FIFA 21 review: Forget everything you know about defending, this is wild

David Purcell
FIFA 21 with Lionel Messi

There are a lot of words you could use to describe FIFA 21. Refreshing, chaotic, fast, but ‘different’ is the one that stands out this year. Much of the community would agree FIFA 20 underdelivered on gameplay and things were made to feel far too defensive. Well, this game makes you forget any of that ever happened. Here’s our FIFA 21 review. 

The game released on EA Play early access on October 1, meaning we’ve had our hands on EA’s flagship sports game for over a week. Many of the changes laid out in the pitch notes have been shared by a handful of developers since the game was made available, drawing eyes to new features that are serious difference-makers, because gameplay has shifted so much since last year.

There appears to have been a greater sense of absorbing and acting upon community feedback from developers, too. Last year’s title was slow, passing wasn’t up to scratch, and many teams were too comfortable sitting back and shielding leads with counter-attacks, rather than total football. Now, you don’t really have an option. The wall has fallen down.

One word of advice here before we deep dive into each section, but don’t keep playing that way in FIFA 21. You will get slaughtered.

FIFA 21 Review

  • Copy: FIFA 21 Ultimate Edition (Xbox One)
  • Price: $99 / £89.99
  • Developer: EA SPORTS
  • Release date: October 9
  • Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch

FIFA 21 Ultimate Edition


Gameplay overhauls are mentioned every year in FIFA. The game is always evolving, no doubt about that, although the overhaul this year appears to been executed in a targeted manner. The areas people were not particularly fond of, such as the speed of play, passing, heading, defending, and attacking have all been addressed.

The game is much faster than last year, meaning it doesn’t feel like a game of chess in competitive modes. The cocktail of enhanced AI for forwards and attacking features like Directed Pass and Go makes fixtures more exciting, even if defending is a challenge.

Do not be surprised if some matches are like basketball at the beginning, because there is a learning curve here. It can be frustrating at times, seeing your midfield and defense split open so easily. The team in possession will pretty much always look dangerous. It’s about picking up players, cutting passing lanes, and covering space to defend effectively – which is tough.

Messi FIFA 21
Fortune often favors the attacker in FIFA 21.

Tracking runners and having a high level of concentration, from a defensive standpoint, is going to be the key to finding success this year. It’s got a very arcade-like feel to it, almost a throwback to games in the past like FIFA 19 where speed was everything.

Crossing is one of the deadliest types of pass in the new game, although the driven variety aren’t as useful as last year. Standard crossing into the box and standing it up at the back post looks to be very effective, showing that the switch to manual crossing – announced in the gameplay pitch notes – appears to have made a significant upgrade. Last year, scoring from headers was almost impossible, but this year it’s much easier.

Goalkeeper ratings don’t seem to make much difference, though, it must be said. For the most part, there appears to be a strong slant towards the attacker in 1v1 scenarios, which can be a little frustrating if you spend big money on a top player between the sticks.

Ultimate Team

FIFA 21 review
Ultimate Team players may argue the game is still pay to win, which to a certain extent it is, but there’s some big wins for low spenders.

The FUT Market is an enigma. Last year, the market was flooded with high-rated cards pretty much from day one, not to mention to countless promos that rolled out since that time. In exclusive interviews with YouTubers Manny and MattHDGamer earlier in the year, EA Sports told us they would like to see less special cards. Whether that happens remains to be seen.

The way things are shaping up so far is that there’s a lot of cheap players for good value, same with the super expensive ones, yet there’s a lack of middle ground. You don’t find much variation in opponent lineups, because the Bundesliga and Premier League teams are full of meta cards. In previous iterations, you had a plethora of team options to pick from, but this year those two leagues do appear to be dominating. Maybe TOTW and other promos will shake that up as time rolls on.

Meta cards are already being sieved out by the community, even if they are not as high rated as others in their respective leagues. Speedy midfielders with strength, fast defenders, and strikers that can get beyond the back line are obviously priority prizes for players – so expect them to be pricey.

With Division Rivals now having a 30 game cap on it, you’re going to see much less of a panic for staying in the rewards bracket you want. Now that players no longer have the ability to play unlimited matches before the deadline to push themselves higher – and you potentially lower – that’s a big win for those who don’t want FIFA 21 to feel like a part-time job. Fewer games to play and if you get enough positive results, you can unlock loads of coins, FUT Packs, and more.

Only really the top divisions of Rivals should feel ‘pay to win’, but even then, Squad Battles provides an alternative to build up your spending power.

FIFA 21 screenshot
FIFA 21 Ultimate Team has been upgraded massively, with new stadium building, rewards changes, and more.

It’s a fast game mode, unlike last year. Expect to see a lot of goals per game, a fast tempo, and with so many quick wingers on the game, fast fullbacks are a must. The meta will likely become more clear when FUT Champions starts up, so we’ll have to wait and see how competitive modes shape up in terms of longevity.

At first glance, the rewards on offer make playing very worthwhile for any player looking to go the distance and build a good team, even without investing large sums of money in FIFA Points.

Squad Building Challenges are very popular in Ultimate Team and no doubt they will be again this year. Not many had been released at the time of writing, but as usual, the trend of high rewards for low cost will be something players look forward to as these SBCs roll out.

Career Mode

FIFA 21 career mode manager
Managing a club in FIFA 21 feels a lot more hands-on and interactive than usual.

Customization is king in FIFA 21 Career Mode.

You can now shape the way pretty much everything looks when you take a job at a football club. Everything from the training regime to teaching players to play new roles, to fit your vision for what’s happening on the pitch. Past iterations have added manager customization and pre-season tournaments, but the return of visual match simulation – which featured in games in the past – makes the not so meaningful games a bit more interesting.

Juggling the morale, fitness, sharpness and performance of your squad is a challenge. So, no question about it, cup competitions naturally become a lower priority for the head coach more often than not. With visual sim, you can put out a team of younger or inexperienced players, see how they get on, and then intervene if the game plan doesn’t work out. It’s great to see it back in the game.

Transfer budgets and moves in-game are slightly more realistic. There’s new player swap deals and AI clubs will even make these propositions during negotiations, which makes transfers more fascinating. You might still be able to pick up some decent deals on players you may think would have higher asking prices, though it’s much rarer in FIFA 21 Career Mode. Clubs ask for an amount they think the player is worth to them, rather than being lowballed like years gone by.

There could be room for improvement in further customization, such as being able to change the commentary team, design new kits, build stadiums and upgrade your training facilities. Though, that would all seem a natural progression for next time.

FIFA 21 review | Verdict: 8/10

Overall, the game has changed significantly. You can’t take that for granted, as many titles in the past have been very similar to their predecessors.

The gameplay has struck a balance of perfect match speed, having defending be a proper craft, while delivering an arcade style of attacking players wanted to see return. Career Mode has received its biggest update in years, adding bits and pieces you may usually associate with the Football Manager franchise. Ultimate Team is very rewarding for even the smaller spenders, with prizes aplenty for just jumping into matches. All things considered, the only negatives really would be a lack of improvements for Pro Clubs, but there’s always next year for that.

Gameplay has taken a giant step in the right direction, now it’s our turn to adapt.

Reviewed on Xbox One