While Konami decided to postpone a "proper" PES release this year due to COVID-19 and the jump to a new game engine for next-gen, EA Sports went ahead with a regular release for FIFA 21. And truth be told, there are several new features that on paper that could justify a full-price buy... if they haven't done more harm than good.
Starting with gameplay, we have to say that we were left very disappointed with FIFA 21. There are several new features, mostly concerning players runs into open space and through balls. The attackers' artificial intelligence is now superior, looking for better positioning and more effectively preventing offsides. On the other hand, the defensive AI is now far worse at covering spaces, making it extremely vulnerable to counterattacks.
The player can also use new controls to manually ask for runs, using the right analog stick to indicate the direction a teammate should run. It's a cool feature, but one that is in direct contact with the other right analog stick functions, including skill moves and first touch. In other words, every time you ask for a player run, you will also be doing moves you probably didn't want to.
This clash of controls happens in other contexts, and some even happened in FIFA 20, like the L1/LB dribble that also asks for a teammate run. In other words, it's impossible to execute the dribble without having another player starting a run forward, which is absurd. As we mentioned, these situations already happened in the past, but not as frequently as they do in FIFA 21 due to the increased number of actions.
Still related to forward runs, it's now possible to retain the control of a single player during the match by pressing R3 and L3. You can use this to pass the ball to a teammate, while maintaining control of the passer, allowing you to manually move him to where you want him. You can then ask for the pass when you think you are in a good position. It's an interesting novelty, which offers greater control to the player.
A somewhat bizarre new feature is Rewind, a function that allows you to go back a few seconds in time to retry a play - similar to some driving games. This means that if you conceded a goal, or missed one, you can go back in time to try it again. I don't know if you think this is the best or the worst feature ever, but whatever you think, it should be noted that Rewind is only available in Kick-Off. As such, it's basically redundant.
Now to the worst part of FIFA 21: defending. Defensive gameplay in FIFA 21 is considerably more difficult than in previous games, and it's a lot more demanding when it comes to timing. That in itself would be difficult, but potentially challenging... if it was balanced. Unfortunately, it's not, mostly due to how ridiculously effective skill moves and dribbles have become. Players move the ball and change directions so quickly, making it almost impossible to get a proper read on a player's movement. Meanwhile, the AI can steal your ball without almost ever making a foul.
There's is even a new "competitive" option, available in Legendary and Ultimate difficulties, which basically tries to simulate the behaviour of a pro Ultimate Team player. What this means in practice is that the AI will spend most of the time executing skill moves and dribbles, rarely making actual football plays. The best footballers are particularly annoying, as the ball tends to stick to their feet, even after a tackle, magically bouncing back to them. We also have to mention how sometimes they can easily steal a ball right after they have lost it, giving you no time to react.
Fortunately, you can turn off the competitive option, but even with it disabled, the AI tends to abuse near perfect skills moves and dribbles. Defending is now a very frustrating process, at least when played on any decent difficulty. While the other team's AI is amazing at stealing the ball, it's rubbish in terms of how it marks players and covers spaces, leading to many counterattack goals. We don't know if this change was intended to please the American audience, but the reality is that matches now tend to end with more goals for each side.
This, sadly, is not football, as FIFA seems less concerned about simulating the sport, and more intent on presenting gameplay focused on Ultimate Team matches - and even then, it fails. It's got unbalanced gameplay, with an excess of mechanics, clashing controls, and a highly unrealistic AI. Playing FIFA 21 is a frustrating experience, even if it is sprinkled with some magical moments when actual football manages to emerge.
Gameplay aside, FIFA 21 offers the same type of content as FIFA 20, divided mainly into three major components: Career, Ultimate Team, and Volta. The career mode includes some superficial new features, including a new development plan for players. With this option, you can define specific areas you want a player to evolve, and you can even train him in new positions. There is also the possibility of making loan deals with buy-clauses, and a new option to increase the difficulty of budget and negotiations, regardless of the gameplay difficulty.
As for Volta, it follows a new story mode, which, although not comparable to the excellent Journey, can be fun. Here you will follow the career of a street football player (man or woman), participating in tournaments around the world. It's curious, as the gameplay seems better suited to Volta than the base game. Perhaps that's part of the problem? Regardless, Volta is a fun mode that has a lot of personality and even its own ecosystem of FIFA points and cosmetic items.
Lastly, there's FUT, the most popular FIFA mode. There are not that many new structural features, but there's a new emphasis in new customisation, especially regarding the stadiums. There are cards to change the colours of the stands, the crowds, audio themes for when entering the pitch, songs for goals, and even special celebrations. These are positive additions in our opinion, which gives a more personal flavour to the Ultimate Team Mode experience.
One area where FIFA continues to be "king" is the overall quality of the production, which is always very high. Apart from the horrible new purple menus, FIFA 21 features a huge licensed soundtrack, many effects all around, and a high degree of licenses, stadiums, leagues, and clubs. This is in addition to the Volta mode, which includes the participation of former Brazilian star Kaká and cinematic sequences for the story. Having said all that, FIFA 21 shows signs of becoming somewhat dated in the graphics department, especially compared to competitor PES. We're curious to see what the PS5 and Xbox Series X versions will look like, which apparently have improvements that are not even present in the PC version.
If you have been following my journey with FIFA over the years, you know that I considered FIFA 18 as the ultimate entry in the series, and I even called it "the best FIFA ever", however, the situation started to decline after that. FIFA 20 already had some problems, but the situation has worsened dramatically with FIFA 21. The changes resulted in unbalanced gameplay backed up by frustrating artificial intelligence, leading to a game that moves away from realism, while also not providing a fun arcade experience either. Maybe it's time for EA to start over and concentrate once again on the fundamentals, and there's no better time for it then a new-gen launch.