It's that time of year again, as EA's never-ending FIFA franchise dribbles down the tunnel and out onto the pitch for another brand new season. It's an incremental update for the most part this time around, there are no really big marquee additions or modes to speak of here, beyond Volta's new story "Debut", but the action on the pitch has received a bunch of clever tweaks and refinements that see this year's footie-fest play a much faster, more fluid and - most importantly - fun game than we've seen in the series since perhaps as far back as 2017.

While there may not be any properly earth-shattering news with regards to new modes for 2021, one change that is sure to please fans of the game's Career mode in particular is a slick new simulation system that allows players to watch matches unfold in a top-down Football Manager style view, hitting X at any point during proceedings to jump down onto the pitch and take the reigns when things aren't going according to plan. It's a surprisingly streamlined affair, with zero loading times or waiting around incurred as you transfer down to the action and back out again, and it really does feel like a fresh new way to make your way through a season here. Alongside this, a new Player Development System sees you gain the ability to retrain squad members into new positions, enabling you to move your existing players around and giving you much more flexibility when it comes to sorting your team into different formations and strategies without having to go shopping for a brand new addition to fill a specific role. FIFA 21's Career mode might not be as all-encompassing as that seen in the likes of EA's Madden franchise, but it's slowly heading in the right direction.

Down on the pitch itself, making runs and sending teammates forward has seen some positive progress. Flicking the right stick directly after passing the ball will now see your player head off in the direction you've indicated as soon as they've given up possession, and directed runs also now allow you take full control of the direction in which AI teammates head up the pitch in search of space for a killer pass. All told, passing here feels much better than last year. It's zippy and more arcade-like, you'll find yourself playing the ball around in fast little triangles as you blaze your way up the pitch, and this more relaxed style of play fits in nicely with keepers who have been nerfed to the point that matches are always action-packed affairs with plenty of goals.

Headers too, an aspect of the game that had become seriously tough, to the point it almost felt broken in the last couple of outings, are now a totally viable option once again and we've seen ourselves making far more use of the wings as a result, peppering the opponent's box with crosses now guaranteeing you some success in this more free-flowing outing. Where last year's effort could feel turgid at times, a slow and often frustratingly tough game to score in, here you'll find the new off-the-ball running options, smarter AI in general and those more fallible keepers all combine to ensure long-range shots, spectacular headers and vicious volleys are all very much back in vogue.

Defending, another area that's been somewhat troublesome over the past few years, definitely feels improved here too. Jockeying your opponent, blocking off passing routes and bringing teammates in to crowd out opposition players in order to force their hand all feels much slicker this time around. However, this is still, for us, the weakest part of FIFA's on-the-pitch action in its current form. Making clean tackles can be an infuriatingly difficult chore at times - and almost impossible if you're playing a human opponent who's mastered close control dribbling and a handful of fancy tricks - and often leads to situations where you'll feel utterly helpless to do anything about capable opponents jinking their way through your entire defence before firing a shot past your dozy keeper. Again, it's certainly an improvement on last year - we've had much more success in tracking and blocking passes here - but that last little element of actually putting your foot in and stopping an attacker successfully, still feels really difficult at times, something that's exacerbated by refs who hand out yellow cards for the most innocuous of bumps.

Skill moves, the bane of every struggling defensive player, have been tweaked to make them less easy to abuse - you can't pull off infinite skills one after the other anymore, which helps somewhat when you're playing online against a truly masterful opponent. But we'd just love to see a better balance overall between the variety afforded to attacking players in how they move up and around the pitch with skills and close control dribbling, and the suite of options available on the defensive side of proceedings.

Away from on-the-pitch tweaks, Volta's Debut story and that new simulation screen in Career mode, the only other really noticeable changes to speak of this year come to the juggernaut that is Ultimate Team, where you can now pimp and customise your team's stadium in various ways and, more importantly, get down to co-op action with friends in Rivals and Squad Battles. Of course, this is a mode where the loot box fiasco continues unabated - pay-to-win is very much still in effect, and with EA coming under fire recently for its FUT marketing strategies, we'd like to see this element of the game get cleaned up sooner rather than later. Ultimate team is still, undoubtedly, massively addictive stuff, and you can certainly build a decent team without spending a penny of your real world cash, but boy does this game try everything in its power to remind you that you're missing out on the very best players at every opportunity it feasibly can. It's a grubby aspect to the game that's not changed one iota for this latest iteration.

In terms of graphical upgrades, beyond some new animations here and there, this one looks pretty much identical to last year's offering and fancy new visuals are something you'll have to wait for with the Series X version of the game which, to be fair to EA, is a free upgrade for anyone who's picked this one up on Xbox One.

Overall, then, this is FIFA slightly improved over what's come before it in the last four or five years. It's faster, more fluid, higher-scoring and just more fun in general as things stand right now. No doubt EA will make incessant tweaks to the gameplay in response to complaints from fervent fans over the coming months, and we can only hope it doesn't slow the game down and make scoring much tougher in the process, but, for now, this is as good as FIFA has been in quite some time. There may not be any big new modes to shout about, but what is here is a comprehensive package that should satisfy fans until the great big next-gen overhaul we expect to see come Fall of 2022.

Conclusion

FIFA 21 is very much an incremental upgrade to last year's outing, but what has changed here makes for a much faster, more fluid and fun game of footie than we've seen from the series since perhaps as far back as 2017. New tweaks to off-the-balls runs and passing are welcome, headers are viable options once again and keepers have been nerfed to the point that all-manner of long-range efforts, vicious volleys and fancy finished shots are back in vogue.

Volta still feels like a bit of an afterthought - with its new Debut story mode as cheesy as you might have been expecting - but a slick new simulation option in Career mode, alongside that smart player customisation system and customisable stadiums and co-op Rivals and Squad Battles in Ultimate Team, mean there's just about enough here for diehard fans to justify splashing out once again. This is, for all its faults and foibles, a comprehensive and undeniably fun swansong for EA's behemoth on this current generation of consoles.