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Next-gen sports games get subtle, solid improvements

Next-gen sports games get subtle, solid improvements


Madden, NBA 2K, and FIFA all look better — but is that enough?

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One of my favorite things to do whenever new consoles come out is see how sports games run on them. It’s not that I necessarily expect them to be all that different on more powerful hardware — quite the opposite, in fact. Since sports games tend to depict enclosed, fixed environments and need to have perfectly smooth performance every year, they’re normally stable and reliable whatever system you play them on.

If you look at FIFA, NBA 2K, and Madden, for example, they already run at native 4K and 60 frames per second on the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X — a pretty rare achievement for most games on those machines. But that means when it comes to the PS5 and the Xbox Series X, 2K and EA have had to figure out new ways to make the next-gen versions stand out. I’ve been playing the 2021 versions of all three games on the PS5, and they’ve all taken different approaches to making the most of the new hardware. 

First and foremost is how you actually get a hold of your copy. EA is offering free PS5 and Xbox Series S / X upgrades to anyone who bought the PS4 or Xbox One versions of FIFA 21 or Madden 21, but it’s not automatic. You need to go to the console’s respective store to get your next-gen version. 2K, meanwhile, has decided to make NBA 2K21 an entirely separate product for next-gen consoles, meaning you’ll have to buy it regardless of whether you own it on other platforms.

The next-gen version of NBA 2K21 has a totally new UI for the series and much faster loading times. It feels a lot sleeker and flashier than the functional but occasionally clunky menus that the game had made use of in recent years. 2K21 on the PS5 and Xbox Series S / X also has an ambitious new open-world multiplayer hub called The City that lets you explore multiple boroughs with your created player.

Madden 21 has also had a UI overhaul, particularly for the play-calling system, but much of EA’s most vaunted improvements are under the hood. The company says it’s making use of NFL’s Next Gen Stats — an NFL initiative that has nothing to do with next-gen consoles — to increase the realism of movements, animations, and replays for specific players. 

FIFA 21 has undergone the most evolutionary next-gen upgrade of the three, with a near-identical UI to the last few last-gen versions. The most immediate difference you’ll notice in gameplay is the new default camera, which pans as well as moving on rails in order to better replicate the TV broadcast camera used in most stadiums. I like this option and plan to stick with it, but I’m not sure why it took so long — or why it required a generational power increase.

All three games make use of the PS5 DualSense controller’s improved haptics in various ways. Both NBA 2K21 and FIFA 21 increase the resistance on the right “sprint” trigger when players get tired, which I’ve found pretty useful as someone who sometimes overuses the feature. 2K21’s use of the left trigger to convey defense pressure is a little less successful. It just feels loud and clunky as opposed to helpful feedback. And while Madden 21 uses the haptics effectively to convey the impact of catches and tackles with finer detail, I noticed the DualSense most when audibles were called through its speaker.

The graphical updates to these games are fairly similar across the board. All three run in 4K and 60fps on the PS5 and Series X, as expected, and the biggest improvements are in assets, crowd detail, and, above all else, lighting. The games all handle light in a subtle but much more natural and realistic way, making the last-gen versions look flat when you return to them. It’s particularly effective in FIFA, which does a better job of capturing the atmosphere of a stadium than ever before, even when you’re watching the crowd celebrate with the same animations you’ve seen in rotation for years.

‘NBA 2K21’ is the best-looking game of the bunch

NBA 2K21 is the best-looking to my eyes, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering the more intimate nature of the sport and its broadcast presentation. Many of the player models have seen huge improvements, and graphical effects like sweat and skin shading make them look more realistic than ever before. The one area where I wish there’d been an improvement is right at the start of every game: it still runs at 30fps as the camera zooms in for tipoff and continues for the first few seconds of the possession, which is still pretty jarring when the game ultimately shifts to 60. 

One issue with all of these games is the uneven degree to which they’ve updated the player models. For example, it was understandable that Raptors guard Matt Thomas looked like a generic create-a-player in NBA 2K20 because he was a fairly obscure player that Toronto plucked from the Spanish basketball league last off-season. But he ended up carving out regular minutes in the Raptors’ rotation throughout the year, so it’s a little disappointing to see him with the same model in 2K21

FIFA 21 has similar problems. EA seems to have spent a considerable amount of time on a lavish (and admittedly impressive) re-creation of Lionel Messi’s increasingly voluminous beard, and every high-profile Champions League star looks just as good. But as a Southampton fan, I don’t see much year-to-year improvement in the player models. Striker Che Adams looks absolutely nothing like the real guy, for example. I know Southampton aren’t the biggest club in the world, but come on. This is a Premier League-topping team. (Briefly.)

The COVID-19 pandemic could well have affected EA and 2K’s plans for asset creation, so I don’t want to be too harsh here. Xbox boss Phil Spencer suggested to Business Insider back in May that sports games might be more affected than many others, and it’s easy to see why that may have been the case. Between national lockdowns, the NBA bubble, and the quick restart of the upcoming season, I don’t really know when someone like Matt Thomas would have found the time to get his face captured. But it does stand out in the final product.

NBA 2K21 was also the victim of unfortunate timing, given its initial last-gen release in September halfway through the playoffs. Normally, this date would be just in time for the start of the regular season, but instead, NBA fans picking the game up at the next-gen consoles’ launches had to deal with a league where the draft never happened and Russell Westbrook was still on the Rockets. 2K did put out roster updates last month, but not in time to stop me from needing to orchestrate a complex trade just to replace Serge Ibaka with Aron Baynes on the Raptors for maximum authenticity on my save file.

It’ll take a while to properly appreciate the differences in how the new versions of all three games play. Sports titles get countless updates and balancing tweaks on a year-to-year basis, so it’s hard to say right now whether any of the differences I’m feeling are the result of that or a more fundamental shift in how the games will be handled going forward. FIFA feels a little slower to me, for example, and I feel like I’m having more success with crosses and set pieces than before, but I’m not going to call that a pronouncement of fact just yet.

Overall, the next-gen upgrades to Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K are fairly subtle but appreciated nonetheless — particularly in the case of the EA games, where they’re a nice bonus for anyone who would’ve bought the PS4 or Xbox One versions in the first place. If you’re an annual player of any of them, then you’ll see a nice bump for the new hardware. But if you only occasionally play sports games, now might be a good time to check back in. Substantial new games are often thin on the ground after console launches, but any one of these is a solid demonstration of what next-gen systems can do, and you could easily play them for a year or more.

At least unless Russell Westbrook somehow gets traded again.