It was just 18 months ago that Hideo Kojima tweeted his desire to create a whole new "strand" genre. It seems EA heard the call, because it's creating a strand game of its own—the next-gen version of FIFA 21 for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.
The updated version of EA's enormously popular soccer sim, set to release in December, will include "strand-based hair" among several other features—the better to appreciate Lionel Messi's beard of sadness whenever he decides to grow it back again. It's part of a larger push toward extreme realism as the series makes the leap to the new console generation; maybe not what Kojima had in mind when he extolled the virtues of his newly-created genre, but very much in keeping with EA's approach to its sports franchises.
Strand-based hair is just one of the enhancements on offer for FIFA 21 on PS5 and Xbox Series X. According to EA, the next-gen update will feature such minute details as muscles flexing while a player runs, and the ball compressing when a sitter inevitably clangs off the post (okay, I added that last little detail, but it's a moment to which any FIFA player can relate). Deferred lighting, a technique that allows the engine to render additional lights, will bring with it more complex environments and vibrant stadiums.
Like its sibling series, Madden 21, FIFA is wholly focused on presentation and gameplay as it transitions to next-gen. No, the PS5 version won't be adding any new modes, nor will it be enhancing career mode in any meaningful way. In that regard it lags well behind the ambitious NBA 2K21, which overhauls virtually every aspect of its feature set in the course of making the leap to the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S. But there are benefits to throwing everything into graphics and gameplay.
For one thing, FIFA really needs to update the action on the pitch. This year's version was pretty good to start, but over the course of a handful of patches it devolved into the same muddy mess as its predecessors. As the generation winds to a close, the entire genre is trapped in a strange uncanny valley where ever-increasing sophistication only serves to highlight its weaknesses. We can't willingly suspend our disbelief because every awkward animation or ridiculous shot looks so clangingly fake against the otherwise realistic presentation.
Even the FIFA team admits that it's reached the limits of what's possible on PS4 and Xbox One. "Right now just the [PS5 and Xbox Series X] give us more cycles for more calculations, and also the memory... and the fact that we were able to add in more animations, that's huge," Lead Gameplay Producer Sam Rivera says. "We had hit the limit where we couldn't add more animations or more calculations, so that for us was huge."
With the increased power afforded by the PS5 and Xbox Series X, EA is introducing all sorts of features with buzzy descriptions like "Responsive Multi-Touch Animation" and "Off-Ball Humanization." The latter is mostly about presentation—players will scream for the ball or react with fatigue in the 90th minute—but the former hints at much more responsive controls, which is something fans have been wanting for a while. Here's what the press release says:
New gameplay technology enhances the visual quality and responsiveness of linked animations on the ball, enabling you to experience fluid and realistic player movement. Players now take more human contextual touches, reducing mechanical, robotic movement.
Reading between the lines, it seems like the added processing power of the PS5 and Xbox Series X has allowed EA to add far more frames of animation, making it easier to retain control of players in the course of complex movements. If there's one feature that winds up differentiating FIFA 21 on PS5 and Xbox Series X from its previous-gen predecessor, it may well be this one. Like I said, FIFA really needs it.
Notably, EA has shown very little of the actual gameplay of either Madden 21 or FIFA 21 on next-gen, so it's hard to get a good read on how these games will feel in action. For that, we'll probably have to wait until the games arrives early next month.
In the meantime, FIFA 21 on PS5 and Xbox Series X mostly seems to be geared toward leveraging the "wow" factor of the next-gen platforms without sacrificing the progress made on the earlier consoles. Most of EA's resources have been thrown toward enhanced lighting; improved stadium walkouts, more elaborate celebrations, and yes, strand-based hair. The Dualsense's haptic feedback will allow you to "sense the impact of shots, passes, and tackles." In the stadiums that allow it, it will even be possible to see smoke in the stands (but no dogs on the pitch, sadly).
If it manages to improve even a little bit on the sluggish gameplay of the last few years, it should be warmly received by the FIFA community, which has been restless of late. Truly, the bar is low. It's a rare opportunity for EA to hit the reset button midway through the release cycle and wipe away some of the bad feelings generated by the current version.
But even still, FIFA 21's first foray on to next-gen consoles figures to be a conservative one; maybe even more conservative than Madden 21, which can at least boast forward-thinking innovations like Next-Gen Stats integration. That's FIFA for you: it will occasionally surprise you with a ballsy new feature like Volta, but mostly EA likes to stick with what works. All that really matters in the end is how it feels on the pitch, and EA is right to keep its focus tight as it moves to PS5 and Xbox Series X. No amount of strand-based facial hair can make up for poor action on the pitch.
I suppose we'll know soon enough whether EA's updates to FIFA 21 have the desired effect. Like Madden 21, it will be out December 4 on PS5 and Xbox Series X.