This Madden 21 review was always going to be a little tricky to me. This year’s release is a bit different as fans, players and developers weren’t sure if there was even going to be an NFL season — and technically we still are not sure. Add in the complications of having to work remotely because of a global pandemic for the development of any game — let alone a high-profile AAA title like Madden — and it’s easy to say things are certainly abnormal this cycle.
On top of all that, we know sports developers are working on next-gen iterations of these titles so their development time is probably a bit divided. And even beyond that element, Madden had an especially rough marketing cycle here as the #FixMaddenFranchise element of things also clearly threw off some pre-release plans.
In short, there is always going to be a lot of rigid hype around a Madden release, but I came into this hoping for the best while expecting some issues. So now that you know where my head was at going into this, let’s get to the Madden 21 review.
Madden 21 Review: What I Like
I feel like this is a yearly song and dance at this point (and this goes for multiple sports games from EA and beyond) where the initial game that is released shows decent to strong improvement on the field during beta testing and the first few weeks of release, and then the complaints roll in and patches start to invade. That’s typically when I start to lose interest because a selective unnamed group of Madden “players” need it patched to fit their style. I am hoping that cycle doesn’t continue this year because the improvements and refinements have Madden playing and moving around the field as good as it has in quite a few years.
To put it another way, please fix the bugs but don’t try to tune the game for at least 3-4 weeks. Give everyone time to play it and see what needs some work from there.
Anyway, let’s start with the quick agility and weight of the players. There is an improved weight to the players as you move them around the field, and it’s a noticeable improvement at that. Even players who are smaller in stature like the Bears’ Tarik Cohen or the Panthers’ Tommylee Lewis move around with some nimbleness but still have a weighted feel to their foot planting, which makes a big difference when making sharp cuts to move upfield or when avoiding defenders.
That feeling isn’t just reserved for the smaller players as all players have some real weight to them. When you add in the actual player ratings, which seem to make a bigger difference this year, the movement on the field passes the eye test, and it feels just as good maneuvering them around with a controller.
Beyond the player movement, the animations have also taken a step forward, which helps create an authentic look on the field as the action unfolds in myriad ways. Receivers push off in subtle ways, defenders try to consistently locate and defend the ball, and the collisions have an impact that can be felt.
Even with all the positives, there are still too few penalties, even on simulation mode. Zone defense can still be erratic and head-scratching (at times), and quarterbacks are still too accurate for my liking. As always, Madden provides sliders that can adjust and help correct some of the issues, but I played on default All-Pro with zero adjustments for the review. In general, though, the gameplay has taken a solid step forward, and hopefully this bodes well for future releases on the upcoming next-gen hardware.
Whether I fired up Madden 21 on PC, PS4 or Xbox One, the truth of the matter is the game looks great on every platform I had access to. The stadiums pop, the uniforms and players look just as good in most cases, and the environments around each stadium during pregame and team introductions look equally impressive. While we’re nearing the end of a generation and there is perhaps some fatigue setting in with the graphical glass ceiling being hit, Madden developers are doing what they can to suck every last bit of juice out of these pieces of hardware.
In fact, I would even say if you watched this game from the broadcast view, you could get a stranger to think it was real if they just looked at it at a glance.
(As a side note, the Madden developers really should invest more in thinking of ways to get the game to be playable from some sort of modified All-22/broadcast custom camera that is workable for actual gameplay. Madden truly does pop so much more when it’s in the broadcast view versus the standard behind the QB camera view.)
When you include the newly rendered additions of SoFi Stadium and Allegiant Stadium of the Rams and Raiders respectfully, and the neon splattered addition of The Yard, Madden looks as good as ever. When you couple the fidelity of the game with the refined player movement, Madden 21 really does leave the generation on a graphical high note.
All that being said, some rookies still have generic faces, there are some issues with jerseys and player names, and there’s some missing field art, but my suspicion is most of these issues will be easily corrected with a patch. Lastly, I don’t think all the changes to the presentation are necessarily for the better. Some of the intros don’t hit quite as well as some of the old ones for me, and in general I still think more could be done to make the game feel like a TV-style broadcast, but the graphics (and by proxy the commentary) are not the main issues here.
If you haven’t been keeping up to date with the current development of Madden 21, EA has brought a new mode into the fray. The Yard, which according to EA’s own JP Kellams (a producer on the mode) was created and developed with the goal of conjuring up memories of our first experiences with football, and more so, the type of football we used to play in our backyards. In his own words, JP describes it as a place “where end zones are the end of a parking lot or a tree line and Mississippi isn’t just a place, but a rule.”
The Yard allows you to create an avatar, gear him up with items that are available or unlockable (the cosmetics are purely cosmetic, they don’t give attribute boosts so it’s not pay to win), and hit the field with two of your friends, the AI or the mix of both for a game of 6-on-6 backyard football. The game offers up six different prototypes, and according to Kellams, the reasoning is because “you can’t always play quarterback.”
So, The Yard allows you to pick different types of players and build up each type. The whole goal in the end is to have all six maxed out. which will allow you to hit the field in any capacity at any time.
I was also lucky enough to sit in on a closed-door presser about The Yard before the game came out, and the reasoning behind the new mode holds up now here at launch. First, JP wanted a mode that was accessible for those who may only be fringe fans of football and have limited experiences in how the game plays out when on the field. He also wanted to give those from all skillsets, mode types and ages to be able to play together and just enjoy a game of Madden together.
All of that seems solid, but delivering an experience to match the vision isn’t always that easy. Thankfully, from the time I spent with The Yard, it does an excellent job of delivering just that. It’s a fun, quick paced, over the top game of football without being bothered by all the rules and concerns. I do have some worries about its longevity or whether it has the legs to keep people engaged over the long haul (Superstar KO also ran into a bit of this issue to me), but it passed the first test of at least being fun to scope out for a couple hours here and there.
The Yard matches you up against opponents, so if it’s only you playing, you can do so against the CPU, or against another team with only one human opponent and five NFL AI-controlled players. Since I had a review copy, I stuck with the single-player experience and played only AI, but even with that approach, there was a lot of bone-crunching fun to be had. Your player moves quickly and responds in that same fashion — because he must.
With backyard rules in place, running through your progressions as a QB isn’t always easy and it forces quick decisions to be made, which creates a lot of chaos but in a fun way. For instance, as QB you can choose to run a standard pass play before finding an open receiver and hitting him in stride. Beyond that, you can also flip the ball to someone else to act as QB or choose to run the ball yourself — after “one Mississippi” of course. Each team has three possessions, you can score points in multiple ways and not all are considered standard. There are multiple locations and fields to play on in The Yard, and each one has a unique look and feel and look to it, with even more to be delivered after the initial release.
I’m actually going to start off here with a positive note on franchise mode, which I know is heresy, but just give me a second here (don’t worry, I’m actually going to do another franchise mode section in this review). EA’s inability or willingness to touch “classic” franchise mode is well documented, and while every bit of the disgruntled residual feedback that EA is receiving is deserved, I still do love franchise mode.
While most of what is included in franchise mode is old hat for veterans of the series, there is still something special about taking over a franchise that you love (or even like just a little) and guiding them through the ins and outs of an NFL season and offseason year in and year out. I also readily admit that I I tend to also play in online franchises. Things are better with friends, and online franchise mode is certainly no exception to that rule.
Watching players develop, contribute and occasionally finding that “underachiever” before turning him into a viable every-down player still hits close to home. Scouring the draft-eligible players and trying to find that one guy that no other GM is looking at still delivers excitement for me.
Yes, only a few menus look different and very few scenarios have been added, but what helps keep franchise mode from being straight up buried for now is the previously mentioned gameplay.
Nevertheless, yes, I would love to see new additions to franchise mode as much as anyone. There are so many talented people in the community discussing the ways which they would improve the mode (and have been for years), so we can only hope EA follows through on its promises this year and beyond. In the meantime, (online) franchise mode is still where I will spend most of my time with Madden 21.
Madden 21 Review: What I Don’t Like
Face Of The Franchise
Let me start by saying that I love the idea of Face of the Franchise (I liked the initial portion of it last year even), but the execution of it feels weak and poorly thought out, especially the story aspect. Without giving too much of the story away, your created player starts off high school and is faced with the struggles of redemption, morality and loyalty. Let me also say that playing in high school and college is as awesome as it sounds, and each level delivers an authentic feeling that just reinforces the idea of how awesome a college or high school game would be to have in our rotation right now.
It’s after that where things unravel a bit in Face of the Franchise. It’s also where most of these modes have started to unravel with Madden’s story-based experiences, which probably isn’t a good sign for a story mode. (Story-based stuff is even more a personal experience than even gameplay to me so if this stuff hits with you then fair enough, it just usually has not with me over the years — and the same goes for most of the NBA 2K stories as well while we’re on the general topic.)
The story that takes you through your journey to the NFL is extremely linear, and worse, it’s a bit thin and simply didn’t resonate with me. To be clear, I’m not saying a linear story couldn’t work or we must be provided with limitless options. I’m simply saying the story didn’t land for me.
The best I can do is think back on my playing days in high school and college, and this story just never struck that close to home for me, which I assume was the goal here. Even if we take the story out of the equation, the mode just feels disjointed and a lot of what is said, or promised, or told to me and the other characters in the mode didn’t play out that way. On top of that, regardless of how solid or disheartening my effort was on the field, the results seemed like they were the same.
To phrase it a different way, the story is almost entirely disjointed from the gameplay. Even looking beyond how little of what you do changes the end-result, you also control more than just your character a lot of the time when playing the game, which also seems out of step with the point of the mode. Oh, and your character is mostly unlikable on top of that, which doesn’t really help things. On some level, it’s actually kind of bold to make the protagonist this unlikable, but I’m not sure everyone will enjoy being loathsome and obtuse at times.
Face of the Franchise in Madden 21 was solid in concept but feels like a step back for the idea, especially considering how much I enjoyed the same mode in last year’s version (before it fell apart after the initial story beats and you got to the “regular” Madden gameplay). Regardless of my player’s input, there was a path that I was being forced down, and that path was full of options that just did not make sense in many cases.
Franchise Mode — Again
Look, I told you I was coming back to this after the initial broad strokes of positivity. The fact is these two franchise mode sections aren’t mutually exclusive, and if ever an argument could be made for doing this sort of double dip, it is with Madden 21 and its franchise mode.
If you have been playing Madden for the last half-decade or so, then you know all too well that the changes and improvements have been minimal — at best. As soon as I heard EA was rebranding the mode as Classic Franchise, I knew that meant the changes would be, you guessed it, minimal.
Again, a few new scenarios and some new equipment have been added, but if you played Madden 19 or Madden 20, then trust me you have already played Madden 21‘s franchise mode.
Promises have been made that franchise mode will be more of a focal point moving forward — and ideas were exchanged — but nothing is imminent in terms of things that will have a true impact on the mode in the near future.
Bugs And Glitches
This one seems fully expected. Sports games in a general sense can be quite buggy at launch even during a perfect year, and I think most of the gaming community understands the difficulties that most developers are dealing with moving development totally online during the pandemic, especially when factoring in the next-gen hardware that looms on the horizon.
That’s not making excuses for any development team, but in fairness, we as a community have to recognize the difficulties this cycle and I give a little more leeway than usual on this front. That said, as much as I enjoyed the tangible improvements to the gameplay itself on the field, the sheer number of glitches and bugs that are currently present in the game are hard to overlook. There is already a patch that deals with some of them, and they don’t appreciably change my outlook on the game, it’s just something that should be mentioned.
Stuff like the missing field art, missing rookie player names and colleges being described incorrectly by the commentators, and lag during the kick meter bring the game down a little, but these are also things I can clearly identify as easily fixable. With stuff like disjointed player animations and weird ball physics, it’s harder to assume they’ll be easily corrected, but I can hope for the best there.
Madden 21 Review: Bottom Line
Madden 21 delivers some solid improvements on the field in terms of gameplay, animation and player movement. We are talking about a football game so those improvements have to count for something.
The problems arise in saying that this is a must-play title for someone. There are some new menus, a new mode in “The Yard (which is great), a rather weak and linear story in Face of the Franchise, and some smaller albeit tangible improvements in other areas. However, there isn’t a lot for people to get excited about that feels entirely new.
The franchise mode has remained untouched, Face of the Franchise feels a bit contrived and while Madden Ultimate team is still firing away, even that doesn’t feel entirely fresh. Heck, even The Yard has a few issues right now in its genesis.
At this stage, EA has chosen the path of “stick with what works,” especially as the next-gen hardware awaits. On some level, I actually do think that’s a good path. I’m not as down on the general path EA is taking here with gameplay in the last couple years. But by that same measure, it doesn’t feel like next-gen is the thing holding back this franchise. In many ways, it just feels like a game that needs to re-center and re-focus on creating more depth in the areas that already exist. Face of the Franchise could work, it just needs better execution. Franchise mode could work if they just invested in making it the non-linear, game-driven interpretation of the game we love and watch every Sunday.
A lack of computational power is not the problem here. Next-gen graphics and physics (while great) are not the missing ingredient here. The ideas and the execution of those ideas feel like the broader issues at play here.
All that being said, if you understand that and simultaneously understand that Madden 21 offers up a good game of football between the lines, then there is something here for you. If you’re looking for Madden to be more than that this year, then just wait until next-gen to see if it’s improved, or wait until the game has a big sale/hits EA Play.