Never mind football coming home. This year, football had to work from home. Every major competition shut down at the height of the pandemic, leaving elite athletes to train over Zoom and fans to stare at incomplete league tables. Some, like the Scottish Premiership, awarded trophies. Others spent small fortunes designing biosecure bubbles in order to continue playing, as much to avoid defaulting on huge TV contracts as for any other reason.
Developer EA Sports was in a similar position. The show had to go on. Fifa’s online fantasy squad-building mode, Ultimate Team, props up the whole EA empire with its morally dubious focus on microtransactions. But could a game cranked out on kitchen worktops deliver on the expectations of the football-starved masses?
Yes, in short. First impressions point to a subtle update of the kind you might expect under such strained conditions, but extended play reveals a game that is fast, fluid and full of ways to score spectacular goals.
Fifa 20 also felt fresh and exciting, before settling into a negative style of football, so we should be cautious about lavishing praise too early. But by comparison, Fifa 21 is pandemonium. Goalkeepers are no longer easily beaten at the near post, but can barely save anything else. Finesse shots are back! Headers are viable! You can even chip the keeper! In fact, you can probably chip the keeper too much. Close control while dribbling with elite players is a dream, and you can direct off-the-ball runs using a suite of contextual controls that prove fun to master.
Overpowered tactics have been reined in cleverly. Skill moves can be chained together, but complex one are prone to coming unstuck, and though “Team Press” is now useful for pursuing the ball when you lose possession, it’s not something you keep up for 90 minutes, which feels true to life.
Football fundamentals feel stronger, too, most notably passing. Moving the ball around has always been zippy, but is now clearly tied to players’ real-world capabilities. Christian Eriksen has been at the heart of my team, delivering perfectly timed through balls, and attackers help passers shine even more by making better runs.
This attacking emphasis puts the onus on learning to defend, where the odds are stacked against you. The game offers less automatic defensive support, goalkeepers are calamitous, and while it feels to me as though there are fewer unfair rebounds, it still happens. You can at least get away with the odd last-ditch leg-breaker, because refs are more lenient. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see goalkeepers and refs updated before long.)
Away from the pitch, the biggest change to Ultimate Team is the addition of co-operative play. Both players receive rewards and progress for playing, but sadly there’s no matchmaking to find a co-op partner, so you’ll need a regular Fifa buddy. Fitness and training cards have been removed, too, which is a welcome bit of housekeeping. New stadium customisation and “live FUT friendlies” features are less exciting.
Fifa 21 also retains and evolves its Career and Volta modes. Career is a single-player pursuit that now has shades of Football Manager as you survey games from a bird’s-eye view and develop players by converting them to new positions as they mature. Volta is five-a-side street football, and what it lacks in depth it makes up for in knockabout fun. If you can tolerate cheesy cinematics and the fact that it’s basically a playable version of those hip, sullen football trickster TV ads, the Volta story mode is a pleasant diversion, although I suspect Volta won’t take off in quite the way EA hopes until it is somehow integrated with Ultimate Team.
Whatever your pleasure, Fifa 21 is off to a strong start. If you’ve played Fifa in the last few years, you’ll have no trouble picking it up and scoring for fun, and if you want to dig deeper, there’s a ton of new stuff to learn and the endless siren call of regular Ultimate Team events to keep you coming back, even in the absence of any massive new features. Football has been hard to enjoy in 2020, but Fifa 21 certainly makes it easier.
• Fifa 21 is out on PS4, Xbox One and PC from 9 October, and on PS5 and Xbox Series X in November; £49.99 for the standard edition.