FIFA 21 review: high-scoring fun marred by pay-to-win loot boxes - again
I'm having fun with FIFA 21. EA has made significant improvements to how the game plays on the pitch, added welcome quality of life tweaks, and given Career Mode - much maligned in last year's game - a Football Manager-inspired makeover. But none of this masks the fact FIFA 21 lacks a big ticket new mode or feature, and that old evil, Ultimate Team loot boxes, are just as evil as they've always been.
There's a lot to like on the pitch, which makes FIFA 21's failings all the more frustrating. The game feels almost arcadey. Players are certainly more responsive than in FIFA 20, and passing is crisp (although occasionally it veers on the pinball-like). Fast forwards are, early days at least, king. It's an absolute goal-fest, too. I'm not sure whether this is the result of defending feeling a lot trickier than it has done in recent years, or that defenders sometimes feel improbably sluggish, or that shooting from pretty much anywhere is reliable (finesse long shots are very much back), or that the goalkeepers don't seem much use at all, but I often score five or six goals per game and concede just as many, if not more.
I'd call the whole thing entirely unrealistic - and let's remember EA is trying to create a football simulation here - but given recent results in the Premier League perhaps the developers knew the way the wind was blowing and thought they'd let their hair down. The upshot is FIFA 21 is at this early stage a lot of fun, as it is watching the Premier League this season, but let's be honest, the defending is atrocious and everyone just needs to calm down a bit. There are so many goals flying in that after a while you start to feel numb to the ball hitting the back of the net. EA will probably want to tweak that.
Usefully, there does feel like an interesting skill gap this year, where mastery over a couple of new mechanics, such as creative runs, will see good players win out over annoying meta teams in less-skilled hands. The idea is you have more control over the runs your players make, which in theory is fantastic, but in practice is quite a lot to think about. You can end up losing track of what you're doing, especially when the ball is ping-ponging around as it does in this game. But the crucial thing to point out is that after a while you feel yourself getting the hang of it, and it is quite rewarding when a player run you've directed yourself ends up in a goal. This combined with a better goal variety (crossing is back, yay!), lends a freshness to FIFA 21 after FIFA 20 had long since gone stale.
I still feel like EA struggles with the ball, though. FIFA 21's ball, like that of its predecessors, feels flat. It moves about in almost laser-like fashion, often defying the laws of physics and in direct contrast to PES' football, which is a work of digital art. I don't think FIFA 21 is much of a looker overall, really. Sure, many of the player faces are incredibly detailed, but if there is a graphical on-pitch improvement over FIFA 20 I can't see it. The stadiums look plastic, the lighting superficial and the crowd robotic. If there's one thing I'm looking for from FIFA as it settles into the next-generation of consoles is a new look and feel that's more grounded and gritty. A little less Subbuteo, a little more San Siro. I want to feel the kick of the ball through my controller and see it arc through the air realistically. FIFA 21's ball feels like it's made out of magnets, snapping into place set by the ones and zeroes behind the curtain.
Elsewhere, quality of life improvements come to the fore. EA has ditched fitness items from Ultimate Team, which means you spend a lot more time playing and a lot less time mindlessly applying endless consumables. EA pulled the shush celebration to combat toxicity and playing online is all the better for it, although I'm sure it won't be long before other celebrations become known for being 'that annoying one everyone does'. Still, after a goal is scored you're back at the centre circle super quick because there's now no walk-back cutscene, which is great. Good job here, EA.
Volta, the FIFA Street-inspired mode introduced in FIFA 20, remains a poor fit for the gameplay, I think, but welcome improvements have been made to the way the mode functions, and the new Volta Squads system finally lets you play online with friends, which was a criminal omission from last year's game. It's a similar deal for Career Mode (EA clearly didn't like all that bad press when FIFA 20 came out). The headline new feature here is a Football Manager-style interactive match sim, which lets you switch between the standard FIFA match view and the new sim view at will. It's quite nifty, but hardly revolutionary. It means you can jump in and out of Career Mode matches to take charge of key moments, such as penalties and free kicks. You monitor match data and make changes directly from the sim based on the match stats and your players' performance levels and stamina. It's nowhere near as detailed as Football Manager's match sim, of course, but it's a step up for FIFA.
And even Pro Clubs, FIFA's forgotten son, has had a dash of TLC. You can finally customise the visuals, name and kit of your AI players, and you can now also customise up to five preset tactics. It's worth noting you can now give instructions to the AI players to kind of brute force them to match your team's play style. This is very much a good thing, given how cavalier the AI could be in Pro Clubs. But despite these modest additions, it's clear Pro Clubs isn't high up the priority list for EA. With the enormous popularity of Ultimate Team and the drive to improve Volta and Career Mode after last year's criticism, Pro Clubs remains a mode of unfulfilled potential.
And then we come to Ultimate Team. Okay, the good news first. EA has made useful changes to the structure of EA's cash cow, but it has once again refused to budge on the pay-to-win - and ethically dubious - loot boxes. Both Squad Battles (play against the AI) and Division Rivals (online ranking) have new systems that trigger diminishing returns once you hit the weekly cap of games played. The idea is time-starved players don't feel disadvantaged just because they can't put in the same number of hours as the ultra hardcore. This is a great move, and should help FIFA's main mode, which still encourages players to cram loads of matches into a short amount of time for the Weekend League, a tad more manageable.
You can customise your stadium now, which is a fun feature to mess about with but hardly ground-breaking. You can unlock everything from a goal song to crowd chants, club anthems to sideline trophies. The only bit I'm bothered about is the tifo. This ridiculous-looking aesthetic item adds a huge picture to one of the stands. Right now, mine's a giant squirrel. Intimidating, don't you think?
New for this year is FUT co-op, which is a genuinely great addition. You can play Squad Battles and even Division Rivals co-op and earn all the rewards you can solo. Frustrating player-switching aside it's a lot of fun, but the lack of online matchmaking is disappointing. How FIFA 21 doesn't have online matchmaking for co-op when it's arguably the main new feature this year is beyond me. As it stands, you have to invite a friend to play co-op, and not all players will be in a position to do that.
While we're on missing features, FIFA 21's lack of cross-play - or even cross-save - seems startling in 2020. At a time when I can play Call of Duty on any platform and have my account persist throughout, and when I can play Fortnite on a Nintendo Switch with friends who are on an Xbox One, FIFA 21's console lock stands out like a sore thumb. I'm playing on PlayStation 4 and I'd love to also play on PC, but I'd have to start all over again. Given the FUT grind is very much real, I'm not going to do that. I can't play FIFA with my brother and nephew, both of whom are on Xbox. I'm aware FUT's auction house, which has for years suffered from a black market EA seems powerless to stop, may be a stumbling block here, but cross-play really needs to be a case of when, not if for FIFA.
Talking of sticking out like a sore thumb, FUT's much-maligned loot boxes are back, and they work just the same as before. I've seen plenty of FIFA fans insist you don't need to spend a penny to get a good team in FUT, and while that may be true, that doesn't all of a sudden mean the loot boxes cease to exist. Because you can buy them with real-world money (via a virtual currency called FIFA Points), they create pay-to-win gameplay. You don't have to take my word for it - the FIFA pros think Ultimate team is pay-to-win, too.
FUT packs are under the government microscope and there's a very real danger loot boxes may end up considered gambling in the UK. Whether you subscribe to this school of thought or not (I do), it's hard to argue against the potential negative impact FIFA's "surprise mechanics" can have on children. EA arranged for FIFA influencers to play the full version of FIFA 21 before the public, and the day before the early access trial came out some of these influencers published pack opening bonanza videos. Some of these influencers spent thousands of pounds-worth of FIFA Points opening packs in front of their fans, many of whom are children. If the government slaps loot boxes with a gambling label, then EA really only has itself to blame.
And I just don't think it needs to be like this. Did EA not get the battle pass memo or something? Did Fortnite pass the studio by? FIFA 21 has season progress, which looks like it wants to be a battle pass, but it feels like EA pulled out of the tackle because it was frightened of getting injured. Get rid of pay-to-win loot boxes and sell a premium battle pass. Sell meaningless items. Sell celebrations. Sell kits. Sell player haircuts, for all I care. EA Sports' famous tagline is "it's in the game". Well, it's time to take pay-to-win out - and put a proper battle pass in.
I struggle to think about FIFA 21 outside the context of its evil money-spinner, but for the sake of argument, I'll give it a shot. Here we have a fun, over-the-top football game with loads of modes and meaningful improvements across the board. But there is no big new feature. FIFA 21 is like a festival without a headline act. There will be plenty of people who will wonder why this game couldn't have been an update for FIFA 20. I've spent a lot of time thinking about that, and as a disgruntled FIFA 20 player I have struggled to come up with an appropriate explanation other than, well, money. I look at the likes of Fortnite and how a Fortnite 2 doesn't make much sense for anyone, and I imagine a world where Ultimate Team is a free-to-play standalone and wouldn't that be better?
Alas, while EA continues to make bank out of FIFA as it is, I can't see much changing, even with the next-gen opportunity over the horizon. So, for now, we have another FIFA, as it has been this generation, and how, I fear, it will be on the next.