FIFA 21 preview: Football as we've always known it

What's new, what's changed and what's gone from the next version of the football king – just don't mention Covid-19

FIFA 21: A new feature enables you to direct players to go on a run

FIFA 21: The producers promise more realistic collisions between players and ball

FIFA 21: Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappé is the cover star this year

thumbnail: FIFA 21: A new feature enables you to direct players to go on a run
thumbnail: FIFA 21: The producers promise more realistic collisions between players and ball
thumbnail: FIFA 21: Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappé is the cover star this year
Ronan Price

Pandemic? What pandemic? As far as FIFA 21 is concerned, it never happened. Call it escapism, call it a head-in-the-sand approach. But there’ll be no empty virtual stadiums, no masks on-screen and definitely no positive Covid tests upsetting the team sheet when the next version of FIFA launches on October 9.

In a virtual presentation to gaming media recently, we got a first look at FIFA 21 with a team of EA producers detailing what’s new, what’s changed and indeed what’s been deleted. And, sure enough, there’s not a hint of coronavirus in sight.

FIFA 21 line producer Ionel Stanescu explained: “Every year we set out to recreate the most authentic football experience that we can make. We also want to make sure we express football in its best and purest form as well. So for us, that means football with crowds in the stadium, because that’s what it’s all about when playing this beautiful sport. And to that end, you will still experience the full-on broadcast experience of a regular football match.

“Obviously, this is a weirder year for us as well, but luckily you can still experience all that a football match has to offer in FIFA 21.”

Maybe it’s enough of a delicious irony that FIFA already supplies fake crowd noises for Sky Sports’ coverage of football games in real life.

So this is the FIFA upgrade as we have almost always known it, incrementally improving on last year’s version, tinkering with a few features here and there but fundamentally not messing with what is a feast of football. EA could probably sell all three main pillars of FIFA 21 separately – FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT), authentic pitch football and street soccer. Given how much FUT makes from selling packs of virtual trading cards (the figure is rumoured to be in the billions), EA could probably give away that mode for free and still pull in a fortune.

But no, the three remain yoked together in one big valuable package, where it will take a few days after release of players piling in to discover its kinks and flaws.

It didn’t long for avid fans last year to clock that the FIFA 20 career mode was full of bugs and far from the upgrade that had been promised. Mindful of that kerfuffle, EA has pledged a substantial rewiring of career this time and spent a considerable amount of the virtual presentation extolling its virtues.

Judging by that glimpse of what’s in store, it’s fair to say the FIFA 21 team has been taking lots of notes from Football Manager, particularly its match simulation tech that uses icon view to represent a game played at double speed.

“We worked together with the gameplay team to build an amazing new feature that bridges the gap between playing matches and simulating matches,” said Alex Constantinescu, who is senior game designer on the FIFA team at EA Romania.

“Playing a match of FIFA is quite demanding in terms of time required, and even more so in career mode where you have to play for an entire season. We know our players like to mix and match between playing matches and then simming them. But we always felt like there's something we can do in between, something that gives users more agency towards the fate of matches rather than put everything in the hands of the AI and getting an instant result.”

Before a match starts in career mode, you can just get the result immediately based on the teams’ relative strengths, play it entirely or start the sim. It runs at twice the speed of a normal game using icon view and, like Football Manager, you can make substitutions and change tactics. But you can also jump in or out multiple times at any point and play the match in the full FIFA fashion – if things aren’t going your way, for instance.

The other career mode upgrade that caught my eye was player progression and specialisation. Players earn XP from matches, which is automatically assigned towards building their overall skills. However, you as the manager can assign players’ XP to specific goals, such as improving their weak foot or even turning a striker into a better defender.

“It was very clear to us that we needed to do more because our audience wants more customisation of their players,” said Constantinescu. “You can pick a young player on his path to reach his potential and decide where you want to focus his goals. Should he focus on his dribbling or his finishing skills?”

“Veteran players make use of development plans too. You can choose which attributes they will try to maintain in their weekly goals to ensure they keep enough quality to be competitive for a role in the squad.

“In some cases, however, the effort required to convert the centre-back into a striker would be downright impossible to accomplish. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and this applies to the football world.”

The bullet-point list of additions to FIFA 21 is, as you’d expect, lengthy and too extensive to document here. Like FIFA preview presentations pretty much every year, the producers often compared FIFA 21 with previous versions and effectively said: Look how good our new animations are this time compared to how rubbish they were last year.

So things such as player collisions and animations seem better. The AI is getting smarter at blocks and tackles. Player positioning is promised to be more intelligent. Only extended hands-on play time will confirm that, however.

One welcome advance is the possibility of sending AI players on a run ahead of you using a directional flick on the right stick. But given that it’s mapped to the same stick as trick moves, it could be dicey to pull off as the tackles fly in.

Finally, Ultimate Team has been touched-up in several places but my guess is that one of the most welcome changes will be the axing of fitness cards, which had bugged the FIFA community for years.

“This year we removed fitness and training items from the game entirely, allowing players to focus more of their management time on meaningful decisions,” said Tyler Blair, who is creative director for FUT. “No longer do you have to find fitness items just to ensure that your players are ready to play their next game and fitness will still apply in gameplay so you still have to manage how much you sprint. But you no longer have to worry about that decaying from match to match – you'll always go on with 100 Fitness.”

• FIFA 21 will be released on October 9 on all the usual platforms, with PS5 and Xbox Series X versions to come later