With the continual mess that is the current health pandemic in the United States, it’s hard to predict if we will even end up having a complete NFL season this year. Thankfully, the folks over at EA Sports aren’t going to let a little thing like a global health crisis get in the way of raking in those sweet, sweet, Ultimate Team bucks. Madden NFL 21 is back again with vengeance after last year’s middling performance, but can they manage to finish off the console generation in style or are we looking at another season of increasingly diminishing returns?
Madden NFL 21 Review – Punting on Innovation
It’s no small secret that the Madden franchise has been struggling to find its way for the past several years. Things tend to start off with a bang each generation, as the development teams excitedly try to make the best use of new technology. Unfortunately, these advancements tend to hit a plateau after a handful of installments, then grind to a screeching halt once they’ve reached feature parity with the last generation. We are well into the “dog days of mediocrity,” where innovation has stagnated in favor of ramping up for the launch of the PS5 version.
Before we start bagging on the areas that are still in need of serious attention, it’s worth mentioning that there have been a collection of advancements to the core “on the field” mechanics, that made significant strides in the right direction. For one, the “skill stick” controls that are utilized for the both the running game and newly-introduced linemen special moves have improved the experience dramatically. Jukes, spin moves, and side steps all feel far more organic and responsive, while also avoiding the series’ biggest pitfall of gameplay modification resulting in the impacted positions being overpowered as hell for the following twelve months. Simply put, these enhancements feel more like tweaks than true revamps, that make the moment-to-moment gameplay feel more organic and, quite frankly, fairer. Combining these improvements with the nerfing of the obscenely buffed linebacker play from last year, also helps make this feel like one of the better-balanced installments in recent memory.
Madden NFL 21 Review – Guard The Yard
In addition to the standard evolution of mechanics that are to be expected, there was one marque new mode added in Madden 21: The Yard. Think of this like a round of backyard football, featuring athletes with far better physiques than your average Thanksgiving pick-up game. This 6-vs-6 version of gridiron action is a fairly sharp deviation from the traditional Madden formula, resulting in a rather dramatic learning curve, at least early on. The more arcade-centric experience actually feels very akin to the 3-vs-3 mode that was added to the NHL series a couple of years back, minus the amazingly humorous announcing team.
Each squad is made up of a collection of hand-picked players from around the league that actually play both sides of the ball. For those who’ve wondered if Aaron Rodgers would also double as a good DB, look no further. Every different field, of which there are only a handful available at launch, also features their own unique set of house rules. It’s very important to be attentive to these differences, as they can also have a pretty fundamental impact on the approach to each game. Some of these variations include the number of passes allowed behind the line of scrimmage or the amount of time that is allowed before a defensive player can blitz the quarterback. The result is a chaotic hybrid of the traditional football, with a bit of NFL Blitz (the PS1 era version, not the PS3 reboot abomination) mixed in for good measure.
While The Yard is a ton of fun as an isolated experience, it does lack the depth that many will likely desire. That said, if you are booting up a 6-vs-6 pigskin experience and expecting true-to-life simulation, you’re probably missing the point. This could’ve just as easily been spun off into its own standalone mini-release, but it instead helps to add a bit of unexpected variation to a title desperately in need of fresh blood. Quite frankly, this is probably one of the only reasons why it wasn’t spun off. Let’s just hope that some of the unlockable content being trickled out throughout the year will result in an expansion of the playbook or a few more ways to leverage the new mode, aside from the odd pick-up game.
Madden NFL 21 Review – Put on Your Game Face
One of my favorite punching bags in previous years was the much-maligned Face of the Franchise mode. Though it started off strong a few seasons back, the bloom is very much off the rose, so to speak. In prior iterations the focus was on a handful of curated experiences throughout the player’s transition between high school and into the college game, essentially coming to a halt early on in an NFL career. This time out, there seems to be less focus on the lower levels of the competition, and more attention is paid to the overall narrative arc of an entire career.
Speaking of narrative, boy is this a fustercluck of the highest order. It seems like no matter how your player performs, there is virtually no impact on the storytelling whatsoever. For example, it doesn’t matter that I ran up the score in the first game of the season and threw for 7 touchdowns. At the end of the game I was still benched and forced to spend a majority of the season watching from the sidelines. Surely being the MVP of the National Championship game would’ve secured me a starting spot for my senior season, right? Fuck no! Either this head coach is the biggest dipshit in the history of sports or your rival has him in his back pocket.
Players are forced to fight their way through increasingly unconvincing roadblocks, that would make virtually no sense in the real world. I understand that there needs to be some manufactured drama in order to actually have a story to tell, but there has to be a more organic way to accomplish this, without trivializing everything that happens between the whistles blowing. Plus, it doesn’t really help matters much when the dialog and facial animations are about as unconvincing as Adam Sandler performing Shakespeare. Something needs to be done to pull this meandering mess out of a tailspin, because simply adding more colleges to choose from isn’t the innovation that is very desperately needed.
Madden NFL 21 Review – Fumbling on the Goal Line
Many of the common complaints from last season, such as the lack of love being shown to the franchise mode, are still VERY present. Despite being far and away the most-played mode year-over-year, it has again been relegated to the bottom of the upgrade heap. If it feels like nothing has changed in years, it’s because virtually nothing has advanced since 2018. It’s hard to say if they’re simply afraid to touch the mode in fear of alienating the dedicated fan base, but it is very similar to what baseball fans are experiencing in MLB The Show’s stagnant “Road to the Show.” I realize it is scary to touch something that is beloved by so many, but there really needs to be some form of an evolution, otherwise the audience is going to start to turn sour.
Ultimate Team is also in the same boat as the franchise experience, plus it has the added frustration that it’s advertised every-goddamn-where in the UI. It’s just as wallet-violating as ever and an unnecessarily pivotal part of the experience. Good luck trying to avoid it, because the pre-game tutorial literally FORCES you to jump into MUT in order to proceed. This probably goes without saying, but much like every other installment it has appeared in, it feels dirty throughout and leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Probably the most shocking aspect of this outing is the level of polish that the overall product seems to be lacking. Everything from sluggish menu navigation to the pre-kickoff animations showing zoomed in shots of a player’s crotch instead of their personal celebration animations, there just seems to be far more issues that are not addressed in the Day 1 patch, than in prior installments. And that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to quirky behaviors. I actually had a game where, for some godforsaken reason, all of my defensive and offensive playbooks were reversed. I thought it was a silly bug that would work itself out after an offensive possession of being forced to guess what play I was actually running, because I was selecting from a 4-3 defense instead of the actual offensive play. Amusingly enough, when I went on defense, the same issue was present, except now I was looking at offensive plays instead of defensive alignments. Hopefully this was a one-time issue, because I was never able to recreate the oddity again, but it did take a hard-reset to resolve the bug.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, Madden NFL 21 feels very much like the byproduct of a game being developed in a vacuum, devoid of any true competition. Why bother reinventing the wheel when you are the only person manufacturing them? This lack of inspiration feels like a breeding ground for many of the franchise’s biggest complaints, most of which have been festering for far too long. It’s a good thing that the next generation is on the horizon, because without that new tech boost to hang their hat on, there’s nothing substantial enough to recommend this fumble over last year’s outing.
Madden NFL 21 review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.