I'm a FIFA Career Mode player. It's the only football game on the market that has the breadth of teams represented to make an enticing offer of possibilities and gives the player the control on the pitch to make that experience actually enjoyable. Well, it did anyway, up until FIFA 21.
FIFA 21 has a problem, a big problem. There is a space in between the back line of defenders and tucked under the formation of midfielders that the best players in the world simply make their living in. It's that space just above the 18 yard box where marks can get lost, the goalkeeper can't help, and allows player both the option to pick a pass or level a shot, and is basically the pick to unlocking a defense. FIFA 21 AI defending has abandoned this area of the pitch through a combination of an unforgivable lack of tracking by midfielders and a terrible lack of awareness of defenders to step up and challenge attackers with the ball. This leads to overloaded defenses facing attacks that have near unlimited time to pick them apart.
At any level of soccer, defenses should not have a numbers problem. It’s why you start with a typical base of 4 or even 5 defenders across you back line and in direct support while only pushing forward with only 2 or 3 true dedicated attackers. What rounds out the squads are the midfielders who participate in both phases. But is is routine in FIFA 21 for defenses to constantly face overloading numbers, as we can see in the video below. And it's not just the numbers mismatches that create the unrealistic goal-fest that Career Mode suffers from, its the often complete and total lack of pressure on the ball carriers too. It's bad enough to be on the wrong side of a 5v3, but worse when you give the man with the ball as much time as they like to make their next move.
The culprit here is a combination of defending midfielders who have no ability to recognize danger, follow their marks, or help in defense combined with a defensive band who spend too much time backpedaling at a safe distance and never make a move towards danger. I've created the following video to demonstrate exactly what I mean, and there's more detail about how I came to these conclusion after the read more link below. But suffice to say, for the first time in forever, I can't even bring myself to play FIFA, even despite its faults because the AI is broken to the point the game makes no sense, and is simply no fun anymore.
FIFA has been down a dark path for a few years now. What started with Ultimate Team as a neat little DLC and a break from career and multiplayer has basically morphed into EA's sole purpose for delivering their sports games. FUT is an absolute cash cow for EA, netting them in excess of $1.4 billion, with a B. One mode spread across their football (real and egg shaped varieties) and hockey franchises makes up more than a quarter of their entire revenue stream. They have succeeded in not only making the mode insanely popular - funneling streamers, players, and micro transactions through the mode; but have basically let every other mode fall by the wayside and suffer as a result. We might actually be crossing new territory here, though, because the defending in FIFA 21 is so unacceptably bad, I can't shake the feeling that it's actually a direct result of changes made to support the PvP focus central to FUT.
I'm not going to go too deep into the pay-to-win nature of the mode. Other publications (like Engadget here) have already done that. I play FUT absent-mindedly. I never liked the idea of buying players and building a team in an arms race that is unwindable without plunking down large sums of cash to keep up. While FUT has artificially expanded that race year after year, making it more and more impossible to compete through targeted changes to the gameplay options and special player cards distributed with increasing regularity, I still tabled only because I do like to play freemium games for free. I like the challenge of trying to compete at a high level without spending a dime. I like the thill of opening a pack and letting chance, fate, or some twisted algorithm designed to actually cheat in a steamer's favor on air and trick children out of their parent's money when unattended decide (source 1, source 2, source 3... there's more). Basically, I like gambling, FUT is gambling, and I'm an adult and am allowed to do so (despite EA marketing this game towards children who are not allowed to do so). As an adult, however, I am not naive enough to spend real money on these loot boxes. I was a FUT Founder, having bought the first DLC when the mode launched all those years ago, and have spent a total of 10 dollars on the mode in all that time (I was chasing a special Gareth Bale card as a birthday present to myself and immediately regretted the purchase and it ended up souring that year's entire FUT season for me).
I'm not a FUT player, I play career mode. The thing that's always drawn me back to FIFA despite all I hate about it, is that it is the only football game on the market with a compelling career mode. I've tried Football Manager but the lack of real control over getting my players to do what I want them to do isn't what I'm out there for (I swear if my striker ignores a better pass tot take a bad angle shot one more time I'll... well I'll put another striker in who will do the same damn thing because this is a video game not the real world where I could specifically dictate to my players what to do in situations not just over arching tactical strategies). I've tried the PES Master League and there is no career progression. You can't start anywhere but the Master League. The narrative I want to write as I play is of a manager who starts at the bottom and works his way up to the top, one I gleefully create year after year starting with a team in the League of Ireland Premier Division, usually UFC Dublin (when they haven't been relegated the year before), and make my way to the top of the profession. Typically, my first season takes some getting used to. I'm learning the new controls, new strategies. I usually struggle at first, drop a few points, then finish strong and build off that to push to the top of the table and into European cup competition the year after, building my resume and collecting a few league and domestic cups until it's time to move to a lower level English club or somewhere on the continent. I fire up FIFA 21 and expect more of the same, but my very first game goes quite unexpectedly in my favor.
I'm Finn Harps (UFC Dublin has been relegated this year... again) playing Shamrock Rovers, the most successful and strongest club in Ireland. I'm expecting a loss but hoping for a good performance. I win, 1-0. Elated by the great start I head into the next two matches against bottom table clubs, both wins, 1-5 and 4-3. The next match sees stiffer competition still fall, 2-0; and after my one blip of the season with a draw against the other best team in Ireland, Dundalk, and a 2-3 loss, I win the next one 6-0. 7 games in I'm scoring more than 3 goals a game and top of the table. It's not supposed to be like this.
So time to crank up the difficulty from Legendary to Ultimate. Ultimate difficulty in FIFA 20 was ridiculous. Basically it didn't make the opponent AI in any way smarter, just gave every one of their players insane stat buffs. Every player on the opposition ran like Usain Bolt, had the touch of Michelangelo, the passing range of Tom Brady, and a shot like a howitzer. You were playing against 11 supermen. FIFA 21, thankfully, doesn't do this; but I'm not sure what it actually does do. First game on Ultimate difficulty, I run out winners 3-5. A run a few more test matches to confirm, Ultimate sure makes it easier for the computer to score, but does nothing to stop me either. We've just made the game an unrealistic goal-fest. Why?
Well, that's what the video above tries to answer. Frankly, this is unacceptable. For a game to be released in what is essentially a completely broken state like this, abandoning all footballing reason, there's no excuse... Other than that niggling suspicion that's it all due to complaints from the FUT playing community. Did too many players complain about competent AI defending that it had to be broken into unrecognizable pieces? Because while I don't know that this is that is going on with the AI tactics, it surely isn't defending.
This is a big problem, but unfortunately also a problem EA seems to be uninterested in actually fixing as we can see by the complete lack of response on their own channels: