When EA Sports announced that FIFA 21 would be getting an upgrade on PS5 — which is free if you already own the PS4 version — we kept our expectations low. We enjoyed FIFA 21 on PS4, but the footie sim was really starting to show its age. Compared to other heavy hitting sports titles like MLB The Show 20 and NBA 2K21, it was rough.

In our FIFA 21 PS4 review, we wrote about how FIFA simply must improve as we transition into a new console generation. Again, we weren't expecting all that much from the PS5 upgrade — but here we are. FIFA 21 on PS5 is a significant step forward — particularly in terms of visuals — and reminds us of those heady days when FIFA 14 first hit PS4 all the way back in 2013, blowing us away with its next-gen swagger.

Let's start with the most obvious improvement: the graphics. Without question, FIFA 21 on PS5 is the most realistic looking soccer sim ever made. Sure, you can still pick out those weirdly wooden player animations from time to time, but at a glance, it looks like the real deal. The level of detail on some players is borderline obsessive; we spent a good few minutes just orbiting the camera around Roberto Firmino's ultrarealistic noggin, coming to the conclusion that the eccentric Brazilian striker probably looks more authentic in FIFA 21 than he does in real life.

Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. You know what impressed us even more than the tiny little tattoos on Neymar's neck, though? The hair. EA Sports has implemented some kind of mystifying hair tech which sees long locks flow in an eerily realistic manner. Whether it's Edinson Cavani leaping into the air for a towering header, or Alisson Becker diving to the far post to save an otherwise certain goal, individual strands of hair move almost exactly as they should. Is it fair to say that FIFA 21 actually has the best hair that we've ever seen in a video game? We can't say for sure — the animation's so good that it's kind of distracting — but it's certainly up there.

However, as has always been the case with FIFA — and sports games in general — some players aren't so lucky. For all of its next-gen flourishes, FIFA 21 still suffers from the fact that not every footballer has had their face scanned into the game. Because the top talent now look so authentic, players cursed with generic faces look even worse than they did before. The gap has most definitely widened, to the point where the gulf in quality is more jarring than ever.

We're not sure what the solution is. It would be nice if EA Sports could scan every player into FIFA, but even for one of the world's most profitable video game companies, that would be a tall order. A more logical approach would be to overhaul the in-game player creation tools — now noticeably outdated — which would finally fix the whole dead-eyed-golem-made-of-ham thing that so many players have going on right now.

But let's be honest, the fact that rising Liverpool star Curtis Jones has a pure nightmare face in FIFA 21 doesn't impact the game a great deal. It's still a shame, but you're looking at players from a distance most of the time anyway, and at a distance, FIFA 21 looks immaculate. The new default camera angle — meant to mirror what we see on TV — helps sell the scale of each arena as it swings up and down the pitch. The stadiums themselves, meanwhile, benefit massively from an improved lighting engine. The added atmosphere that this brings to the table shouldn't be underestimated, and the more detailed crowd models have been a long time coming.

That said, the crowds still don't look great. Again, when the camera is pulled back and you're watching over the match, the new crowd animations and additional details help bring stadiums to life. But if you get in close, there's still a creepy mannequin-like quality to these supporters. Another visual factor that feels like it's been left behind by the rest of the next-gen upgrade.

So what about the gameplay? Well, EA Sports said that in-play animations would be improved on next-gen consoles, allowing for more fluid control. And while we don't think it's anything to shout about, we've definitely noticed a few finer details in the way that players move. Everything's just that little bit smoother, even if it's just Thiago eyeing up his next pass, or Messi watching the ball as he slots it through someone's legs. Small improvements, but they add up.

As for PS5-specific improvements, FIFA 21's got the lot. Load times are now so non-existent that pre-match skill games aren't even enabled by default. You just click 'play match' and you're in. Likewise, menus are instantaneous — no annoying stutters or slight input lag as you pop them open. Everything's just... Immediate.

FIFA 21 also makes use of the DualSense controller. The haptic feedback isn't nearly as amazing as it is in something like Astro's Playroom, but it's a solid effort. You can feel each step that a player takes thanks to small vibrations, which get more and more aggressive as they break into a sprint. The same is true when you strike the ball, with the DualSense letting off a noticeable 'thud' when you let a thunderbolt loose from 30 yards. It's honestly pretty cool, and adds some extra immersion to the package.

And then there are the adaptive triggers. If a player's tired, for example, L2 becomes more difficult to push down, so for a second, it really feels like you're having to exert some effort in order to get across the pitch. Another cool addition, but we're sure that more serious gamers will want to turn it off since it makes things that much harder.

Conclusion

FIFA 21 on PS5 is a surprisingly significant next-gen upgrade. Simply put, this is the best that virtual football has ever looked on PlayStation, and a slew of immersion-enhancing features make it the best version of FIFA in years.