Now that we have officially entered the next generation of gaming consoles, the pressure is on for developers and publishers to deliver something that feels next gen. This brings us to our Madden 21 next-gen preview.
Before we get to that though, let’s discuss next gen a bit more. For those of us who were lucky enough to have grabbed one of — or even both — the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles, there is already early evidence of what next-gen gaming looks like when done right, and how applying a new coat of paint is not the direction to go this time around.
To see evidence of “next gen” being done correctly, one needs to look no further than 2K Sports and its yearly NBA title, NBA 2K. While some may disagree with the overall quality of the game, next-gen NBA 2K21 feels mostly like a new experience. With new cameras angles, refreshed game modes, incredibly detailed arenas, and player movement that feels fluid and lifelike, 2K has set a solid baseline for what we should expect from a sports game now. At the very least, 2K feels new and exciting, and that’s part of the fun of getting a new console.
So where does that leave us with EA Sports and its NFL series, Madden NFL Football? That’s a great question, and thankfully I was able to sit down with EA’s own executive producer Seann Graddy, lead producer Connor Dougan, and lead developer Clint Oldenburg.
All three were kind enough to explain in detail what type of effort was employed for Madden 21 next gen, what’s new for the game, and what the future holds for the title. They were also generous enough to answer, in as much detail as possible, any and all questions that were thrown their way.
So, with that said, let’s dive in to my next-gen Madden 21 preview for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.
Next-Gen Madden 21 Preview
One theme for this virtual event was allowing the player to see and feel what playing Madden 21 is like as a next-gen experience, and that starts with the utilization of the PS5 controller. So, what does that mean? For starters, controller haptics on the DualSense wireless controller for the PS5 means you can sense the pressure of an oncoming blitz, attempting a game-winning field goal or the impact of a perfectly timed hit stick.
This ability of the PS5 controller also varies based on the NFL player. This means if you have a scoop-and-score with 285-pound defensive lineman, the trigger will be harder to push and maintain than say breaking a touchdown run to the outside with a speedy running back.
It also means that with use of the PS5 controller’s 48-kilohertz speaker, footsteps can be heard, audibles can be called out and heard, and the cadence of your quarterback calling out commands to his offense can be heard.
While harnessing and making use of the full power of the PS5 controller may seem like a small detail, it’s part of why we bought these consoles. The small moments of an NFL game are things that often go unnoticed, but adding little touches like what I mentioned above are what helps drive a new and authentic experience on the gridiron. We have had things like QB calls in the microphone before on the Nintendo Wii or a rumble that signifies a heartbeat on a field goal on old controllers, what’s here is another level beyond that in both clarity and feel.
Feel The Power
One of the most exciting parts about owning and playing games on the PS5 or Xbox Series X is simply the power of each system, and EA is aware of that fact. For next-gen Madden 21, that means blazing-fast load times.
Stadium intros will be much faster, MUT loading times are heavily decreased, and game load times are seamless and get the user into the action without losing the excitement or focus. Once the user experiences this on the next generation of systems, there is simply no going back to the past generation. If you have played next-gen NBA 2K21 by now, you know exactly what I mean.
This is a big deal, and I feel good about calling this out as one of the bigger improvements coming to next-gen Madden 21. One of the biggest complaints about the PlayStation 3 and 4, and Xbox 360 and Xbox One cycles — outside of gameplay and franchise mode — was the lack of realistic sideline representation in Madden. EA did try to hype up “living” sidelines on the PS4/Xbox One X, but it never really came together and matched up with what we see on TV.
That looks to be changing with the release of Madden NFL 21 next-gen. How? It’s simple. In the previous versions of the Madden HD era, the sidelines have been porous at best, and the players and details that were represented digitally lacked detail and, quite simply, made no sense.
In addition to the lack of depth and details on the sidelines, fictional players were often seen and the graphical quality of the players standing there was almost comical. While this has never had an impact on what was taking place on the field, it always had a disturbing effect on the level of immersion for me. On top of that, some of us on OS like to play from the broadcast cam, and the unrealistic sidelines are one of the few things that really drag down that experience from a realism and graphics perspective.
(As an aside, most folks don’t talk about Madden being one of the prettiest sports games, but playing from the broadcast cam I think would change a lot of minds, so as always we must make our obligatory call out and tell EA it really should focus more on this broadcast camera and invest in ways to make it work for a wider audience because it can only help EA in the long run.)
That is all about to change with next gen as now you will see an accurate and realistic number of players waiting their turn to hit the field, and if the offense is in action, you will see your team’s defense and backups realistically depicted on the sidelines. Not only will all the real starters and backups be seen roaming the white stripe, but you will also see some with eyes on the field, some will be watching game replays on devices and some will be huddled together talking.
To go even deeper in detail, along with all the real players in greater detail, you will see sideline equipment that matches what you see in a real game. There are benches for sitting, tables for stretching, players moving independent of each other and different types of personnel now roaming the sidelines. (However, no I have not heard anything about real assistant coaches being added here as of now.)
Unlike most sports in the US, football is being played in the snow, rain, sun, and wind and unless that weather is extremely dangerous, the show must go on. While the developers at EA have done a solid of delivering realistic weather impacts over the years, with a new generation of systems comes a new set of user expectations.
In next-gen Madden 21, users will now see snow realistically gathering on the field and on the sidelines. The game also delivers rain in a way that will see it collect and form on the field and sidelines, and saturate a player’s uniform and bead up on a player’s helmet.
During the presentation, there were a lot of scenes that displayed the new weather effects in-game and all of them looked great. Still, though, it must be seen over the course of a full game to know if the impact and visual immersion is truly at the level EA claims.
Deferred Lighting And Rendering
Most of you are probably asking yourself what the heck deferred lighting and rendering are, and don’t feel bad, as I was in that same position myself. DLR, for short, is the ability to put more light sources in more places and that is the backbone of delivering the rich, detailed, and authentic-looking stadiums and player models.
It all comes down to the power of each new console and what EA has tried to deliver with that power. Now players should see organic-looking day to night transitions. I saw this in real-time, and it looked as good as I hoped it would.
While the player scans that EA already used were mostly very good, the new DLR system will allow people to see a much more detailed player model, including better skin texture and reflections from in-stadium objects and player helmets.
It’s important to remember that in football there are many factors during a game that require different types of lighting. Whether that be day or night, time of year, indoor or outdoor, and sunny or with precipitation, and all these will factor into what lighting seems natural, and the new DLR system helps deliver that look in the most realistic fashion that’s available today.
Next-Gen Player Movement
This was probably the part that I focused on the most and came away the most excited about, assuming it plays out the way EA explained it. Next-gen player movement and realism are something EA is putting an emphasis on, touting new additions such as secondary animation details like muscle jiggle and realistic foot-planting and cutting.
The biggest announcement was that of the new “Next Gen Stats” driven player movement. Now it’s hard to get excited about words, but this is a newly implemented system where EA has access to a plethora of real-life data from speed, power, route running, and player movement and it now drives the actual animations in the game.
The information that is gathered comes from each player wearing a microchip in his shoulder pads and that information is then gathered on multiple levels. EA has access to that information, and by implementing it into next-gen Madden, the developers believe they can now replicate that in the game and have each player run and react identically to how they do on the field. Now, look, it sounds cool but this is still a video game and so the question is does this have a tangible impact on gameplay itself when you’re using a controller? I don’t have that answer because this was a hands-off presentation.
That being said, what I saw, albeit short, was impressive. If it plays out the way it is expected to and how it was presented, it could be a game changer for the franchise moving forward. Player movement playing out the “right” way has been a “white whale” of sorts for EA since we moved away from the PS2 era. No sports game ever quite gets movement correct every step of the way, but we’re always looking for that perfect fusion of simulation (foot-planting, physics, weight and momentum) mixed with the basic enjoyment that comes from very responsive controls.
Whether this new tech mixed with this new focus on player movement gets us close to that perfect fusion is a huge if, and it still remains to be seen if the small clips can and will deliver throughout the whole game.
On the more pure graphics side of things, new cloth technology will also have an impact on the look of the uniforms and reactions on the player models themselves. These cloth physics can be seen in real-time during the action while it unfolds.
Overall, there is a lot to consume here, and all of it could have a monstrous or minimal impact on the gameplay, so there needs to be some reservation here. I believe in what was said. I believe that the developers feel confident in what they were conveying. And I really liked what I saw. That said, I need to see more of it and in a longer duration.
If there’s one area where Madden clearly won’t match up to its next-gen competition, NBA 2K21, it’s here. I was impressed by the graphical comparisons and what was shown on the gameplay front with how the next-gen movement looks, but modes are still where this won’t feel like a “new” game. While 2K re-imagined MyPlayer and also tried to do something different with its franchise mode, Madden does not have a great selling point here on the new consoles.
For those hoping for something console-specific for the new generation consoles in terms of franchise upgrades, that will not be happening. Seann Graddy spoke specifically about this, and while he did say that two more franchise updates are coming, they will be across all platforms and the focus on the franchise mode will then switch to Madden 22.
While this may be disappointing to some, EA has at least mostly been clear this would be the case for months. For those who have not been following the news, this might come as a surprise, but for the rest of us, we sort of knew this was going to be the end result. I am not giving EA a pass here for this being the result, but it is not some major bait and switch.
EA has promised to look at ways to further the franchise experience in the upcoming years, and while nothing specific has been said about next year’s title or the years after, it is safe to say that doing nothing would cause another huge uproar in the community.
Next-Gen Madden 21 Preview – Bottom Line
After doing the Madden review for IGN last year and for Operation Sports this year — and having played this franchise since the initial release on Apple II — I would consider myself vested. I have seen the best and the worst, and I have been to many of these preview events. This one felt different. The presentation had real substance to it, and you could almost feel the confidence that each participant had when speaking.
It’s also one thing to try and read the room, but I also witnessed the game and its details for myself with my own eyes, and I came away with excitement about this franchise that I haven’t felt in years. I do think there is a reason that those involved in the presentation kept reiterating how they believe Madden 21 next gen will be the best football simulation ever. Now, I’m not buying that, but I’ll buy into the hype in the sense that the visuals, the details and the plan all give me hope for this year and beyond.
I don’t really have a doubt next-gen Madden 21 may fall short of the “greatest simulation” claim because the odds just are not on EA’s side here — and I don’t think most of our readers would be offended by my feelings there either. I simply don’t think there are enough new gameplay focuses that were mentioned or some new in-depth franchise mode that would drive the community to buy this Madden as the greatest of all time. For example, we didn’t hear about all new offensive line play, intriguing refinements to pass coverage or an overhaul of franchise mode — just to name a couple popular things that come up a lot.
All that being said, for the first time in a very long time, it feels like EA is trying to get on the same page as a lot of the folks who make up the OS community, and that is something worth watching for this year and beyond. Maybe next-gen Madden 21 is not the “be all end all” of sports games, but we look back on it a couple years as something that served as a foundation for a lot of important upgrades that came after it. After all, the tagline for my Madden 21 current-gen review this year was “execution not power is the problem here.”
Next-gen Madden 21 will be available to all who own a PS5 or Xbox Series X|S on December 4. For those who already own the current-gen version, that upgrade will be free.