It’s time for the annual release of everyone’s favourite football game; yes, FIFA 21 is here! At this stage, there is only so much that can be added or changed in the annual FIFA release, but FIFA 21 actually does a fairly good job with the tweaks and upgrades it provides over FIFA 20, while delivering some new content across a variety of modes.

FIFA 21 is one of EA’s largest money-makers and as such, nobody expected it to go the way of PES 2021, which provided a cut-price DLC-like 2021 update, which mainly delivered updated squads and kits, with a full sequel coming next year, targeting next-gen consoles. FIFA 21 has gone the route of a full-fledged release and while I can’t say it feels very different from FIFA 20 at first glance, you will begin to notice some nice tweaks as you delve further in.

Before I go into detail on what has changed, it is also important to note that FIFA 21 will be coming to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X on release and this will be offered as a free upgrade to owners of the game on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, respectively. While this is good news, we have not been given any details of what type of next-gen enhancements that game will have, nor have we seen any footage. We will update this review with some impressions once the next-gen versions release.

For those of you like myself who spend most of their time in (manager) career mode, you will be delighted with FIFA 21’s offering. This is the largest change in all of FIFA 21’s improvements, with a significant overhaul to the career system. The game has clearly taken some inspiration from Football Manager and I have absolutely no complaints in that; a more advanced career mode is something I have longed for for quite some time. FIFA 21 puts a huge focus on advanced training and development regimens, allowing you to set custom training plans on a player by player basis. For example, you can now focus a defensive midfielder, for example, on being a deep-lying playmaker, an anchor, a traditional defensive midfielder and more. A full back can be targeted towards being a wide back, an attacking wide back, a defensive wide back and an inverted wide back. Each of these development plans will result in a focus on specific player traits. Even more exciting than this, however, is the ability to also train a player to change position. This means that you can easily transition your right backs to right wing backs, or your central midfielders to central attacking midfielders, for example. Personally, I find these features to be a massive improvement and they have been long overdue.

Staying within career mode, players now also have match fitness and match sharpness meters, with different training drills affecting both of those stats differently. Transfers have also had an overhaul, allowing you to request players from the other team when they come looking to purchase a player of yours. You can also make loan-with-option-to-buy deals with teams now, setting the future transfer fee immediately. You can also give yourself a bonus chunk of cash at the start of your career mode playthrough, if you want to make it possible to immediately buy some of the top players. These are all things which were, again, long overdue features, however, I am delighted that they have finally been added to my primary mode of play.

The final major change to career mode comes in the match simulation options. You can now view a live simulation of a match, similarly to Football Manager, however, you have the option to jump in and save the match, should things begin to go poorly. You also have full control over tactics and subs during the simulation. You can also skip to the end during the simulation if you feel certain you’ve already got the match in the bag.

Outside of career mode, the likes of Ultimate Team, Pro-Clubs and other, smaller mode are pretty much unchanged from FIFA 20 and have the same feature set. Volta, however, has been overhauled quite substantially and now offers online play via the new Volta Squads mode, which allows you to team up with your friends. Outside of this, the mode remains fairly similar to how it was before, but that’s not such a bad thing. Volta is a fun mode, great for short play sessions and the addition of online is a huge plus. They’ve added a lot of nice new areas to play in through Volta and some story has also been added to the mode. You progress through big tournaments across the globe and level-up your skills, recruiting big names to join your squad along the way. It’s both cringy and fun at the same time, as you’d expect from any FIFA story modes.

In terms of changes to the pure gameplay, FIFA 21 feels a bit slower than FIFA 20, which is a good thing, as pace tended to be quite overpowered in last year’s entry. FIFA 21 feels a bit more balanced in this regard, though make no mistake, pacey players are just as key to having a lethal team. Nevertheless, the change brings a bit more skill and tact back into the fray, while still allowing blistering pace to feel like a major asset. Ball play feels a bit heavier and less floaty than before, which takes a while to get used to. Heading balls from crosses has also seen some tweaks, with a more consistent ability to score from crosses evident in FIFA 21 from my play thus far. This was a common complaint from last year’s iteration – I almost never bothered to attempt headers from crosses as it was rarely on target no matter what you attempt to do.

A nice change comes in the animation work, with a greater wealth of animations in collisions and falling, something which often felt stiff and glitchy in prior FIFA games. These minor changes serve to improve the natural feeling of the game and the fluidity, so any positive change in this area, I feel is worthwhile.

Overall, FIFA 21 mostly makes minor tweaks to the formula, but it does so in exclusively positive ways. It isn’t going to win any awards for innovation, but it serves as a great stopgap between the generations and is a worthwhile upgrade over FIFA 20 for fans, especially if you play career mode a lot!