FIFA 21 is a breath of fresh air as gameplay speeds up, Career Mode gets revamped

With winter fast approaching, there's no shortage of soccer on TV these days, but Friday marks another notable event on the soccer calendar: the worldwide release of FIFA 21, the latest iteration of the blockbuster video game franchise from EA Sports.

How does it play, what's new this year and how do the player ratings stack up? We've got all that, and a word from the game's new lead commentator, covered.

Jump to: Gameplay | Career Mode | Other modes | Superlatives | A word from Derek Rae | Verdict

A much smoother, faster game

Real-life soccer is chaotic and fluid, but previous versions of the FIFA game have felt at times inescapably blocky and slow-motion by comparison. Tackles would be chunky collisions between finely sculpted pixels, passes would skid and soar around the pitch, although never too far from your intended target. Headers would scoff in the face of physics.

This year's game feels like a massive upgrade when it comes to capturing the silken ebb and flow of the sport. Tackles come with consequences; limbs and player momentum are much more touchy and true to life, so that poor split-second decisions about taking an extra step or trying to change direction result in losing the ball. Passes made when the player is off-balance or on their weaker foot behave as they should; the end result is a much more frenetic and exciting experience.

Equally, the speed is notable in attack -- everything about gameplay is souped up in the pursuit of goals, goals and more goals -- when it comes to building play through midfield or switching the ball from flank to flank to open up scoring opportunities. On the defensive side of the ball, the effect is notable; poorly timed challenges result in fouls, bookings, red cards and generally chaotic play, the likes of which we haven't seen in the Premier League since ... Man United vs. Tottenham at Old Trafford and Aston Villa vs. Liverpool at Villa Park. (Sorry, Man United and Liverpool fans. Not sorry.)

It's clear that developers have heard the fans' calls for improved AI when it comes to the 21 players you don't control at any one time during a match. The decision-making of your teammates and opponents is vastly enhanced and makes for more fun gameplay: as you're charging through midfield with the ball and looking for passing options, your teammates make much smarter, sharper runs. They are quick to correct their courses in order to stay onside, too; there are even options for you to tell them exactly where to run with a flick of the control's bumper.

(Best of luck if you try this, by the way: every time I tried to manage the combination of retaining possession, hitting the right button to play the pass and flicking my teammate in the right direction, at the right time, to receive it, I ended up either hoofing the ball into the stands or meekly surrendering possession some 25 yards from goal.)

The AI isn't just sharper in attack, either; when it comes to defense, teammates are much more aware of passing lanes and are far more likely to fill them. Full-backs are a lot less likely to wander off upfield, leaving oceans of room to exploit. Wingers will get back behind the ball rather than lurking where they're of no help.

- FIFA 21 player ratings: Lukaku, Aubameyang, Laporte aren't happy
- Akinfenwa, FIFA 21's strongest player, reveals WWE dream

The ratings also feel more consequential in the beefed-up gameplay: a player with better attacking attributes will simply make better, smarter runs. Those with weaker attributes are more likely to get caught offside or drift into ineffective positions, either mistiming their runs or missing the ball entirely.

Overall, the controls are more nuanced, on-the-ball dribbling is more responsive and "touchy" to the pressure you apply on the controller, and the intensity of competition feels more bracing and absorbing than in editions past.

Career mode gets fresh life

While the FIFA franchise has been heavily geared towards Ultimate Team -- the game's most popular mode, allowing you to compete online, collect players, form dream teams -- and the myriad micro-transactions/micro-economy in that space, this year sees what feels like a substantive, transformative shift to Career Mode. It's often gone ignored, or seemingly overlooked, with minor tweaks over the years. But FIFA 21 brings what feels like a brand new game.

First: training actually means something. Previously used as a way to juice up youth prospects, there's now another reason to keep track of your sessions. The addition of "sharpness" adds a layer of RPG to proceedings, as players need regular focus in training in order to remain ready for matchday. The drop-off is palpable, too: add a player with sub-20 sharpness into a team with everyone else boasting 70 or higher and you'll be able to spot the slacker in no time.

Training is also important when it comes to defining the future of your team. Regardless of whether you're a Jurgen Klopp-esque mentor or a Jose Mourinho-type looking to work with the finished product, you can develop your young players into different positions (within reason) in order that they can better benefit your squad and objectives. Everything from "style" (think "playmaker" or "box to box" for midfielders) to brand-new positions can be imprinted upon your players: the stat changes are easy to follow, the timelines are laid out (a right-back might only need 4 weeks to understand the wing-back role, while swapping a midfielder to striker might take months), and the impact is tangible, too.

Second: there's an interactive simulator for matchdays! If you fancy taking more of a helicopter approach to management, you can "watch" the action unfold, football manager-style, on a 2-D pitch. Need to make a substitution? It's easy to cue up a change for the next stoppage in play. Want to hop into the match and play a more active role? You can do that too, especially if you need a late goal and don't trust the CPU to get it for you. Want to hop out of the match and finish on cruise control? You can do that as well. All in all, a much more varied and enjoyable way to play through games if you don't always feel like playing it from start to finish.

Everything around transfers has been upgraded -- it's no longer as simple to finagle a fatter transfer fee for a star player, nor as easy to get a bargain price for a top target -- and the player/manager conversation loop, whereby you're always trying to walk the tightrope of building confidence but being realistic over matters like playing time or importance to the team, is more nuanced, too.

There's added emphasis on the actual art of building a team and seeing it dazzle instead of button-thumping your way to a string of scarcely deserved, hardly earned silverware thanks to an insane budget and world-class talent all over the squad. After years of minor, cosmetic upgrades to the mode that I tend to play the most, we've finally gotten a revamp worth celebrating.

Other modes are fine

After the wonder that was VOLTA in FIFA 20, their first foray into the street football culture, the second-year version has undergone the proper EA treatment: subtle touch-ups, minor additions and little in the way of fundamental change. The game mode is still as entertaining and speedy as it was before, although the VOLTA "Gamebreakers" -- unlockable stars in the game if you beat their five-a-side team, essentially -- aren't as engaging as last year's mentors who helped your character build a reputation on the street football circult.

That said, there's a little story mode to get you reacquainted with it, all the customization and flair options you can handle -- and even some cool cameos like world-renowned freestyler, Lisa Zimouche, who can join your team.

The superlatives

Everyone cares about the ratings, so here's a quick skim of the bests in some key categories that should help you when it comes to building your own super-team.

The best overall in the game

It might seem like an expected list, but it's always fun to see the minor shuffling for position at the very top of the game.

As expected, Barcelona's Lionel Messi (93 rating) and Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo (92) are No.1 and No. 2 respectively, but it's all change from there. Bayern Munich and Poland goal machine Robert Lewandowski (91) surges up to No. 3 in the game -- up from No. 15 in FIFA 20 -- closely followed by Man City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne (91), who moves up from No.5 in FIFA 20 to No. 4 in FIFA 21.

Paris Saint-Germain's Neymar (91) is No. 5, a slight slip from last year's No. 3 ranking, and the first goalkeeper in the rankings, Atletico Madrid stopper Jan Oblak (91), is at No. 6, followed by Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool, 90), Kylian Mbappe (PSG, 90), and the Liverpool duo of Mohamed Salah (90) and Sadio Mane (90) to round out the top 10.

Gone from the summit are Eden Hazard (down from No. 4 to No. 22 following a horrible first season plagued with injuries at Real Madrid), his club teammate Luka Modric (down 20 spots to No. 29 this year) and Barca goalie Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who dropped from No. 10 to No. 11 this time around.

The most improved awards go to...

As expected, some of 2020's supernovas have seen big ratings jumps for FIFA 21, in homage to their emergence in the sport. Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland (plus-11, 84 overall rating) and Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies (plus-9, 81) are represented, as are USMNT defender Sergino Dest (plus-8, 75), Arsenal's Bukayo Saka (plus-10, 75) and Man United's young forward Mason Greenwood (plus-10, 77). But the biggest gains are in players who've still yet to catch the broader consciousness.

Take Italian-born Albania defender Marash Kumbulla (plus-15, 75), who is now catching the eye on loan as AS Roma. Or how about Edmond Tapsoba (plus-12, 78), the young French center-back at Bayer Leverkusen? There's room for Dejan Kulusevski (plus-13, 77), who has a chance to break out for Juventus in 2020, too, and Mexico midfielder Sebastian Cordova (plus-13, 75) as well.

There's only one strongman

Nobody's taking this crown from the ageless, fearsome Adebayo Akinfenwa, still going extremely strong up front for Wycombe Wanderers. The 38-year-old again tops the strength charts with a 97 rating (65 overall rating) in FIFA 21, out of respect for his 10-goal haul last season that helped his side win the League One playoff and promotion to the English Championship.

Hot on his heels: Orlando City SC striker Daryl Dike (96 strength, 61 overall rating), Serbian defender Aleksandar Vukotic (95, 68), Inter Milan's Romelu Lukaku (95, 85) and Uruguayan defender Armando Mendez (95, 70).

Wonder kids (Career mode):

I'm sure you have good scouting set up for your franchise given your commitment to developing young talent into world-beaters, but there's nothing wrong with a couple of shortcuts in the form of those players with the most room to grow over the course of the game. if you're managing a team with limited resources, these players might not look like much in the short term, but they carry maximum potential.

Seattle Sounders midfielder Danny Leyva (56 overall rating, 81 potential rating, plus-25), Hertha Berlin defender Luca Netz (63, 86, plus-23), Spurs center-back Malachi Fagan-Walcott (60, 83, plus-23), Everton defender Jarrad Branthwaite (59, 82, plus-23), Lille midfielder Eugenio Pizzuto (59, 82, plus-23) and Peterborough United striker Ricky-Jade Jones (59, 82, plus-23) are all literal gems in the rough waiting for the polish of your coaching wisdom.

Now where do we collect our finders' fees?

The need for speed:

It wouldn't be a look at a FIFA game without picking out the fastest players available. Given the enhancements to gameplay, speed is dangerous and teams loaded up with the most fleet-footed options will be able to rack up NFL-esque scorelines every week.

This year, three players share the honor of having a 96 pace rating: Wolves and Spain winger Adama Traore (96 speed, 79 overall rating), PSG's Mbappe (96, 90) and Bayern full-back Davies (96, 81). But there are other pace merchants available up and down the game. Man United's Daniel James (95, 77), Real Madrid forward Vinicius Jr. (95, 80), FC Tokyo striker Kensuke Nagai (95, 70) and Dijon left-back Anibal Chala (95, 69) will also turbocharge your starting lineups. Plan accordingly.

And finally... a word from the voice of the game

Derek Rae is not only the lead voice of ESPN's Bundesliga coverage, but also stepped into the lead commentary role (along with Lee Dixon) for FIFA 21. In previous editions of the game, Rae and Dixon were the commentary team for UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League matches; this season, they're the English language option.

We asked Derek for a few words about the task and what it's like voicing a video game...

"First of all, commentating on the most iconic football video game in the world is a great honour, and I go into every session with a big smile on my face and leave smiling, too. The process is very creative and challenging in a good way. It's very much a team effort involving a superb production and audio group.

"The goal is for it to sound as it does when I'm broadcasting a match in real time, and that means recording a lot of material over many days every year. Often, co-commentator Lee Dixon and would be in a studio together, but the pandemic made us change how we worked this year. Necessity is the mother of invention.

"Given travel restrictions, we set up a mini-studio in my home in Massachusetts, and worked almost every day in June and July. I felt a bit like a musician working around the clock to record an album in my home studio. Our producer Andrew was in Vancouver and audio engineer Pete in London, but we were all connected and listening to each other. It felt as though we were all in the same room as usual. But we had to laugh when we were interrupted by rain crashing on my roof, occasional thunderstorms, delivery trucks outside, or even once by a very loud lawnmower.

"A neighbour had gone away and hired someone to do a lot of garden work. I asked him if he could schedule the mowing part for when we were to take our break. When I told him what we were doing, his eyes lit up. Luckily I had a spare FIFA 20 game to give him as a thank-you for being so flexible.

"We'll certainly never forget the making of FIFA 21 and because of the unusual circumstances, I think we were all highly motivated to produce as much new and interesting commentary content as possible. It was great fun."


Overall, if you've always loved these games, you will no doubt love FIFA 21 as well. The gameplay is faster, sharper and more true-to-life, the controls will require a bit more dexterity in order to make Burton Albion look like Barcelona, and the much-needed focus on Career Mode is a welcome boost to those games not looking to sink time (and money) into FIFA Ultimate Team/FUT.