It’s been a long time since I’ve been impressed by a Madden game. With each yearly iteration, the only licensed NFL game on the market has grown more and more stale over the years, and this year’s current-gen release did little to change that with a shallow new arcade-style Yard mode and the same old copy-pasted archaic Franchise mode. Madden has been long overdue for a big shakeup.While I’m still not convinced that the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions of Madden NFL 21 are going to include big enough changes, what EA showed me during a virtual presentation of the upcoming built-specifically-for-next-gen version has at least restored confidence that they may be on the right track. There are some massive updates coming when next-gen Madden releases for PS5 and Xbox Series X on December 5 — this is far more than just a more visually polished port of the same game.
The cornerstone of the PS5 / XSX version of Madden NFL 21 is the integration of Next-Gen Stats. If you’re unaware, Next-Gen Stats is an actual real-world technology that utilizes RFID chips in player shoulder-pads to provide accurate, real-time analysis of their on-the-field performance. This means things like speed, acceleration, and overall body movement are now directly and accurately available to EA Sports when creating Madden games. This should allow for way more authentic animations, more accurate stats, better route-running, better ball carrying, and generally a complete overhaul of every facet of gameplay.
During the presentation they showed a side-by-side example of a receiver running the exact same route in Madden NFL 21 for last-gen and Madden NFL 21 for the new-gen consoles and the difference was immediately clear. Instead of instantly bursting to full-speed, acceleration was much more gradual and labored. The receiver’s body leaned realistically to build momentum and when he made his cut in the route to go across the field, it wasn’t a sharp 90-degree angle like the play art draws it up; that’s far too robotic and was the way Madden always did it. Now, receivers run more rounded routes that aren’t as precise lines that allow for more nuance and variability.
Another good example shown during the presentation was with a running back taking a hand-off. In the existing version of Madden they stand upright while accelerating all the way until they’ve made contact with the defender and get taken down. Now, you’ll see the running back lean their body to build momentum and react to incoming impact more realistically.
The developers on the call described it as more realistically entering and exiting animation cycles, but not necessarily always brand new animations. They said there are thousands of new animations added across the game, though, so hopefully it’s something that is easy to notice from the moment the ball is snapped. Everything from general AI pursuit of ball carriers, realistic reactions to the ball trajectories in the air, pass leading, player head tracking, blocking, the run game, and more is getting tweaked.
According to EA Creative Director Connor Dougan, the aim is to make the new-generation version of Madden NFL 21 to “feel like a completely different game” with “a gameplay experience that feels as close to NFL football as possible.” It’s taken over two years to build this new version of Madden, reportedly.
Madden NFL 21: PS5 and Xbox Series X Screenshots (November 2020)
The changes don’t stop at the core foundational level of the game, though. There are a multitude of smaller updates for things fans have been requesting for years that add up to this feeling like an actually next-gen version of the game, unlike in past transition periods.
Thanks to the increased horsepower of the PS5 and XSX, one of the most exciting updates (in my opinion) is a total overhaul of the crowds and sideline players. I can’t stand how everyone in the stands looks like a cardboard cutout or how every player on the sideline is nameless with generic low-quality faces and body models. They felt like such an afterthought.
I didn’t get to see what these changes are, but the developers have claimed they’re all getting big overhauls. Specifically, crowd-based celebrations will finally be possible, like the Lambeau Leap in Green Bay, and players on the sidelines will actually be the correct players based on who is or isn’t on the field. So if you’re on offense as the Buccaneers driving down the field with Tom Brady, defensive players will be on the sideline and actually react to people getting knocked out of bounds.
Madden NFL 21: 5 New Screenshots
Play calling is getting a big update too. All of the Next-Gen Stats tracking will dramatically enhance this, but specifically, you’ll now be able to mark plays as your ‘favorites’ for quick access (THANK GOODNESS!) and even choose plays based on who the key, featured player is. So if your top Wide Receiver just activated their Superstar ability and is super hot at the moment, you can switch to the section of the playbook that emphasizes getting them the ball rather than having to flip through formations and routes to find something suitable.
The last of the more “minor” updates I want to highlight is the in-game replay system. If you’ve played a Madden game at least once in the last five years you know that the way the game handles replays and highlights is not great. Rarely does it actually show the best plays and the camera angles make it impossible to tell what’s actually happening. Thanks to Next-Gen Stats, that seems to be changing.
Just like in real NFL games, now we’ll see more cinematic and analytical highlights that display stats like the amount of time spent in the pocket, how far the ball traveled, how long it was in the air, player speed, etc as pop-up stats overlaid onto the replays. These will get triggered mid-game for special big play moments and sound like a huge upgrade. Unfortunately though, the halftime and post-game shows are unchanged and still awful.
The Future of Madden
All of these updates sound really, really awesome. As an NFL fan that has been playing Madden for decades, this has me more excited for Madden than I have been in a very long time. If EA pulls it off correctly, this will end up being the biggest change to the gameplay in years.
Even though it seems like a good start on things, there is still a lot of work left to do and things people are going to be wishing for. Create-A-Team is still absent, you can’t make your own plays, and not only is there no cross-platform multiplayer, but there won’t even be cross-generational multiplayer either. So if you get it on PS5 you can’t play with people on PS4. Given how dramatically the moment-to-moment gameplay seems to be changing, that isn’t very surprising, but is still a bummer. That being said, Madden Ultimate Team and Franchise mode data is supposedly going to carry over between versions.
Finally, remember that players will be able to upgrade to the next-gen version of Madden NFL 21 at no charge for one year — once Madden NFL 22 releases, the free upgrade from PS4 to PS5 and Xbox One to Series X goes away.
David Jagneaux is a freelance writer for IGN. Talk sports games with him on Twitter at @David_Jagneaux.