FIFA 21 Review: Better Passing, Dribbling and Sleek Appeal Make it Better Than PES 2021

FIFA 21 Review: Better Passing, Dribbling and Sleek Appeal Make it Better Than PES 2021

FIFA 21 is not a massive overhaul in terms of gameplay. But, better dribbling, a seamless gameplay experience and a snazzy, finessed overall product makes it the best game of football that you can play from home.


Shouvik Das

The FIFA franchise hardly needs an introduction. In fact, it hardly even needs a review — its enduring popularity among scores of football fans has meant that every couple of years, incremental upgrades that Electronic Arts has thrown into the game have been enough to keep the game appealing enough. In recent years, though, FIFA has started facing a certain degree of fatigue. To deal with this, EA attempted a gameplay overhaul, along with improvements to graphics, animations and everything else in between. They’ve even tried a story-based football career mode, with Alex Hunter’s ‘The Journey’ spread across three previous FIFA years. This time ‘round, FIFA 21 doesn’t quite have all that.

You see, FIFA 21 is an incremental product yet again, before FIFA 22 aims to bring in a wider range of improvements to the gameplay. As a result, nothing in particular is drastically new about FIFA 21 — the modes remain consistent, and so does much of the gameplay. There are fine changes under the hood that have claimed to have made FIFA 21 a better game to play for both casual part-timers and hardcore FIFA and football fans alike. The ‘Volta’ street football mode also has new stadiums, a full story mode featuring Kaka and Lisa Zimouche, and a new ‘Featured Battles’ segment that features real-world football stars such as Kylian Mbappe.

With all that at hand, there are a few important questions here – is FIFA 21 a good game? Is it better than FIFA 20? If you have one of FIFA 17, FIFA 18 or even FIFA 19, should you still buy FIFA 21 or wait for a better overhaul with FIFA 22? And finally, is the behemoth FIFA 21 the better football game between itself and Konami’s always-improving PES 2021? We’ve already played Pro Evolution Soccer 2021 and liked it quite a bit. Now, here’s what we think of FIFA 21.

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Gameplay: Player runs, positioning, crosses and shots are better, but…

While FIFA 21 has been billed as an “incremental” upgrade, there have been significant changes to the overall gameplay. The upgrade comes in the form of more intelligent dribbling and better player runs. What FIFA 21 has focused on is improving the way players run, and finally, the physics of the game reacts in ways where you feel that it is actually rewarding to invest in players who outperform others in the real world as well. For instance, having Joshua Kimmich in your team will actually have a rewarding impact on your game than, say, playing Fred in the holding midfield role.

FIFA 21 review
The AI opponents get drawn in when you have stalwart midfielders, leaving the wings wide open for attacking runs. (Image: EA Sports/ Das)

The improvements are particularly visible in players such as Juan Mata, whose positional awareness and all-round intelligence of the game means that if you play them in the wing, there are better chances of them running into spaces left vacant by AI defenders, who will now try to block out your team’s talisman more than the rest. For instance, in my Manchester United squad, Mata proved to be a super valuable substitute to come into the game at around the 70-minute mark – as opponents tried to block out my midfield trio of Paul Pogba-Joshua Kimmich-Bruno Fernandes, Mata or Rashford would make superb runs into attacking positions, from where they could either play in the marauding Edinson Cavani, or in case of Rashford, unleash a goalward belter.

This, though, marks improvements in FIFA 21’s AI engine that controls off-the-ball movement and opposition play. The game’s physics still leave for much more to be desired, despite what EA claims is a much-improved collision mechanism. As players collide in a midfield tussle, you will still often end up losing the ball comically. This can quickly become frustrating when you are defending a quick surge of attack – even if you get your tackles right, even mediocre attackers will often magically find the ball back on their feet after a perfectly timed sliding tackle by you. At times, they would even continue to score the goal.

FIFA 21 review
It is easier and more enjoyable to score fantastic goals, but the rather dumb ball physics make a mockery of it. (Image: EA Sports/ Das)

While FIFA’s tactical defending mechanism has improved over time, FIFA 21 does not seem any different at all from FIFA 20 on this note. There are still the annoying lost headers, and coupled with the still erratic physics engine, standing tackles that just don’t seem to hold. It is in these notes that Konami’s PES 2021 seems to have found better footing – their finer gameplay mechanism is just better at giving a more realistic representation of what happens on the football pitch. Moral of the story – I have been ripping oppositions apart with Manchester United by employing a meagre three-player defence line (that too with the confusion Harry Maguire at the centre). The sheer weight of my attack force – Pogba, Kimmich in midfield, Bruno Fernandes up ahead, Rashford and Greenwood on either flank, and Martial and Cavani up front, is just too much for most teams to handle even at World Class difficulty.

What I have particularly enjoyed with FIFA 21 so far is how much fun and how seamless it has been to score the spectacular goals. Be it in skipping past defenders with a deft touch of skill, or unleashing 30-yard scorchers from outside the box, scoring a fantastic goal is of great joy in FIFA 21. This is further contributed by improved crossing, which you can now connect with sublime scissor kicks to score a stunning last-minute clincher. Unfortunately, headers still seem rather wayward in FIFA 21. It is either a chore, or a stroke of luck, to nail headed efforts from well-taken corners.

FIFA 21 review
Unfortunately, FIFA 21 isn't that big an upgrade, and aspects such as headers are still rather off. (Image: EA Sports/ Das)

So, to sum up the two main questions when it comes to gameplay. Is it better than FIFA 20? Surprisingly, yes, and I would even go as far as to say that it is much better than FIFA 20. For an incremental update, FIFA 21 makes the game feel joyous again. Unlike PES 2021, it does not get you lost in the intricacies of a boring midfield battle. Even if the latter has the superior gameplay mechanism, FIFA 21 delivers football matches in style, and keeps the pace and progression of a match fast and fluid. If you’ve just ended yet another gruelling day of working from home, and just wanted two quick matches to unwind, FIFA 21 is the perfect game for it.

The second question has a two-part answer. Is it better than PES 2021? Well, not entirely – if you’re a devout player of football simulation games, PES 2021 offers an authentic and super intricate way to play football. That, though, is for the football nerds. So, the short answer is yes – FIFA 21’s gameplay is better on overall terms. Attacking is way more fun here, you aren’t compelled to dwell on midfield hustling just to win the ball back, and even defending and breaking from the back is a smooth affair.

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Volta Football: Acquired taste that you’d like, but not crave for

Volta returns to FIFA 21 with yet another fresh coat of paint, and this time, a couple of new things in tow. The first is this Volta mode called ‘The Debut’, where you play a two-hour storyline that sees you make your debut on a street football pitch in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Coming in to kick some serious street cred butt is none other than Brazil legend Kaka, and the journey through this mode is one that fans of swift dribbling and short matches would like. Mind you, though – this isn’t something that would single-handedly compel you to buy the game.

In the end, Volta is just what it seems like – a side mission that gives you a sort-of interesting mode to show off what you can do on FIFA with your skill moves, every now and then. To increase its appeal, alongside The Debut (you may also play with 22-year-old street football genius, Lisa Zimouche), you also get Featured Battles – where you can play with the biggest names of world football and see how they fare on the street football pitch. The fresh paint coat brings in a dedicated new Volta stadium, and FIFA 21’s new agile dribbling chops mean that nimble-fingered FIFA players would have some fun here. Sadly, though, this hasn’t really added to the overall challenge or difficulty of these street footy matches, which means that in essence, all the changes rolled out to Volta are still largely cosmetic.

FIFA 21 review
Modes such as Volta are occasionally fun to fiddle with. (Image: EA Sports/ Das)

Game menus and finesse: This is where EA and FIFA 21 earn all their money

What’s undeniable, though, is how finessed FIFA 21 is as a product. The game looks new, all menus are smooth and swanky, and in the overall sense, there is a clear line between FIFA 21 and PES 2021. That line defines how and why FIFA 21 is different from PES 2021. The latter, even after all this time, still feels like stitched together by a bunch of developers who are excellent at building the game, but definitely skipped the design module in college.

FIFA 21 review
The added finesse of FIFA 21 makes it a game worth playing, for both occasional and hardcore players. (Image: EA Sports/ Das)

In comparison, FIFA 21 is decades ahead. All menus are organised well, the control panels are ergonomically organised, and I like how consistent and streamlined it is to do most things. The player transfer mechanism in FIFA 21 is far more intuitive than what PES offers, and so are the rest of the animations that bring in press conferences, transfer activities, sideline manager antics, crowd reactions and so on. It is this that, in my books, makes FIFA the better game – it may fall behind PES 2021 in terms of in-air ball movement, but for what it’s worth, you can excuse the lack of super realistic ball physics if you’re an occasional player.

Thanks to the way all the modes are laid out, you even feel encouraged to try Volta and FIFA Ultimate Team. I’ll admit, though – FUT has never quite been my gig, so all it got was a cursory glance-through this time around as well. FUT takes way too long and way too much investment in terms of time, and unless you’re heavily invested in the FIFA ecosystem, you’d much rather use that time to play the newly released and heavily picturesque Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.

Verdict: The majority would still love FIFA 21 over PES 2021

In the end, the question is simple. Which is the game of football that you would much rather play at the end of a long, tiresome day at work, all things considered? I’ve played PES 2021 and FIFA 21 alongside, and I can’t help but fire up FIFA 21 more often than PES. Be it the larger volume of licensed clubs, stadiums and everything else, or the swankier menus, or the faster gameplay that is easier and focuses on entertainment than a realistic, gritty midfield battle – FIFA 21 knows how to entertain you. It is a game that lets you dink the ball through two defenders, shimmy the last man and swerve in a top-corner curler – all in one swift and heavily entertaining move. To be clear, PES 2021 lets you do that too, but it is too much an effort and requires considerable skill. The latter is more realistic, but the way FIFA 21 does it is simply far more entertaining.

In the end, wouldn’t you rather be entertained with a fast, smooth game of football, than grind your teeth through it?

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