In the real world, Premier League football stadiums have no crowds thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In FIFA 21, these same stadiums are packed — packed with the exact same awkwardly animated, ugly crowds that have been a part of FIFA for over half a decade. We're not sure which is worse, especially when these virtual fans have developed a bad habit of repeating the same club-based chant over and over again, regardless of how the match is going.

What we're trying to say is that on the surface, FIFA 21 barely feels like an upgrade on FIFA 20, and last year's entry was already struggling to differentiate itself. Particularly on a graphical level, you'll be hard pressed to find any noticeable improvements. Sure, the lighting looks a little bit better sometimes at certain angles, and a few extra animations have made player collisions look slightly less robotic, but apart from that, this is FIFA 20, and the series is really starting to fall behind other sports games — like MLB The Show 20 and NBA 2K21 — when it comes to visuals. Hopefully the PS5 version delivers.

Fortunately, EA's touted gameplay tweaks and additions do reveal themselves eventually. The biggest change here is that we're very much back to high scoring games peppered with often crazy goals. It's not that defending has necessarily gotten harder — it's that attacking players appear to be incredibly slippery. Speed demons like Salah can wriggle out of well-timed tackles a lot easier than they could in FIFA 20, which, in combination with more accurate through balls, results in goals, goals, goals.

The bottom line is that FIFA feels even more arcadey this year. Keeping a clean sheet requires some serious concentration as you look to mark runners out of the game rather than close in on the ball — sometimes it feels like it's easier to just go down the other end grab an equaliser. But hey, there's no denying that FIFA 21 delivers on the drama. Matches are exciting, and tend to be full of share-worthy replays. If EA's goal was to make FIFA more like FIFA and less like actual football, then it's certainly succeeded. Then again, going by the increasingly ridiculous scorelines of post-lockdown soccer, you could argue that FIFA 21 is scarily accurate.

Another new addition to consider when sprinting down the wing is the ability to tell your fellow attackers when to make runs. Dubbed 'creative runs', a flick of the right stick can help a teammate find space as you attempt a defence-splitting pass. The mechanic itself takes some getting used to, but even early on, it's clear that creative runs can be a very potent tool when used correctly. On the one hand, it's nice not having to rely on the AI to make potentially game-changing runs. On the other, it all comes back to goals, goals, goals.

But the decision to make attacking play more effective does have benefits outside of scoring so many goals. For example, the emphasis on what EA calls 'agile dribbling' means that controlling players generally feels more responsive. This is perhaps most noticeable in midfield, where it feels like you can go full Thiago and create space with just a couple of quick movements. Despite some dodgy ball physics — a series staple at this point — FIFA 21 does feel good to play, and the process of actually building up an attack by stepping past one or two defenders is as rewarding as ever.

Moving on, let's go over game modes. For starters, career mode has finally been given a bit of an overhaul. A far cry from the disaster that was FIFA 20's career mode at launch, this year's offering actually has some weight to it. For instance, instead of simply choosing to simulate a match off-screen, the new 'interactive match sim' option lets you watch your games unfold on a tactical map. And when you feel the need to intervene, you simply 'jump in' to the game yourself, taking control of your players as you would in any other mode. It's a thoughtful quality of life feature that bridges the gap between simulating a match and actually playing through it manually.

On top of that, squad management has been streamlined for the better. Training can now be performed in groups, meaning that you don't have to go through the arduous process of assigning individual players to specific training routines. It's a much better fit for career mode, and a new stat called 'match sharpness' gives you a rough idea of how impactful each player is going to be in your next game. Overall, when playing as a manager, it feels like FIFA 21 does a much better job of feeding you useful information, all while making sure that you have broader, more meaningful control over how your squad is shaping up for the season ahead.

Next up, Volta. The FIFA Street-esque mode is back, as you and your custom avatar look to recruit the world's top footballing talent to your team. Volta was enjoyable enough as a temporary distraction in FIFA 20, and it's pretty much the same story here. Jumping from grandiose stadiums to small, walled arenas for some stylish, off the cuff soccer can be refreshing, and unlocking loads of clothing options for your character is surprisingly addictive, but something about Volta still feels off. Whether FIFA's gameplay just doesn't quite translate to a five-on-five system, we don't know — but once again, Volta ends up being a fun if somewhat forgettable side dish.

And last but certainly not least, we've got Ultimate Team. Look, you know the drill by now. Loot boxes bad. Ultimate Team quite good. Like FIFA 21's other modes, improvements have been made here, such as the addition of co-op with friends. Your chosen stadium can now be customised to a rather small degree, with trophy displays and all-important tifo. It's bells and whistles, really, but Ultimate Team remains a time sink of potentially epic proportions.

Conclusion

Stop us if you've heard this one before: FIFA 21 isn't a huge upgrade on FIFA 20, but a boatload of small improvements do help it rise above its predecessor. The on-pitch action arguably feels more arcadey than it has done in years, but there's no denying the excitement that comes with playing through a 5-4 thriller. FIFA is still king in delivering a robust and accessible footballing package, but the series needs to step up its game on PS5 — particularly when it comes to presentation.