Every year a new Madden NFL game comes out, and every year the marginal improvements and new additions feel like just enough to keep the series moving forward. This year, however, things feel a bit different in Madden NFL 21. Despite the introduction of the surprisingly fun and unique The Yard mode, the list of persistent issues, neglected features, and new annoyances is growing quite long. So even though the underlying moment-to-moment football gameplay has continued to make progress with its fine-tuning refinements, just about everything else is underwhelming — including technical performance.
It’s easy to be dismissive of annual sports games by saying they look and play the same every year because, to some degree, that’s true. Changes have been noticeable but minor ever since the series moved to the Frostbite engine in 2017, so everything has stayed relatively consistent, for better and for worse. As usual, when you’re playing a game from the typical zoomed-out camera perspective, Madden 21 looks fantastic. Stadiums are true-to-life, character models are extremely detailed, animations look smooth and responsive, and overall it’s got a sharp design that feels cutting-edge and primed to make the free upgrade to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X later this year. Once you get up close, though, player faces are often stiff and awkward and the fans in the bleachers still look like low-poly cardboard cutouts. EA has repeatedly missed opportunities to graphically polish these areas that could really use it.
Similarly, the NFL pageantry around each game is still lacking. The pre-game highlight reel is full of players awkwardly celebrating even though the game hasn’t started yet and it’s missing the vast majority of stat blocks and recap cutaways you typically see during the actual NFL broadcasts Madden strives to simulate. On a related note, the half-time show is basically non-existent, especially in Franchise mode where its absence is especially conspicuous. A narrator will summarize a handful of games from around the league, it’ll show a couple slow-motion highlights from your game, and then it’s right back into the second-half kickoff. Where’s the actual contextual commentary on what happened and how each side could improve? Where’s the broadcast booth or analyst desk with commentators and interviews? Or at least something to fill that void? It all feels unfinished, which is disappointing considering how much this aspect has been lacking for several years and it was done better in much older games like ESPN NFL 2K5 or even in Madden NFL 10. Instead, it’s the same old song and dance.
It’s also been notably buggier than normal. Even after the first patch, playing on PlayStation 4 Pro, performance issues have made things incredibly frustrating across the board. During kicks I experienced framerate drops so extreme that it often resulted in missed field goals and terrible kickoffs through no fault of my own. During the Face of the Franchise campaign mode, Madden NFL 21 would hang up at loading screens after games, requiring me to quit out to the PS4 dashboard and start it back up multiple times. (Thankfully, my progress saved.) Classic Franchise mode often stuck at the player upgrade screen as well, also forcing me to reboot. Visual glitches have been minimal, but the performance hiccups made it extremely difficult to settle into a flow. I’ve also seen other miscellaneous issues like my opponent randomly mirroring my entire team or textures tearing across the screen.
When things are running smoothly on the field, moment-to-moment gameplay feels a tiny bit faster than last year, with more precise animations for things like jukes and spins. As a ball carrier, using the right ‘Skill Stick’ feels more dynamic and fluid for pulling off evasive moves and overall blocking seems more realistic. Runners plant their feet well and make decisive cuts, so it all adds up to really satisfying goal line moments on both offense and defense. Last year it was far too easy to run over anyone and everyone if you knew what you were doing, but this year running lanes are narrower and require following blockers more precisely. This is also the first entry in recent memory that lets me throw the ball away relatively easily without taking a cheap sack.
The way the ‘Skill Stick’ change works here also makes it far easier to combo together moves really fluidly, so you can prepare a stiff-arm right after a spin, for example, without breaking animation or waiting for the spin to finish. Madden NFL 21 still relies heavily on a canned animation system rather than actual inverse-kinematics physics simulation, so it’s easy to spot repetition, but the smoothness of it all is great.
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On the defensive side, pass-rushing as a lineman is a much deeper experience than in previous Maddens. There’s an entire new Pass Rush ability system for the defensive line that includes new moves to help navigate blocks. Offensive linemen have new skills at their disposal as well.
Also on the defensive side of the ball it’s much harder now — as it should be — to play linebacker. In Madden NFL 20 it seemed like every linebacker in the league could run down speedy receivers and running backs while making superhuman leaps into the air to intercept bullet passes out of nowhere. If you know Madden well, you could cover the entire field with just an average middle linebacker. But while throw trajectories seem about the same this time around (generally too flat and low compared to the actual NFL) linebackers are thankfully toned down in effectiveness, with far fewer impossible-seeming moments. Defensive backs are much more aggressive on the interception front this year, to a point of near comedy with how quickly they can react and clamp down on curl routes or catch up to deep post routes. So if you play on All-Pro or All-Madden you can expect to throw more picks than you’re used to at first.
Two of the best additions from Madden NFL 2020, X-Factor and Superstar abilities, are back again this year, with a few new ones thrown into the mix. Superstar abilities are special attributes for stand-out players that enhance certain skills, such as Inside Deadeye, which grants perfect accuracy on normal throws inside the numbers on the field. X-Factor zone abilities, on the other hand, are almost like super powers when you activate them. For example, Ezekiel Elliot has the Freight Train zone ability that’s activated by having three rushes for over 10 yards; once live, it puts Zeke in the zone, giving him an increased chance of breaking tackle attempts but also makes him get knocked out of the zone if he’s tackled for a loss. I like the extension of this feature because it incentivizes leaning on star players and leveraging their strengths — every team has powerful players like this, so strategies revolve around activating zone abilities and keeping them running. In the actual NFL players have a tendency of gaining momentum and taking over a game, just like this, so it’s a believable and fun imitation of that.
A Face Only A Mother Could Love
This year’s version of the story-driven campaign mode is called Face of the Franchise: Rise to Fame (as opposed to last year’s QB1: Face of the Franchise), and it’s a genuinely bad story built around a paper-thin illusion that your actions and choices matter. You start all the way back in high school as the backup quarterback to local legend and rival, Tommy Matthews. Matthews is voiced by Tye Sheridan (best known as Cyclops from the recent X-Men movies) but the character is written in such a way that I can’t help but roll my eyes anytime he shows up. Everything centers around Matthews’ health condition and your internal struggle to support him and the team or capitalize on the opportunity to take over. Performances feel phoned in, animations are poor, and some of the most crucial scenes are inexplicably devoid of all voice acting.
One way or the other, eventually you get a shot at the limelight, go on to become a star in college, and enter the Rookie Combine and NFL Draft. Playing NCAA games again, albeit briefly and fragmented, was a real treat — except that nothing matters. You can intentionally tank every game and not complete a single pass, yet still get drafted because off-screen you lit up the scoreboard. You’ll even get a chance to force your preferred team to pick you if you’d like, or switch positions to running back or wide receiver.
Face of the Franchise does do one smart thing: the story doesn’t stop when you get to the NFL. Unlike last year, story moments continue to pop up over the years as you play through a sort of highlight reel of your career while your character discusses the key moments as a narrator in an interview. It’s a good format that keeps me coming back for more, even if the writing is extremely clunky with awkward cutscenes. However, your rival, Tommy Matthews, is all but non-existent after you reach the NFL, which comes off as a huge waste of resources and potential.
Bring All The Boys to The Yard
The big new mode this year is called The Yard, and it has proved to be a bright spot in Madden NFL 21 even if it comes at the expense of other modes. At first glance it seems a bit like NFL Street or NFL Blitz, but it’s actually nothing like those at all. Instead, The Yard is a completely new way to experience American football: a 6v6 mode that pits superstar-caliber players against one another in a ludicrously silly but oddly captivating backyard game. The closest comparison would be that it’s trying to emulate how you may have played football with friends at school during recess, with fluid rules, lots of movement, and everyone lining up on both sides.
There are no quarters or time limits here, and the field is only 80 yards long. Each side gets three offensive possessions, starting at their 20-yard line, with a 1st-and-20. There are no kickers so it’s always four-down territory and when you give the ball back, it goes on the opponent’s 20. To make matters even more complex, you can hike the ball to any player on your team and you can throw behind the line of scrimmage multiple times. You even get bonus points for interceptions or for throwing a TD after already passing it once. Heck, you can even go for three after a TD by lining up from the 20-yard line!
With so many new and unexpected rules to learn The Yard is extremely jarring at first. On top of that, players dress up in bright, flashy clothing instead of typical uniforms, giving it a more jumbled look, and every person on the field is a top-tier talent at their position, which makes the margin for error even slimmer than usual. Giving up a big play usually results in a touchdown and, with only a handful of possessions to count on, coming back from a big deficit early on is extremely tough.
Much of the gains The Yard makes in ingenuity, though, it gives up in its lack of depth. Other than unlocking a handful of customization cosmetics and experiencing the thrill of beating a stranger online, there isn’t a whole lot to it. You can play solo or in team games with and against other players, but there isn’t a Franchise structure or League format to go through other than a handful of stadiums with unique rulesets. It plays out like a tutorial for a deeper, more involved mode that never materializes. I enjoyed The Yard for what it is — a nifty distraction from the real core of Madden — but it doesn’t have enough meat to satisfy on its own.
Crafting the Ultimate Team
Not much is new this year with Madden Ultimate Team (MUT), meaning you’ll still see advertisements for microtransactions in loading screens and feel pressure to try it constantly, even if you have zero interest. If you’re unfamiliar, the gist is that you open random packs of sports cards that each represent NFL players of today and yesteryear, and those cards make up your team — like a living, breathing fantasy squad. You’ll iterate and expand on that team over the course of the year by earning new cards through completing challenges, playing against other MUT squads online, and so on.
The premise is cool enough — basically merging the NFL with Collectible Card Game (CCG) ideas — but it’s so riddled with microtransactions it’s hard to enjoy. Taking your team online invites unfair-feeling matchups against the legion of diehard fans that drop tons of money on building the best team as quickly as possible, and you’ll find your progression painfully slow if you opt for going the no-cost route. It’s a tedious grind that will all be erased when Madden NFL 22 comes out.
The only really significant change to MUT this year is how abilities are capped. Previously, you’d find yourself limited to only selecting three offensive and three defensive players to equip special abilities, but now each ability has an Ability Point (AP) cost and you’ve got an AP cap for offense, defense, and special teams. This allows you to be more flexible with balancing your team and customizing it just right.
Other than that, the onboarding experience is a bit better as well, with the inclusion of Rivalz, which is like a series of Arcade-style challenges to help jumpstart your team right out of the gate.
Packs can get quite expensive as well. An All-Pro gold fantasy pack lets you pick two of five shown cards that are 75+ OVR or better for 500 points, or around $5 USD. To get 11 Clutch packs, which each contains a single 80+ OVR player and five 62+ OVR players is nearly $60 — literally the cost of another game. EA will also sell you massive 24x Gridiron Bundles that include dozens of high-level cards for 12,000 points. But don’t worry! You can save $20 and get that many points for just $100. As shocking as those prices are, it is at least entirely optional. The new challenges help alleviate the grind slightly, although it still takes far too long to reach parity with players that have deep pockets.
The Yard also features optional microtransactions, but fortunately these are entirely cosmetic and the amount of in-game currency you earn is much more balanced here than in MUT — it even scales with your player rank very evenly. Progression is fine in this mode, but it’s still notable that real money has wiggled its way into this one too.
Speaking of the core of Madden, Franchise mode is once again relegated to background status and completely neglected. In Madden NFL 21 the main classic Franchise mode is almost identical to last year, all the way down to the menu visuals and on-screen layout — and that means it’s almost identical to Madden NFL 19, as well. It’s like a case of deja vu, all over again.
Last week you may have read my op-ed about the state of Madden’s classic Franchise mode. I wrote that before playing Madden NFL 21 but everything still stands true. Other than expanded Wild Card rounds to match actual NFL rule updates, new X-Factor abilities that were added this year, and more authentic rookie contracts, it is literally identical to last year, with only vague promises of patches over time as a “live service” to look forward to. It’s a shameful lack of attention for what is, historically, one of the franchise’s most-played modes.
Instead of focusing on the mode that actually lets you take over the career of a player, coach, or owner in the quest for Super Bowl victories, EA has shown a continued allegiance to cash-cow features such as Madden Ultimate Team and now, The Yard, which features additional microtransactions in spite of its lack of depth.