We played 'Fifa 21' early to see how it compares to 'Fifa 20'. Verdict? It's really 'Fifa 20.5'

After being given access to an early version of the smash-hit football game, we lay out how the upcoming release compares to its predecessor

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It’s been a stop-start year for football around the world due to the pandemic, but fans were still able to get their daily dose during the stoppages thanks to EA Sports’ hugely popular Fifa video game franchise.

There are probably many gamers out there who have played Fifa 20 so much that they know every song lyric on the lengthy soundtrack, every sweet spot to shoot from on the pitch and have performed every skill-move available.

The end of the long wait for the next iteration – Fifa 21 – is now drawing close. So close, in fact, that The National was given an early version of the PlayStation 4 title to put the gameplay to the test.

Here’s how the new game is shaping up:

Is 'Fifa 21' a giant leap forward for the franchise?

One of the main criticisms aimed at Fifa is the lack of change on the pitch from one year to the next.

Now, I won't keep you hanging on whether Fifa 21 is lining up to be a fundamentally new game – it isn't. Not on the pitch, anyway.

I was given the beta version to play as much as I wished across two days. This was following a solid nine months of playing Fifa 20, and it's worth noting I'm a reasonable, mid-table kind of player in what is a very competitive area of gaming, so I should be able to feel the changes to the game, however nuanced or subtle they may be.

And, after hours of play, I concluded that Fifa 21 in its current state is more like Fifa 20.5.

But that doesn't necessarily mean it's shaping up badly – some of the frustrations of Fifa 20 have been eradicated and, for the casual player at least, this should be a tidy game of football by the time it launches.

So, what’s good about the new version?

Well, the beta version of Fifa 21 is definitely better than its predecessor. It simply doesn't make that huge stride that many players want it to take.

At first glance it looks the same. OK, so the graphics are slightly sharper, but there’s only so much more EA can wring out of the PS4 with the PS5 just around the corner.

The most noticeable progression is the way the players move off the ball and run into space, making passing play more rewarding. The weight of pass was also better – one of the most irritating aspects on the Fifa 20 pitch was how a pass just wouldn't carry the weight you wanted.

EA have called the new feature Positioning Personality, where forwards make more intelligent runs, playmakers try to find space and defenders block passing lanes. All in all, I found myself happily passing sideways and backwards, knowing that an attack could be patiently built, rather than trying to charge forward on the counter attack on Fifa 20. It actually felt more like a Fifa game from years gone by in that respect, and more like real football.

There’s also a new ability where you can pass into a player’s feet and then control the run of the player who made the initial pass, which should help find different ways to cut apart a defence. Now, either that wasn’t working in the beta version, or I just could find no way to get that to work, but it sounds like a good idea.

What about the new dribbling system?

EA have called this the new Agile Dribbling system, which the developers say has improved responsiveness and control and helps you “explode past defenders”.

I'm not a fan of endlessly dancing around the edge of the opponent's penalty area while performing all manner of skill moves and strafe dribbles (as many players do), but I gave it a go and found no massive difference between the dribbling on offer here and in Fifa 20.

In terms of dribbling unopposed up the pitch, it felt slightly slower. While the faster players, such as Marcus Rashford and Mohamed Salah, were able to stay clear of their chasing defender while running with the ball, they weren’t exactly streaking away.

This leads me to individuality – had I not known the players in the teams I was using due to their appearance, it would have been hard to differentiate who each one was based on the way they played.

Can you still bang goals in at the near post?

Is there anything worse in a football game than there being an exact place on the pitch where you can score from every time? Anyone who played the 1995 release of Manchester United Championship Soccer on the SNES will know what I mean.

In Fifa 20, positioning your shooting player in line with the nearest post – and shooting towards that post – gave a high chance of a goal. This time around, EA's developers say the positioning of the goalkeepers has been "retuned".

Was there a difference in the beta version? A few shots still went in at the near post, but you’d expect that. Finishing one-on-one was straightforward and finesse shots flew into the top corner from the edge of the penalty area, so it was business as usual there.

Another bugbear from Fifa 20 was the impotence of crossing. You could storm down the wing and put in 20 crosses in a match, and not a single one would meet the head of your onrushing striker. It didn't work for David Moyes at Manchester United, and it doesn't work in Fifa 20.

Crosses in Fifa 21 went into more threatening areas, but were again largely nullified by the keeper and centre backs, as they were for corners, which hadn't changed. Hopefully this will be tweaked for those who like to get the ball wide and then get it in the box.

I’d just like to see more scruffy goals, be it after some six-yard box mayhem or a few low bobblers which sneak into the bottom corner. Not every goal in real life is a netbuster.

Anything else of note?

Yes, there’s a Competitor Mode when playing against the computer AI. This replicates the style the serious Fifa players use, such as skill moves, tricks and flicks. It only works on Legendary and Ultimate difficulty and I found it a fairly stiff test in the beta version.

A couple of other nice touches I found included the goalkeeper booting the ball back into the net, or the crowd, after conceding a goal, and players lying down on the floor as if crestfallen after letting in a late winner. It all adds to the atmosphere. Also, the “shh” celebration has been removed to reduce the level of toxicity when playing online.

When is 'Fifa 21' launching?

Fifa 21 will launch worldwide on Friday, October 9, 2020 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. If you pre-order the Fifa 21 Ultimate Edition or Champions Edition, you'll be able to play from Tuesday, October 6. The EA Access (PS4, Xbox One) and Origin Access (PC) Play First Trials will start on Thursday, October 1.