The FIFA 21 release date for PS5 and Xbox Series X is finally here. Next-gen football – or futuristic soccer, for our Stateside readers – lands on 4 December. Recently released screens suggest it looks sensational, but what about how it feels? How it plays? Gameplay is paramount where sports games are concerned, after all, and the current-gen version of FIFA 21 underwhelmed. After an hour-long sneak peek, we can finally reveal some answers to those essential questions. Below is all you need to know about next-gen FIFA 21 on PS5 and Xbox Series X.
1. Fundamentally, the engine is the same
A mildly concerning one to start with – but stay with me, because FIFA 21 is also doing new, exciting stuff. Under the hood, next-gen FIFA is ultimately an extension of the game you’ve been playing for the last five years, since the Frostbite engine debuted in FIFA 17. That means anyone who considers the series too pace-focussed, or lacking in fouls, is unlikely to have those views transformed. What EA hopes is that myriad new animations upgrade the feel of the football, making it more lifelike.
I see a strong example of this in a PS4 vs PS5 comparison clip. On PS4, Sadio Mane controls a long ball forward impeccably with his instep, the same touch knocking the ball ahead of him in order to get a shot away. Impressive – but gratingly inauthentic. PS5 fits two animations into the same split-second sequence, Mane bringing the ball down with his chest then onto his foot, which taps it ahead slightly for him to run onto. The sequence looks natural, and realistic, and should make it feel much less arbitrary when an opponent’s inch-perfect control of a 70-yard punt leads to you conceding a last-minute equaliser. Or so you’d hope.
2. Incremental updates make a difference
As well as that Mane example, there are other signs of next-gen uniqueness. Enhanced processing abilities mean AI team-mates make decisions faster than was possible on PS4 or Xbox One, with EA also promising additional composure and more responsive controls.
“The fundamental system and positioning of AI from Gen-4 is the same, but where you can expect to see definite improvements is in areas like shielding, jostling and – what I would call the most important feature this year – multi-touch animations [like Mane’s],” says lead producer Sam Rivera. “You’ll notice them right away. The fluidity of animations is improved, the synergy of ball control is improved.”
3. Proper jostling is a thing
The borderline assaults you see taking place in the build-up to corners while watching real matches feel more UFC 4 than FIFA 21, but the fact they’ve never been properly implemented on the virtual turf has indirectly cost you loads of goals over the years. In previous games, once you took a corner, the engine focused primarily on the attacker and defender likeliest to head the ball. There simply wasn’t the processing power to have four or five players from each side mauling one another, as occurs in reality.
Jostling is now accurately implemented all around the box, which should mean more organic results. For instance, an attacker being nudged by an unknowing opponent marking a team-mate, thereby affecting the direction and power of his header. I say ‘should’ because our showcase only showed brief examples. But if it works as intended, this will change every set-piece. Variety is the spice of FIFA, and dynamic outcomes from corners would again reduce the widespread claims of scripting which man-mark EA’s series with the relentlessness of Kalidou Koulibaly.
4. Haptic feedback make it feel like real football
At least, that’s the plan where the PS5 version is concerned. Suffer a crunching tackle from Phil Bardsley and your controller shudders on impact – and the same should be true of thundering a shot against the crossbar. Cleverly, the DualSense controller is also able to outline tiredness: the joypad feels heavy in your hands when trying to run with a player who is exhausted, symbolising the need to consider taking him off, without you having to pause the game and analyse energy bars. Pretty cool, assuming it works as intended.
5. Pre-match build-up is superb
This one is mainly cosmetic, but for the first couple of months it’s going to blow you away. Intricate off-the-pitch detail is a major focus of EA Canada’s next-gen development unit, and for FIFA 21 that means detailed scene-setting pre-match build-up. Ahead of a Liverpool fixture I see Jurgen Klopp getting off the team bus and Trent Alexander-Arnold touching the ‘Welcome To Anfield’ sign. Before a Manchester United home game, commentator Derek Rae talks up the imminent match as the camera shows fans coming through the Old Trafford turnstiles, then pans around the stadium’s seats and walkways. In Buenos Aires, River Plate shake their opponents' hands as light blue smoke billows from flares in the stands.
There will come a point where most players skip these atmospheric elements, but if this same level of detail seeps into gameplay – as occurred with baseball sim MLB The Show in the PS3 era, making it the best sports game of a generation – then EA may finally win over a large chunk of its infamously critical community.
6. The new camera angle is a gamechanger
Continuing the above point but in a manner which actually affects gameplay, next-gen FIFA introduces an entirely new default camera angle, which again apes real TV broadcasts. It still offers a horizontal view of the pitch – Kick Off and Sensible Soccer perspectives will have to wait for either PS6, or the twelfth of never – but at a lower and wider angle than on PS4 or Xbox One.
This new perspective fits half the pitch on the screen at any one time, giving much more insight into your players’ movements, and opponents’ defensive line and pressing tendencies. With the benefit of souped-up lighting and shading, it all looks so much more like the real thing.
7. Volta and Ultimate Team progress carry over…
Already packed TOTW Rashford and Rulebreakers Kane and worried about losing them if you switch from Xbox One to Xbox Series X? Don’t. All your progress in FIFA 21’s key online modes carries over from one generation to the next. Impressively, you can also leap back and forth between the two as many times as you want, so nothing is lost if you simply can’t get your head around that new camera angle, or Alisson’s next-gen beard and hair – which utilises new visual effects that render individual strands in real-time.
8. … but Career Mode saves don’t
Over to executive producer Aaron McHardy to tackle this one: “In all reality, [considering] the cost in terms of time to port career mode saves to Gen-5… we had to make a choice on how to invest that time in an annual cycle, and we felt it was better spent making new career mode features for both generations. We put a whole lot into career mode this year. Ultimate Team and Volta are server-based modes, making it a lot more in our control for those modes to progress across either generation. We had to make a tough call on what to trade off, with regards to time.”
9. Small tweaks matter too
Other brief takeaways from our behind-closed-doors eyes-on, which only need a line or two to be summarised:
9a. Loading speeds are much faster. EA aims to have you kicking off within two seconds to triggering a match.
9b. The Ultimate Team interface is the same across both generations, and the FIFA 21 web app works seamlessly across them both too.
9c. There’s no cross-play between generations, but the Top 200 in Ultimate Team’s weekend league will mix players from PS4 and PS5, and [independently] Xbox One and Xbox Series X.
9d. Next-gen FIFA 21 runs in 4K and at 60fps.
9e. The install size on PS5 comes in at 100GB, but McHardy was unable to specify an exact figure.
9f. No modes have been removed ahead of the switch to Gen-5.
9g. There’s no VAR or fourth substitution in extra time.
9h. There’s also no women’s domestic football, but EA insists it’s working hard to bring more equality to FIFA. “We won’t have the women’s Premier League in the game, but we do want to continue to push women’s football in FIFA,” says McHardy. “That’s something we’re taking seriously. This year we have female avatars in Volta, you have the ability to play with the women’s international players in kick-off and Volta, you can have a woman as your manager in career mode. We’re trying to find more opportunities to push the women’s game forward [in future editions of FIFA].”