I tried FIFA 21 out of curiosity. As a fan of games that you can easily zone out to and get lost in, I thought FIFA 21 would be the perfect fit. It ended up being the most frustrating game I’ve ever played, not for the reasons you might think. For years FIFA has been the most popular football simulation game on the market, but in the 2020 edition, some cracks have started to show.
If you’re completely new to the FIFA universe, EA brings out a new version of the game with new players and updated mechanics each year. Depending on which mode you choose, you can experience managing a club, building your own fantasy football team, playing a one-off friendly match, street football for an arcade vibe, or create your own player. Apart from the career mode, all of these modes can be played online with friends or fellow gamers worldwide. In its purest essence, FIFA is simulation fantasy football on steroids. Bearing in mind that I came to this game without a huge passion for football as a sport, I think I could play it to its fullest extent without an existing bias, which is why I was surprised to find it so infuriating.
There are a few areas that FIFA 21 excelled, and somewhere it let itself and its players down. I’ll give a complete explanation of all the factors that make it the ultimate rage game and tell you why I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re playing with friends who love it.
Game Modes Let Down by Mechanics but Graphics Win with Frostbite
From the start, there’s no default mode to fall into, so I did need to go through each one and figure out what they entailed. Having a little experience with the last FIFA instalment, I was familiar with some of the modes, but the biggest two to my mind are career mode and Ultimate Team. These two modes stand out from the rest because they are complete antitheses of one another. Career mode is quite relaxing when I got into the immersion of being the manager of a lowly club and trying to bring them to the top, but Ultimate Team was a painful experience every time I went online. The remaining three modes were outliers for me, and I didn’t spend much time in them other than to try them out. Most players feel the same, from what I’ve gathered, and focus their time between career and Ultimate Team modes. Each has its own attractions and issues, some of which go hand-in-hand with the realism of the graphics, the janky mechanics, and EA’s favourite child, the Frostbite engine.
Career Mode Shows FIFA21’s Best Side
I found that this mode was the closest to my original idea of FIFA 21. This is more for your relaxed player who likes to immerse themselves into the role of running a football club. You start by choosing a team to manage. This can either be your childhood club or any other team you want (if they are in the game). The in-game directions and menus made it easy to get the hang of managing finances, player transfers and tactics. However, a little dedication is needed as an apparent lack of much innovation has left this mode feeling stale, and it becomes repetitive quite quickly. As I’m aware, career mode has been the same sequence of choices and dialogue scripts that FIFA has reused over the last few years. This could be because of the significant lack of other big developers in the sports simulation game market. EA may think it has a good thing going and doesn’t see anything that needs improving, but perhaps a bit of healthy competition could bring more life to career mode.
I enjoyed career mode the most because of its sense of story and the clear progression you can actively create within your team by buying, selling, and training players, as well as controlling in-game tactics. On the plus side again, career mode actually works this year, unlike FIFA 20, which had many bugs causing general issues and preventing smooth gameplay. The graphics I found in FIFA 21 overall were not mind-blowing, but during matches, they’re smooth, realistic, and without weird glitches that could ruin a celebration, for example. In career mode, in particular, you get the chance to experience more of the animation close up, and the now famous Frostbite Engine EA used for this game comes into its own. You get character speech animations that can rival any AAA RPG I’ve played.
Even in this mode, though, the mechanics started to get to me. I wondered why the game thought I was trying to pass to a certain player on the opposite team during matches. Nothing felt very accurate, and it felt a little like it didn’t matter where I aimed or what tricks I tried to pull off. The game functions weren’t really responding as expected or listening to my direction. Little did I know, it was going to get worse in the next mode I tried.
Ultimate Team and Bad Mechanics Will Drive you Mad
Ultimate Team mode starts with basically nothing but a few low-rated players (cards), and you, as a manager, have to work your way up to achieve a better team. This is the mode where most of the ‘FIFA rage’ comes from in my experience. Playing Ultimate Team online is a very arcade-y feeling football mode where things that are generally impossible in real games become everyday. Players performing rainbow flicks every 5 seconds with no error? Check. Keepy-ups across the entire pitch? Check.
This, coupled with, in my opinion, the awful gameplay mechanics of off-the-ball players sometimes makes it feel as if you have absolutely no control of what is happening in the game. An example of this is how players on your team don’t seem to even attempt to tackle or win the ball unless you are controlling them. Another instance of erratic gameplay in action is the defending element. Defending is made so difficult in the gameplay that it is pretty much impossible, which meant I had to accept that conceding goals would happen. Put together with the high-stakes tension in this mode, and this is a recipe for rage-quits.
I’m not saying that it’s bad that you have to put so much effort into this game to be good at it. Games like COD, Apex Legends, or DOTA, to name a few, also require many hours of practice to become great or even mildly good. With FIFA 21, the complete randomness of it, the powerless feeling, is the rage-inducing element.
Away from the match gameplay is the card/player packs. It’s basically gambling in some ways. You can watch live streams of people opening packs and getting the likes of mess or Ronaldo and think, “how hard can it be?” and rush to spend your hard-earned coins or actual money to open these packs and earn nothing other than a Harry Maguire card…
This pot-luck feeling throughout the packs, the gameplay mechanics, and the ‘win at all costs’ mentality easily makes this the most frustrating game modes in FIFA 21, and it’s a feeling peppered throughout the whole game. All that being said, it is so satisfying when you win or do get a top-rated player in a pack, even if it has taken either all your time or life savings to do so.
Is FIFA 21 Worth Playing Anyway?
The problems I found in Ultimate Team are also elsewhere in the game, as even the lesser-used modes have the same counterintuitive game mechanics and AI pain points. The other modes are worth mentioning only in passing, in my opinion. Kick-Off mode lets you set up an offline friendly match, which I found to be great fun with friends who are playing more casually. Volta is similar, with a fast-paced street-style match. Pro Clubs mode is worth putting time into with friends as well, as it can be fun making your own player and working your way up through the stats together. All of this is said with the caveat of playing with a decidedly calm friend.
What kept me coming back to FIFA 21? The Frostbite engine can pull its own weight. As its name might suggest, you can get a feel for the pitch in all weather conditions, and I loved experiencing the matches come rain or snow with the realism Frostbite offered. Every player was startlingly true to his real-life counterpart too. So, what will stop me from picking up FIFA 22? As I mentioned, there isn’t much to compete with FIFA in the market, and so I imagine the next edition will be much the same game, same engine, same mechanics, just packaged up with a new title and several new players.
If you’re a massive football fan, you’ll undoubtedly give FIFA 21 a try, but I think you might hesitate when it comes to purchasing FIFA 22. I know I will.