As the current console generation winds down ahead of the launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series X, EA has launched the latest iteration of their iconic Madden NFL football franchise for the older consoles and PC. Predictably, the game remains largely unchanged from what was delivered in previous years, though it contains enough new additions and color changes that the publisher could justifiably argue that it was not a simple copy and paste job. Fans hoping that EA would finally throw a bone to simulation-focused players will continue to go hungry while the microtransaction Ultimate Team bonanza remains the focus for another season.
The real Madden curse
This review will probably not be a huge surprise to anyone who read my thoughts on last year’s “Madden NFL 20.” My primary gripes centered on a lack of innovation, deviation from simulating the real NFL product, and its unrelenting drive to sell card packs for the Ultimate Team mode. “Madden NFL 21” remains the same, save for some minor on-field adjustments and the inclusion of a new mode called The Yard. If you’ve played “Madden NFL 17,” you will find the graphics, gameplay, commentary, menus, and franchise mode to be identical, save for some superficial alterations.
As the centerpiece addition to this year’s game, The Yard presents the already arcadey Madden NFL gameplay in an even more casual light, eschewing many of the standard rules and conventions that make up the foundation of football. Akin to the Volta mode that will be arriving for “FIFA 21,” The Yard is a faster-paced caricature of its sport. Games are composed of 6-on-6 matchups and have customizable avatars and wild uniforms. Playing in this mode will reward players with in-game currency that is used to acquire more cosmetics. Playing The Yard will also accrue points toward your Madden Rank if you complete the listed daily objectives.
In a vacuum, The Yard is not a bad way to waste time. It has some of the same appeal that made NFL Blitz and NFL Street bonafide hits back in their day. The way players interact on the field and how the moment-to-moment Madden gameplay operates feels more at home in this mode than it does trying to simulate the real sport. I fully expect EA to continue to offer new content and items for The Yard over the next year in the same way they do for Madden Ultimate Team. Sadly, this means even less attention for the things that football fans may value more.
EA talked a big game earlier this year about how the Franchise mode was important to them and they understood what the core Madden fanbase wanted from them. They posted a blog explaining their plans for Franchise mode with some sample fixes that would be welcomed for sim fans but seemed like stuff that could have easily been patched into the series years ago. They’ve made similar promises in the past and in the last year, sim players waiting for meaningful franchise updates instead saw the release of neon-drenched nonsense like the Superstar KO mode featuring celebrity cameos. Now that “Madden NFL 21” has arrived, it is safe to say that the promised fixes have not made it into the game for launch and, once again, fans will have to hope EA finds time between making new Ultimate Team Cards, The Yard outfits, and presumably some garbage new mode where Guy Fieri helps you train cheerleaders to eat chicken wings at competition level for some dumb online mini-game distraction.
Franchise players can expect the exact same menus (in some fresh new colors!), same player progression, same lack of contract management, lack of relocation depth, lackluster scouting process, and lack of training camp. Thankfully, the useless Scenario Engine returns, and EA was cool enough to recycle the same exact boring text from last year, word for word.
The in-game menus and overlays have some new fonts and colors, which would be enough to temporarily distract me from the pain of how recycled they truly are, if not for how bad most of them look. Everything from parts of the opening cinematic to the front-end and in-game overlays has this awful compressed video noise that manages to distract you each time it appears. At first, I thought my install may be borked, but I saw it in other players’ videos, so it had to be intentional. The new pre-game intro section, which is really the only change to the in-game presentation this year, is full of fullscreen video cuts and overlays that are rotten with the previously mentioned video artifacts.
Referees were once again deemed to be unworthy of making the on-field cut this season, only appearing in short cutscenes where they call penalties. Sadly, like the previous fifteen Madden games, only some types of penalties will ever be called, making me wonder if integrating the actual NFL rulebook into this game was ever an actual intention of the publisher. As uneventful as it may be, the coin toss is also still needlessly absent.
Madden Ultimate Team returns and you will be showered with pop-up ads to come check out new cards every time you open the game or are enough of a masochist to attempt to read the various loading screens. The mode remains unchanged, with a focus on assembling a super team to take online for head-to-head battle. The cool part is how you can spend countless hours to finally build up a team that potentially has the chance to compete with elite squads that other players just bought outright with their credit cards, only for EA to dump all-new cards part of the way through the season that are much more powerful than any others previously in existence. Now you can start the struggle all over again, or whip out that credit card. C’mon, buddy. It’s easy, just spend a little more.
Face of the Franchise returns for another year of awful cutscenes and a fresh, nonsense narrative where the game pretends that your choices or actions actually have some material effect on how situations may play out. Following the tradition of previous Madden game attempts at a career mode, this one has a few celebrity cameos, including the T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick. Patrick plays your college head coach that constantly breaks promises and uses emotional manipulation to ensure chaos in his own locker room and actively tries to sabotage his own team’s chances at a national championship. Unlike last year, this groan-inducing farce manages to continue after you get drafted into the NFL, so you get the chance at more bad cutscenes once you become a pro.
As I spent my time with the PC version of the game, I’d like to note that EA has once again failed to utilize any advantages provided by the platform to improve the game, outside of support for higher refresh rates. There is still loads of lag and unresponsiveness in menus and during game situations that make no sense. I experienced stuttering at random times across all modes, including hitching during active kick meters or when trying to complete passes. Sometimes, these hitches corresponded to dropped frames and other times not. There still remains loads of visual stutter every time the game swaps between what you control and between-play camera cuts, even when everything is running at 144Hz.
Just so I don’t sound like the most miserable person on Earth, I will note that some positive things happened between the release of “Madden NFL 20” and “Madden NFL 21.” After years of complaints, EA has introduced some new animations that will allow the cyber football pros to try and extend the football farther toward the goal line or first down markers when being contacted. These new animations do work to alleviate some of the most frustrating moments I’ve had with Madden over the last several years. I do sincerely hope that the next-gen Madden starts off with these rather than require players to wait seven years into the console generation to implement. Graphically, the player models look nice in 4K, even if they are nearly identical to what we got in Madden NFL 17.
4th and long
At the end of the day, “Madden NFL 21” is only worth a look if you want in on Ultimate Team or you were turned off by its attempts at being an NFL simulation and are looking for something even more arcadey. Sim players will once again feel neglected and disrespected. The ball carriers will still inexplicably slow themselves down to be absorbed into tackle animations against the commands of your controller input and wide receivers known for <0.5% drop rates will still drop 6 passes a game. This is the same game in which this year's competitive championship match (sponsored by EA) featured a player who never tossed a single pass because the broken gameplay favored exploiting the running game. Yeah, you can now designate which type of celebration your defensive player will perform after a sack, but the camera cut only focuses on the quarterback getting up, so you won't actually see the celebration. This is the attention to detail we've come to know and love from the Madden NFL series. Might as well let EA punch us in the gut for another season. This review is based on the PC Origin release. The game key was provided by the publisher for review consideration. Madden NFL 21 is available for Origin, Steam, Xbox One, and PS4. Next-gen versions will be released sometime later this year. For the latest information about videogames, visit http://www.shacknews.com.