(Pocket-lint) - Now in its 27th year, the FIFA game series is one of the most talked-about, most eagerly-anticipated when it comes to each year's iteration - but it rarely surprises or shocks. Major generational overhauls do happen, but they are few and far between. Instead, we are mostly served minor tweaks and improvements.
And, that's where FIFA 21 proudly sits. It is a relatively minor enhancement on FIFA 20, offering a few additional bells and whistles, kit changes, and a new colour scheme for the menu system. But then, that's not necessarily a bad thing for its legion of fans.
Casual players will simply be happy with the latest round of kit designs and real-world transfers, while the more dedicated Ultimate Team players will be pleased that the game feels familiar but with some of the unwelcome gameplay annoyances removed. Indeed, this latter camp gets the more significant new features too, so even though this is certainly no generational leap, it is definitely an improvement on what has gone before.
FIFA 21 will be the first game in the franchise for the next-gen consoles, but that means it has to perform equally well on current-gen machines. That has undoubtedly hindered any major tech enhancements in the game or its engine. We haven't seen the PS5 or Xbox Series X/S versions, reviewing the game on PS4 Pro instead. But, it is likely they will only improve in graphical fidelity - features, such as lighting - and loading times. The game is very likely the same.
Thankfully, the on-pitch action is excellent anyway. We really got into Ultimate Team (and the weekly FUT Champs tournaments) last time around, so were already comfortable with the ebb and flow of matches. However, there were a few things that irked us and other community members we've spoken to.
Crossing from the byline, for example, was next to useless in FIFA 20. Team AI left a lot to be desired too - especially in an attacking sense.
Both have been addressed, it seems. Crossing and corners have been improved. It is now easier to score a headed goal from a curling cross, we have found, thanks to being given more manual control. Plus, a feature EA calls positioning personality helps AI players take up more intelligent positions on the pitch, based on their real-life abilities and depending on the phase of play. We have seen, for example, that wingers and left-right midfielders will cut inside more often when assigned to do so in custom tactics, but only when there is the space. Strikers will look for space more often too, while defenders seem to be less rigid in their decisions.
These might not seem like massive improvements, but they do make a difference. And, when playing a computer opponent, they help the game feel more natural - more like you are playing online against another person than before.
That is especially true for the new competitor mode, which is enabled on legendary and ultimate difficulties. This gives the AI an even more personable feel. It also rakes up the difficulty again, giving you the impression that you are playing against some of the best FIFA players out there, so is a good trainer too, should you fancy rising up the leagues in division rivals.
The one caveat to the new pitch-level features is that we feel matches to be a little more considered than before - which makes the action feel slower paced. But then, seeing as we've switched from a 96-rated UT squad in 20 to one that's 81-rated in the new game (and after some keen transfer wrangling, to boot), that could just be something that improves with our team strength. Certainly, if we have one tip for new players it's to get a goalkeeper with better reflexes - reaction times are a big factor in this year's game, leading to better responsiveness, and we've found goalkeepers struggle without it.
There are a few other minor issues we've discovered, and possible glitches, but EA Sports has always been spot on when it comes to patches and fixes so we doubt they'll be there for long and, therefore, not worth making too big a deal over.
In the board room
Perhaps the biggest changes this time though are off rather than on the pitch. The menu system has been refined, with Ultimate Team in particular gaining a better, more streamlined layout. You can now get to the modes and stats more intuitively.
There are also new stadium options, to make your team more unique. Where in FIFA 20 you could choose a real-world stadium, a tifo (a backdrop behind the goal), and a theme that changed the hoardings, you can now go much further with a whole array of different customisation options.
Seat colours, stadium colour, pitch-side trophies, even pyrotechnics when goals are scored - these are among the many flourishes you can find in packs in order to alter your homeground. Crowd noises and celebration music can also be added and swapped in and out. It all makes for a more varied aesthetic that doesn't really change the game performance-wise, but definitely allows you to show your flair and personality.
Your stadium also grows as you do - literally. As you tick off more objectives, it expands to become bigger and represent your in-game status. There is a heck of a lot of pride having an online player visit your customised-to-the-max stadium. And now you can truncate opponent's goal celebrations to stop the more toxic of behaviour, and they yours, and there's something wholly satisfying in having confetti cannons and musical blasts accompanying each of your goals.
The other new feature for Ultimate Team is the ability to play competitive matches in co-op. Division rivals and even FUT Champs games can be played with a friend on the same side. We haven't been able to attempt the latter yet as the first FUT Champs weekend was yet to start as we wrote this review, but it's fun playing with a buddy on the same team against an online opponent or two.
Away from the competitive nature of FIFA 21 - which is by far and away the most popular mode - there have been improvements made to the career mode and Volta Football.
Volta first appeared in FIFA 20, with a brief story mode in tow. However, it's been cut back to a tournament mode now, with your own created team - a Volta Squad - also gaining co-operative play.
There is a narrative, voice acted section that helps you get to grips with the game, but it's more to showcase a stream of guest stars than a full story as before. Indeed, the main aim of Volta this time around is to award you swag and give you a change of pace from 11v11 action. It has new skill moves, a better dribbling system, but is essentially the same fun distraction as before.
Career mode is also similar to previous outings, although it borrows a few feature from more dedicated management games. There is the interactive match sim, for example, which allows budding managers to avoid having to play entire matches and just the highlights instead. The game will play out in front of you, in top-down style, but you can jump in at any time.
It certainly speeds up a season in career mode and, combined with improved transfer and training options, it could well be a favourite for some - especially those who just want to play as their supported team. But, for the majority of players, it's all about Ultimate Team and, as we've explained already, thankfully there have been enough enhancements to make this latest purchase worthwhile.
A better career mode and the return of Volta as a decent sideshow are the icing on the cake, but it's UT where it's really at.
If we're being brutally honest, EA didn't really have to do much to make FIFA 21 a success. True FIFA and football fans would buy it regardless, even if it only added a data update - after all, football shirts are renewed yearly, cost more than £80 a pop these days, and yet still sell like hot cakes.
It might present a sequence of refinements and tweaks rather than anything groundbreaking, but it is the best FIFA game yet and that's more than enough for us.
We suspect that next-gen developments might bring more to the party in years to come, but if you want the pinnacle of footy action on the current consoles (and PC), this is surely it.