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Review: EA Sports FIFA 21 (PS4)

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Review: EA Sports FIFA 21 (PS4)

A favorite of professional footballers, eSports athletes and an army of gamers worldwide, EA Sports FIFA 20 dropped in early October. Since then the game has possibly seen billions of hours of offline and online game play around the world. Here’s our World Exclusive look at another great offering of the title on the Sony PlayStation 4.

EA Sports FIFA 21 will be the firm’s first game to be released on the next generation of gaming consoles – The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. As we await the drop of these units we have been thoroughly enjoying FIFA 21 on the PlayStation 4 along with millions of other gamers around the world. Scroll on for our World Exclusive review of a title that is now a fixture on the soccer calendar as much as the kickoff dates of the many leagues that it includes.

Review: EA Sports FIFA 21 (PS4)

Updates

EA Sports FIFA 21 continues the series trend of delivering new, soccer-pertinent features on an annual basis. The most obvious improvements in FIFA 21 are in the title’s gameplay and Career Mode team management mode. Here’s a look at the key updates in FIFA 21. We’ll delve into each throughout the course of our review.

Agile Dribbling – The updated system brings the VOLTA street soccer influence throughout FIFA 21 with easier to execute and new skill moves via the right stick.

Positioning Personality and Runs – AI and player controlled players in FIFA 21 are smarter when it comes to positioning themselves in anticipation of plays that their teammates and opposition might make. This ranges from supporting runs on attack to closing space on defence.

Creative Runs – FIFA 21 has improved the ability to control attacking playing via triggering directed runs and pass and go movements with the right stick. A new featured called Player Lock lets you lock on a particular attacking player with support coming from teammates.

Natural Collision System – EA Sports has reworked the collision system in FIFA 21 for a more authentic soccer feel. It works better than ever before especially during defensive plays as defenders and goalies fend off sieges from world class opposition.

Fundamentals of Football – FIFA 21 has improvements in player positioning that allows for more effective passing, more realistic defensive blocks, player reaction time when under pressure, and more effective manual headers. EA Sports has grouped these into the aptly called “Fundamentals of Football.”

Review: EA Sports FIFA 21 (PS4)

Menu

FIFA 21’s menu system would be familiar to anyone playing the game since the 2015 edition of the title. The quite effective and well-aged mosaic interface remains intuitive and quickly takes you to whatever part of the game you wish to kick off action in. 

Instructional splash screens explaining what you can do in each section of the game have been added to highlight new features and probably for the army of new FIFA gamers who join our ranks each year. They’re quite well done via series of three icons each.

The menu for Career Mode has been augmented with a few new options related to player development and team schedules. VOLTA’s menu remains more or less the same as its debut season in FIFA 20.

The look and feel of FIFA Ultimate Team is the biggest menu change to FIFA 21. The immensely popular section of the title has an evolved look and feel that is based on its new features and playing options such as its customized FUT Stadium and FUT Co-op. It does take about fifteen minutes of navigating around to get used to. After that you’ll be flying around FUT to dominate the world with your bespoke team. 

Graphics and Presentation

Player, kit, stadium, crowd, manager and referee renderings are well done in EA Sports FIFA 21 as usual. They’re all about as good as it can get given the aging capabilities of the PS4 and XBox One GPUs as we await the arrival of the next generation of gaming consoles.

Player and manager likenesses are sharpened up a bit compared to FIFA 20 with just about every big name in the same instantly recognizable. Player movement continues to improve towards fully natural motion with collisions showing a big improvement. There are also noticeable additions in player facial and eye movements during lineups that are quite lifelike. These range from blinking to basic mouth movements to facial sweat. The stoic look of the statuesque players of past soccer simulations is now definitely behind us in the FIFA series.

Crowd graphics have taken a major step forward in EA Sports FIFA 21 with very diverse sets of fans boasting new faces, body types and mannerisms. Their wardrobes have also been updated to include distressed denim shorts and tank tops along with the standard fare of casual terrace wear. The fans are also much more emotional than in FIFA 20 and before and show their feelings via body language and new goal celebrations.

FIFA 21 takes player goal celebrations to new heights with a wide set of up-close team celebrations on the sidelines. These range from players running across the pitch to hug managers to players making contact with fans after goals. Very realistic player only celebrations are also in the mix with an amazing level of detail from close quarters to the world’s biggest soccer stars.

In-game realism is also improved in FIFA 21 with the advertising boards displaying very pertinent ads such as those for the apps of the home team and for actual tournament sponsors. The ads change nicely along the way to capture the feel of the world’s biggest and most commercialized leagues.

Pre-, post- and in-match presentation graphics such as overlays and statistics haven’t changed noticeably in FIFA 21. However, we must point out that they are extremely well done for the world’s most-followed domestic tournament, the English Premier League. We actually once again prefer EA Sports’ presentation of the competition over USA EPL rights holder NBC Sports. Two other leagues that are exclusive to the EA Sports FIFA series, the German Bundesliga and Spanish LaLiga, are almost as well done with fifteen and sixteen of their stadiums respectively in the title.

A nice new touch is clear stadium music ahead of matches that ranges from club anthems to the usual fare of uptempo popular songs to energize the fans and players.


Music

The EA Sports FIFA series is known for its extensive and well-curated soundtracks. Since last year the number of jams on offer in the game more than doubled with the addition of a playlist for the VOLTA Football mode of the FIFA 20.

The sounds of FIFA 21 are now even better with two soundtracks again – one of traditional soccer and another for the street game of VOLTA. However, settings changes are now available to play the VOLTA soundtrack in Career Mode, Ultimate Team and other parts of FIFA 21! The ability to do so more than doubles the music available to FIFA players while perusing the title or managing teams.

The selection of artists in the FIFA 21 soundtracks is the usual mix of established names such as Dua Lipa, Charlie XCX, Disclosure and Sia and exciting up and comers like Madame Gandhi (named to BBC 100 Women 2020), Dylan Fraser and actor / DJ Idris Elba.

The tunes on offer are an eclectic and entertaining mix for gaming, training and even working out. Clearly the EA Sports team put quite a bit of research and thought into the selection that powers gamers through an entire year of playing!

Teams and Leagues

Think of any of the preeminent soccer leagues of the world and it is most likely in EA Sports FIFA 21. There are a total of 34 domestic leagues to pick from in the game from the Australian A-League to USA’s MLS. They are highlighted by the English Premier League and the three EFL divisions below it along with the other “big five” European leagues – Germany’s Bundesliga, Spain’s LaLiga, France’s Ligue 1 and Italy’s Serie A. FIFA 21 also has exclusivity for the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana.

There are a few notable club side omissions of note in EA Sports FIFA 21 because of licensing deals with a number of big sides and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer 2021. The most significant are Juventus and AS Roma appearing as “Piemonte Calcio” and “Roma FC” respectively. They wear non-official kits although actual players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Edin Džeko take the pitch for them.

Boca Juniors appears as “Buenos Aires” with authentic players in Argentina’s Primera but is fully licensed for the Copa Libertadores. River Plate does not appear in the Primera.

Brazil’s “Liga do Brasil” is missing the likes of Corinthians, Flamengo, Sao Paulo and Vasco da Gama. The Brazilian teams taking part in the Copa Libertadores are in the FIFA 21 version of the tournament with real kits and crests but generic players. They’re usually well-rated for signing on the cheap in manager mode!

The world’s sixteen best women’s national teams are included in EA Sports FIFA 21. They’re all fully licensed with real players except for Brazil which has a bunch of talented EA Sports-created ballers. This is also the case with the Brazil men’s national team. However, the generic Seleção footballers can be replaced with the squad’s actual stars such Neymar Jr. via FIFA 21’s national team updated feature. 

Forty-nine men’s national teams are available for tournament play in FIFA 21. Thirty of them are in their official kits and feature their real world players. Most of the others (including Italy, Portugal and Switzerland) are in generic kits but have authentic players. Ecuador, India and Uruguay are unfortunately fully generic. Ecuador and Uruguay have enough big European and South American club talent to update with authentic players however.

Commentary

Stalwarts Derek Rae and former Arsenal fullback Lee Dixon are back to provide English language match commentary in EA Sports FIFA 21. Alan McNally continues to chime in with updates from the sidelines and pitch. Unfortunately, the duo of Martin Tyler and Alan Smith are no longer in the game after a stellar fifteen year run that began with FIFA 2005. Rae and Dixon have taken their place for domestic competition after working the microphones for UEFA Champions League and Europa League matches in FIFA 20.

The color commentary provided by Rae and Dixon is improved over last year’s edition via the addition of a few new phrases based on the match context. Dixon is a bit more entertaining that last time out thanks to references to his storied Gunners and England career. EA Sports does a good job to avoid phrase overuse and repetition in FIFA 21. 

Spanish and French commentary are also available in the North American version of FIFA 21. 

VOLTA Football

The second iteration of the street soccer-infused VOLTA Football is on show in FIFA 21 with a host of new features.

This time out the extended storyline in which your created player joins a team trying to win a street football world championship is replaced by the two hour THE DEBUT where you play with the likes of the legendary Kaká and Lisa Zimouche. It’s a fun way to kick off the mode before delving into new competitions that include FEATURED BATTLES against tough squads that street football icons along with what EA Sports calls Groundbreakers such as Eric Cantona, Kylian Mbappe and Diplo. They’re always great additions to your street team if you can recruit them by defeating their sides.

Six new street soccer pitches have been added to VOLTA Football in FIFA 21 to bring the total in the game to twenty three. They allow you to play the small-sided game in a number of formats ranging from 3 versus 3 to formalized futsal. You can also now play against professional clubs from the Premier League, La Liga and more.

VOLTAs gameplay has been tweaked in FIFA 21 with new skill moves added and the Agile Dribbling feature that permeates the title adding fluidity to the players in the mode. Defense is also improved with defenders positioning themselves better to block opposing players and intercept errant passes.

VOLTA Football remains a clever, entertaining alternative to professional soccer in FIFA 21. We continue to enjoy it as a way of letting loose and being creative with The Beautiful Game through a form of it that can be played just about anywhere that a soccer ball can roll.

Gameplay

EA Sports continues to refine the gameplay of the FIFA series to improve its realism on the pitch. We were pleasantly surprised to see a slew of updates to the soccer simulation experience in FIFA 21 from our first game with it. We touched upon these in our “Updates”section above with creativity the underlying theme of all of FIFA 21’s gameplay changes. We’ll delve into these further. 

Levels

The familiar gameplay levels of Beginner, Amateur, Semi-Pro, Professional, World Class and Legendary make a return in EA SPorts FIFA 21. We entered the traditional and VOLTA modes of the game at the Professional level as experienced FIFA series players. Right away we could tell that the difficulty setting in Professional had decreased a notch compared to FIFA 20 with wins of three goals or more commonplace in Manager Mode for the English Premier League. FA Cup, EFL League Cup and UEFA Champions League matches against bigger clubs were a bit more difficult however with no guaranteed wins. We limped into the UCL Round of 16 as Chelsea FC after suffering two group stage losses to Stade Rennais. However, we were able to finish the Premier League with a record of 34 wins, 2 draws (Manchester City and Fulham), and 2 losses (Manchester City and Leeds United). FIFA 21 might be the game to move to the next level of difficulty in! 

Game Speed

The default game speed in EA Sports FIFA 21 is spot on and a great simulation of what you find in real world professional soccer. The speed can be slowed down or sped up but we see no point in doing so.

League-specific game speeds are also replicated admirably with the Premier League teams clearly moving the ball faster than those of the EFL Championship. Technical leagues such as La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga have slower paces in FIFA 21 as they do in real life but with localized intricacies such as Spain’s Tiki Taka passing and German team strategy.

Worn down lower league club fields, rain and snow also affect the speed of play in FIFA 21 as the ball is slowed down on poor and wet surfaces.

Dribbling and Skills Moves

The revolution in individual player dribbling, movement and fluidity that unfolded in FIFA 20’s VOLTA and that crept into the rest of the game continues with FIFA 21!

Intuitive dribbling and player maneuvering using the right joystick is improved in FIFA 21 as EA Sports’ developers continue to tweak gameplay.  Executing skill moves with highly rated players is relatively easy but definitely dependent on their assigned skill levels in the FIFA 21 Ratings Database. For example, Lionel Messi has metrics such as Agility of 91, Balance of 95 and Dribbling of 96. As such he can blaze by many a defender with a combination speed skill moves. Lower league players cannot.

Basic skill moves such as step overs are relatively easy to master by experimenting with the right joystick. There are many others that require the use of multiple controller buttons that definitely require practice. Once you’ve got the hold of them you can use them to elude a defender or two in Professional level and above. Collective defenses will stop a single player from dribbling through them like Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup however. More often than not waiting for support and holding the ball via drag backs are the orders of the day. This adds to the level of realism in the game.

Offense

The changes on offense in EA Sports FIFA 21 were evident from our very game with the title – a UEFA Champions League Final match between Liverpool FC and Paris Saint-Germain. 

Smarter player runs on attack are the first order of the day with the 4-2-3-1 system now the preferred formation among most professional club and national teams. These come from midfielders on give and goes with even center defensive midfielders like N’Golo Kanté popping up at the edge of the penalty box for shots. As such, FIFA 21 is more of a Pass and Move game as its realism continues to increase.

Outside and attacking midfielders now seem to move in support of forwards and with an eye on scoring goals. We saw the likes of Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech score into the double digits over the course of a season with Chelsea FC in Career Mode.

Forwards are more capable in the box as well with better positioning to receive balls and then execute one touch shots. Their run in anticipation of the plays that midfielders might make are integral to this. Once the ball is received a new sweet spot in which to place the ball seems to be at the lower near post closest to the goalkeeper. There are a slew of new dynamic goal scoring moves in the mix as well such as karate kick-styled side volleys.

Headed in goals from corners are the most effective as we’ve ever seen in EA Sports’ history in FIFA 21. Taller players with good Heading Accuracy and Jumping ratings such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Anthony Rudiger can approach double digit goals from such headers with delivery from quality midfielders.

We also noticed some AI offensive improvements in FIFA 21 that take advantage of your mistakes with often embarrassing consequences. The most noticeable is predatory strikers looking for bad or weak keeper clearances. They will pounce on errant balls in and around the penalty box to score easy goals. Long range chipped goals from skill midfielders are also part of the game now especially in World Class level and above as keepers stray off their lines. 

Defense

EA Sports continues to evolve the FIFA franchise’s defensive gameplay for the better with FIFA 21. The results are improved defense with highly-effective timed tackles from defenders and defensive midfielders. Even forwards and attacking midfielders join the party with lost balls on offense being regained through relentless pressure. Even prima donna strikers players don’t give up when they are stripped of the ball and can be made to contest for them. The success rate of rewinning balls seems to depend on player strength to a large extent with the likes of 

Romelu Lukaku far more capable of doing so than say slender and aging Jamie Vardy. 

While in front of their own goals defenders have moved to another level of defending with regular leg-stretching blocks out of nowhere commonplace.There are even the odd bicycle kick and volleyed clearances during onslaughts from loaded sides like Manchester City and FC Bayern. Simpler timed side of foot blocks invoked with the X button are more regular than the spectacular however.

Defensive midfielders keep doing their parts in FIFA 21. We’ve found them to be the building blocks of any good side as their tenacity in winning tackles and intelligence in anticipating opposition passes ahead of interceptions have increased a notch.

In the net good goalkeepers have entered a new realm of realism with repertoires that regularly included kick saves and dramatic flying stops with arms fully extended. FIFA 21 is the first game in the series in which we’ve found ourselves replaying saves.


Career Mode

FIFA 21 introduces the biggest set of updates to the ever popular Career Mode in years. The level of control that managers now have over their senior and youth team schedules development is unprecedented. 

EA Sports has added a plethora of new training drills to the game. Players are assigned to them in groups based on position. The assignments as to who is assigned to each drill can be easily changed before running through them to try to improve players. Alternatively, you can use R3 from the Career Mode main screen to run a quick training simulation. The rewards are not the same as if the drills are actually executed though.

Players can also be assigned to Development Plans to improve their performance based on role (such as Advanced Playmaker, Defender, etc.). They are given plans aligned to their positions by default. These can be changed based on whatever you think the team’s needs are or once you receive a message that the Development Plan is completed.

Weekly team schedules can now be adjusted with control over which days are for training, rest and recovery. This is a Godsend when teams have congested schedules and must be rested.

Match Launch team screens show player form indicators (e.g. +4, -5), fatigue and whether they are out of position or not. This allows for updates just ahead of matches to get the optimal lineups on the pitch.

On the negotiation front player swaps / trade and Loan to Buy deals are options for bosses on a budget trying to build winning teams. Of course, you can also start your season by selecting the Financial Takeover option to kick off your new gig with a massive transfer and salary budget.

Replay Value

EA Sports FIFA games get deeper and more immersive every year. The trend continues with FIFA 21. Meanwhile, EA has regular updates based on user input to improve gameplay and fix bugs. The result is a title that can be a full year gaming experience even if you play it on a daily basis. Throw in the Dual Entitlement that lets players upgrade to the PS5 or XBox Series X|S for free and you’ve got a game with more than enough replay value to last until FIFA 22 drops next Fall.

Final Thoughts

FIFA 21 is the best title of EA Sports iconic series to date. The game gets better year after year and has achieved soccer gaming magnificence on the last generation of gaming consoles. We look forward to seeing how it evolves over the next few years as we enter a new era of gaming with new systems from Sony and Microsoft hitting the market. 

Gameplay: 9.9 /10

Graphics: 9.8 /10

User Interface: 9.5/ 10

Realism: 9.8 / 10

Longevity: 10 / 10

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