I think it would be fair to say that 2020 has been a difficult year. COVID-19 has disrupted all aspects of society and has drastically altered how we approach any and every social situation. Typically, sports would serve as an outlet for the public to engage in, but even that has been difficult. Three of the four major leagues have just recently ramped up, and we are still waiting on the NFL to resume normal operations. Even with the league being in a state of upheaval, EA Sports’ stalwart franchise must roll on. Madden NFL 21 is about as normal of an NFL experience fans will get this year, so the pressure is on more than usual.
Of the major sports franchises out there, perhaps none have assumed the role of perennial whipping boy quite like Madden. Even as a fan of the series, it’s hard not to see why. The gameplay tends to only make incremental improvements each year, and with Ultimate Team soaking up most of the attention, other favorite modes have gotten the shaft. This has led to people claiming that every annual release is typically nothing more than a roster update, which I do think is unfair to say. However, there are two major development hurdles the team at EA Tiburon had to deal with this year. The debut of new consoles was undoubtedly going to play a role in the development cycle, but also the challenges presented by COVID-19. For a series that already deals with intense scrutiny, these factors probably didn’t help.
With that out of the way, Madden NFL 21 brings another batch of incremental gameplay improvements. After revitalizing the pass offense and defense side systems, EA Tiburon has been plugging away at the ground game over the past few iterations. As the ball-carrier, the new Skill Stick system lets you chain together moves in a much more fluid fashion. It’s far easier to now combine different maneuvers, such as jukes and stiff-arms in one run than it has been in the past. The Skill Stick also plays a role in defense. Pass rushers have unique tactics that can be pulled off by using the Skill Stick engine. This is designed to give an edge to talent like Aaron Donald and Chris Jones so they can be as much of a force on the digital field as they are on the real one.
When it comes to on-the-field gameplay, Madden NFL 21 is still a cut above average. I’ve held this opinion since the passing mechanics and underlying systems got revamped, and it’s even better this year. Maybe it’s me, but I think the Skill Stick system is an effective and fun tool to use for both offense and defense. Blowing past defenses with a shifty back like Tarik Cohen is both exhilarating and easy enough for any player to pull off. And as mentioned, I really like the game-breaking abilities afforded to top-end defensive players now. There’s a reason that coaches will gameplan for these players, and it only makes sense that EA would find a way to work that into the series. It may not be a year of complete change, but considering what was here was already solid, I’m not going to complain too much about that.
It’s a shame, though, that pretty much every other aspect of the title can’t match that same quality. From the assorted modes to the performance on consoles, it’s a definite downgrade from the past few years. The big addition to this year’s suite of modes is The Yard. A throwback homage to the dearly departed EA Big and NFL Street, The Yard is a 6 vs 6 showdown of yard ball. Each player has a role on both offense and defense, similar to how it would be if you were playing with a group of friends. With its modified set of rules and sped up gameplay, it’s definitely a mode suited for those that may be getting bored with the traditional Madden experience.
The Yard does offer up enough changes to feel like it’s its own thing. The scoring has been changed, with extra points being rewarded depending on how risky you want to play. Each team only gets three possessions with the ball, so scoring is a must when you are on offense. The lack of a proper offensive line means you need to be snappy with your decision making, so get ready to utilize more than one pass if you have to. It’s a solid enough time, but not necessarily one I see myself coming back to repeatedly. I think my main issue is that the gameplay still uses the regular Madden engine, which isn’t really suited for this kind of arcade heavy style. It’s like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. I’m also not particularly interested in the rewards earned for winning games, which consist of various cosmetic upgrades. Earning new gaudy uniform designs is just not something I care to spend my time doing.
Face of the Franchise is back for Madden NFL 21, and with a completely new story for players to take part in. Like many similar tales, the story begins with the player character being coerced into joining the high school football team. This puts you in direct conflict with the current signal-caller for the team, Tommy Matthews. However, after the starting QB gets benched, it’s up to you to come in and save the team. Eventually, Matthews returns in a new position, and the two of you learn to thrive. From there, it’s off to college, and eventually the NFL. A very familiar path for the tale to take.
I don’t say this lightly, but Rise to Fame may be the worst story in a recent sports game. It’s terribly written and filled with decisions that make no sense, and having to lug around the dead weight known as Tommy Matthews is a pain in the ass. He’s the worst, and the fact that EA tries to make you care for him is absurd. He’s a total dick pretty much from start to finish, and I’m baffled as to why he plays such a big role in the story. That’s just one of the many questionable decisions the story makes, though. Here’s another — why does it seem like you can only get drafted by the Bears? Or why do you only play a few games a season, including a stretch where I played the Packers five times in a row? It’s a terrible, awful mess that I wish I could drag more, but I don’t want to totally spoil all of the abysmal twists and turns it takes.
That’s really about it when it comes to major new additions for the year. Both Madden Ultimate Team and Franchise are more or less the same as they were last year. There are minor changes here and there, such as updated post-season rules, but both are largely unchanged. At this point, the book has been written on Ultimate Team. You are either down for the card-collecting extravaganza or aghast at the litany of microtransactions found in it. I do enjoy building up my team, but it’s hard not to get annoyed with the lure of paying extra being front and center. I also enjoy Franchise mode, but I do think it needs some refreshing. EA has promised that they are working on improving it, but until then, there’s not much else to talk about for now.
A day-one patch has helped mitigate some of the more major issues, but this is one of the buggiest entries in the series in quite some time, and problems can be found throughout different modes and game types. The most glaring issue, in my opinion anyway, is how laggy the menus are — it seems like the game drags any time you move to something else on any menu. This is especially noticeable in Madden Ultimate Team, a mode where you spend as much time in the menus as you do on the field. Face of the Franchise also has some noticeable bugs, such as the player’s college being listed incorrectly, and the college championship trophy disappearing mid cutscene. When it comes to on-field issues, there’s lag to be found. Most of it occurs during pre-game antics and sideline interactions, but a few times it did pop up while I was attempting PATs. Again, maybe it’s due to outside circumstances, but there are an unfortunate number of issues here.
Madden NFL 21 feels like a title that desperately needed more time in the oven. From the modes stuck in their old ways to the litany of bugs, it seems like it would have benefited from another month in development. And I know that would never happen due to August being known as the month of Madden, but stranger things have happened. With that said, I still find the title to be enjoyable to play, and The Yard is an interesting take on the series’ formula. Over the next few months, I know it will get better, but for the time being, you might be better off sticking with last year’s version.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Electronic Arts.