Since 2013, there have been whispers on sports-game-focused forums that the Madden NFL series hasn’t and will never feel as great as its former counterpart, NCAA Football. These allegations always seemed to point to the unneeded gimmicks applied to EA’s NFL titles. When one-hand catches were the craze, there was an overdone emphasis on them in Madden 16. Fast forward to last year, when Madden 20 became plagued by constant fumbling and standstill defensive backs.
Now, though, I can say for sure that Madden 21 is the first of the current-generation titles that ignores all trendy arcade gameplay in favor of a new raw, methodical experience not seen since the likes of NCAA Football 14.
A game changer
It’s never said outright in marketing materials, but it’s clear when playing that the gameplay has received a major overhaul. It’s much more of a barebones feeling – but for the better. With the scrapping of all gimmicks, you finally have to depend on small-ball strategies. This is no longer a series that lets you pick up and throw a 50-yard pass on a whim. Like a game of tug-of-war, teams fight for each inch of the field, resulting in you having to outthink defensive schemes.
This is what made the NCAA Football series so special and now continues with Madden NFL 21. You feel like you’re slowly learning how to become a halfway decent offensive and defensive coordinator. That being said, CPU-controlled players – whether opponents or teammates – are wicked smart. Of course, player ratings still matter, but buggy oddities like idle corners or tackles no longer exist.
Player movement, though, is absolutely the highlight of the game. No matter what positional player you are, no analog-stick move, such as a juke or big hit, is done half-heartedly. For instance, there was a moment where I attempted to hurdle a falling but tall linebacker. Although my receiver came close to knocking into him, he spread his legs out even further to avoid a collision. That sort of shock-and-awe achievement feels like a serotonin high.
In sum, without any bugs or inconsistencies, it’s fair to say the Madden series is already making that next-gen jump before even landing onto the new consoles.
Old modes, old ways
The game does face a lack of new content in returning modes. It’s not like this wasn’t expected, as EA Sports’ has promised fans that major improvements to Franchise Mode wouldn’t come until after its release. However, modes like Ultimate Team and Superstar KO see virtually no changes from previous installments’ iterations.
Ultimate Team does implement a new system where Superstar cards’ abilities will have to be unlocked and improved with Ability Points, an in-game currency of sorts. This will shrink the competitive gap between star-stacked teams and average ones, as stars will need more time to reach their full potential. It’s a welcoming idea for beginners and star chasers, but it may not be enough to gnaw on for 12 months, aside from the typical weekly challenges.
Rookies take the field
In most media, sports-focused tales are those of the cliche underdog variety. Madden has been guilty of it in the past, but this year’s Face of the Franchise finally dodges this trope. Through high school, college, and the NFL, you continuously compete with your injury-plagued teammate, Tommy Matthews, for the worldwide spotlight. As the two of you slowly start to become friends, media outlets and coaches try to tear you apart, making for some intriguing cutscenes. It’s what I believe to be the first worthy sports plot in video games, with help from guest appearances by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Rich Eisen.
Aside from narrative and gameplay improvements, Madden 21 will forever be remembered for The Yard, a new 6v6 outdoor mode. Although it was originally believed to be a wrench in 2K’s arcade NFL game plans, it’s more of a love letter to EA’s own street football past. Its fast gameplay is reminiscent of NFL Street, with behind-the-back passes and lateral pitches, among other absurd trick plays to pull off. The mode’s soundtrack even includes some of the fan-favorite tracks from the defunct EA Sports Big series. Away from the field, there are small offline and online components, where you’ll complete challenges in a number of venues around the world.
Unlike other modes, there’s a limited amount to do so far in The Yard, and it’s heartbreaking, as this mode is Madden’s best new offering since Ultimate Team. There’s a handful of surprisingly fashionable clothes to work toward, giving you a fair amount of replayability, but it’s not quite enough. Altogether, it’s a stellar debut mode, so much so you’ll be eager for more features within a month or so of playing.
As a package, Madden 21 has succeeded beyond what was expected during the pandemic-affected development process. Pandemic or not, though, returning modes are almost complete mirrors of themselves from past games. Luckily, The Yard and Face of the Franchise carry their weight with ease. More importantly, the upgrades on the field are something that simulation enthusiasts have starved for, and it marks the title as one of the best in the series.
8.5 / 10
|+||The Yard brings its own fulfilling personality.|
|+||Upgraded gameplay delivers a much-needed level of immersion.|
|+||Face of the Franchise finally reaches its prime.|
|–||Ultimate Team sees record-low new material.|
|–||Franchise Mode and Superstar KO are spitting images of Madden’s predecessors|