharpness stat is a new indicator that tells users if their team is ready for the next match. The stat ranges from 0 to 100. Depending on what the number is, players will either have their Attributes lowered, raised or have no changes made to them. A player on 50 Sharpness will have no changes to his Attributes. A player on 0 Sharpness will have his Attributes lowered to reflect this, and a player on 100 Sharpness will receive a buff to his Attributes.

I personally like this change, as it helps to mirror real life football and the training they go through. Funnily enough, the new Active Drills system allows users to take their team into training routines. The better they do in the training drill, the more Sharpness their players will receive. The downside to this is that the Active Drills use Fitness on players, so you cannot spam them repeatedly to always have maximum Sharpness. You have to decide whether you use the Fitness to increase Sharpness, or you save it for the big league decider in the next game to make sure your players aren’t tired by the 60th minute.

Other Tweaks

There have also been a few small changes to the transfer process in Career Mode this year. You can now add a Loan to Buy clause in when bringing new signings in on loan, giving you a chance to try the player out for a season before you put £25 million down on a player that may not perform. These are often used in real-life transfers and I am glad to see them finally in the game.

Additionally, the AI has been improved to start offering Player Swaps when they attempt to buy players. Swapping players was added to Career Mode a few years back but the AI was not able to do so, so this change is welcome too. Finally, AI clubs have received improvements to their contract renewal system, so top rated players will not become free agents as often as previous titles.

It’s worth noting that for players interested in next-gen, career mode progress will not carry over. This means you will have to start from scratch on the Xbox Series X or S next month.

Ultimate Team

Squad Battles and Division Rivals

Next, we move onto the juggernaut that is Ultimate Team, FIFA’s most popular mode. The staple modes all make a return, with Squad Battles and Division Rivals receiving some minor tweaks from last year’s outing. Squad Battles matches now allow you to earn points for the Division Rivals mode, and even allows users to complete the initial Rivals placement matches against CPU opponents. Other than this, the mode remains largely the same as last year, with the famous “Squad Battles Glitch” remaining in the game, which allows users to glitch the AI into a frozen state, meaning that objectives and points can be farmed with minimal effort required.

Division Rivals has also received a few tweaks, with there now being 6 weekly ranks to climb through instead of the usual 5. Also, opponents skill rating is now shown after a result, a fan-requested feature from FUT 20.

Co-op Play

Ultimate Team has also received two big changes this year, with those being co-op play and the brand-new stadium development feature. Co-op play is the big seller this year, allowing users to compete in the Squad Battles and Division Rivals leaderboards together. This new co-op mode also features unique objectives that can only be completed in co-op, so players are highly encouraged to go out and find a partner to hit the pitch with. For me though, this is a little disappointing as I am mainly a solo Ultimate Team player, with the occasional match against friends.

Because of this, I am now locked out of certain rewards in the game. The co-op mode also does not feature matchmaking, so if users want to obtain these rewards they either have to have friends that play Ultimate Team, or they have to go online and actively search out players, which is disappointing to say the least.

Stadium Customisation

Part of these unique rewards are the new stadium consumables, which ties into the stadium development feature. As part of FIFA 21, players are given the choice to edit a stadium to their own choosing, right down to the colour of the seats. These features are unlocked through playing the game, and you can receive different “stadium cards” in FUT packs, with seat colours, unique celebrations, chants and goal songs being dropped in the packs. My favourite of these is the pyrotechnics that can be unlocked when scoring a goal, it really adds to the arcade style that Ultimate Team seems to relish in these days.

Club badges, kits and balls have been moved to the stadium section and, in a somewhat odd change, whichever kit you pick to use for your club has had its badge removed. This just makes the kits look strange. I did not mind the badge being there as I strictly used the Arsenal kit and Arsenal badge together anyway.

Fitness Changes

A big change this year is the fact the fitness aspect of Ultimate Team has now gone. Users can now play as many games with their cards as they want, with no ill effects applied. This is only a positive change, meaning that users do not have to keep topping their players up with fitness anymore, and spend money on said cards.

Fortunately, Ultimate Team progress will carry over to next-generation consoles. I assume this is because it is tied to online services, so it can be linked to player accounts. That means you can go put your all into making your dream team! It’ll all be waiting for you over on Series X!

Pro Clubs

Moving on to Pro Clubs, this mode has been largely untouched, down to the menus being the same as FIFA 20. In FIFA 21, it has received one minor change in that you can name rename the AI players in your team. This could be useful if you’re planning on making a club based on a theme, but it doesn’t really add any weight to the mode.

pro clubs

Gameplay

The actual gameplay of FIFA 21 itself feels largely the same as FIFA 20, but with a few minute changes that improve the game. Now, when an advantage is played, you can now see how long is left. I welcome this change because in FIFA 20 it did often feel like the advantage was being played for too long, and now I can see how much time is left.

There is also a new feature where you can wave off the advantage by holding the triggers in and just taking the free kick. Crosses feel especially strong this year, at least in the games of Ultimate Team I have played. 80% of the crosses I put into the box have ended up going in, either as a volley or a header and I have also had a lot more volleys scored against me too. Free kicks also feel easier than FIFA 20. I only scored one free kick in FIFA 20, whereas I’ve hit the post 4 times in FIFA 21.

A quick word about the achievements too, the list looks to be largely the same as FIFA 20, which was already largely the same as FIFA 19. The usual achievements for levelling up your Pro in Pro Clubs, changing a tactic in FUT, winning a game in Division 4 in FUT, winning the Champions League final all are back, as well as a few new achievements tying into the new VOLTA story mode.

Conclusion

Overall, FIFA 21 still plays a very good game of football. There is no denying the sheer popularity of the Ultimate Team mode. However, players who prefer other modes may feel disappointed with this year’s changes, Pro Clubs players especially. The new Career Mode changes are good, but more could be done here. I hope EA take advantage of the next generation to make Career Mode what it should be.

Get FIFA 21 here at the Microsoft Store. Make sure to also check out our Street Power Soccer review. If you’re more interested in the “other” kind of football, check out our Madden NFL 21 review here.

For all your news, previews and reviews, stay tuned to Generation Xbox.

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