Footballers often become scholars in later life, coining memorable phrases that make us smile, reminisce, and even shape our own impact on the game. Women’s US footballing legend, Briana Scurry is credited with saying that “Champions… are always striving to be better. They don’t live in the past.” Which is clearly something that the team at EA Sports wish to evoke with their gameplay upgrades to FIFA 21. As the first entry in the series to appear on the next-gen Xbox Series X, living in the past just simply isn’t an option. This goes together with an ethos that naturally includes the community feedback of past years in order to shape the future of the game in the most impactful, positive and genre-defining way yet.
All this amounts to a sweeping set of upgrades to player movement, built around a set of three crucial design pillars: creativity, fluidity, and responsiveness. FIFA 21 builds upon its predecessors by unlocking the creative freedom that star footballers often impress with. Dizzying displays of technical footwork are a simple skill modifier away; you’ll soon be leaving defenders scratching their heads wondering, ‘just how did they do that?’ More advanced dribbling will look and feel effortless, maximising the impact of what the stars of the game can do to change the swing of momentum to your favour.
This evolution of the most basic components of football extends to various other elements of FIFA 21, too. The most exciting upgrade is something that the community will be very pleased to get hands on with. Directed Passes, Directed Runs and Player Lock are a huge set of changes that weren’t possible until now.
While sending a player on a forward run in previous instalments could open scoring opportunities, players didn’t always go where you wanted when facing a more experienced opponent. To shake things up, you can now exploit open gaps, as Directed Runs let you play around with a full 360˚ of freedom, allowing you to choose the exact area of space you’d like the player to move into before delivering the perfect pass.
Conversely, you can entrust the AI with the ball, and use Player Lock to stick with your player, making the forward run yourself. In either case, players are now equipped with an all-new arsenal of inventive tricks to test even the most stalwart of centre-backs. None of which come with a complicated new set of inputs to master. Player Lock is achieved by simply clicking in both thumbsticks after the pass, while Directed Runs need a simple flick of right stick in the direction you want to send that player.
It all almost sounds too easy – so to prevent score-lines more like the ones we see in the NFL, defenders have been given an equally impressive boost of their own. On both sides of the ball, a concept called ‘Positioning Personality’ has dominated a lot of the changes we see in player performance. For the defending side, adjustments have been made that allow for earlier recognition of when a run is about to happen and quicker decision-making on when to support man marking with an extra player.
It’s just as well, as defending AI (and, of course, human players) will now need to contend with an attacking style of play that’s smarter than ever. Fake runs into the box can cause confusion and mayhem, dismantling a strong back four and creating a spot of breathing room for a clever striker to receive a through ball. We all know how that can end. We’ll also begin to see players anticipating when the pass will be made and adjusting their runs to meet that ball with pinpoint accuracy; of course, remembering to remain onside.
As with most things, these changes can be easy to learn but take true dedication to master. Once you feel comfortable, however, it might be time to test your mettle against a fiendishly clever enhancement to Ultimate and Legendary AI difficulty.
When selecting a Legendary opponent, you will have the option of enabling a brand-new feature called Competitor mode. This turns the AI’s dials to eleven, showcasing a playstyle that has been influenced by top FIFA esports athletes. The right skill moves will keep you guessing, especially when coupled with the agile dribbling adjustments that breath true life into world class forwards; this year’s cover star, Kylian Mbappé included. But if you’re up to the challenge, Competitor mode might well become your new favourite practice drill before taking it to Xbox Live against human opponents.
The deeper you dive into what a next-gen FIFA looks like, the clearer it becomes that those three design pillars have helped support every decision that has gone into realising the finished product. Suffice to say that, not only will top-level competitors feel even more empowered to dominate the pitch, but newcomers to the world of FIFA will have ample room to develop, grow and rise the ranks. FIFA 21 is the friendliest version yet, with core community features implemented to support it from day one.
Each and every time I check the box art for the various editions on offer, it strikes me just how modern they look. A clear departure from previous years, with a key focus on the future. Modernised mosaic art style, a young star of the game, Xbox Series X Optimisations, and a clear ambition to set the tone for the beginning of a new generation of Xbox sports titles. FIFA 21 is not clinging onto the past but hurtling towards a bright, dynamic, and explosive future.
You can pre-order FIFA 21 for Xbox One to receive a suite of unique items to give you a head start in FUT via the Microsoft Store today, and enjoy a free limited time upgrade to the Xbox Series X version thanks to dual entitlement, when that launches in due course.