Where can you go when you’re at the top of your game? It’s a question that challenges the best sports athletes in the world, but once you’ve been the best, for any period of time, there will invariably be a time where either your own abilities begin to dull, or someone new comes along to set new standards. The Madden franchise is having to once again answer at least a portion of that question this year.
2K’s more arcade-orientated foray back into American Football might still be a year or two away, but EA’s rendition of gridiron arguably reached a pinnacle three years ago, and after last year’s more pedestrian outing, fans were hoping for a return to MVP status. What we’ve got instead is a game that looks like it should succeed, but in the end won’t even make the playoffs. So, this year’s Buccaneers then.
Madden 21 unsurprisingly builds on Madden 20, so many of last year’s gameplay features return like Superstar X-Factors, as do the key modes of Ultimate Team, Face of the Franchise and Franchise. This year’s headline new addition is The Yard; an attempt by EA to return us to those days of arcade style American Football, evoking memories of NFL Blitz and NFL Street while you slam the pigskin into the endzone with impunity. The problem is, it’s not all that fun.
The immediate issue that you’ll face coming into The Yard, is that it doesn’t do an incredibly good job of explaining itself to you. As a mode that’s sat within Madden 21, built in the same engine, and with largely the same controls, you’d think it should all come fairly easily, but it just doesn’t. It’s seemingly more interested in letting you wear a fluorescent jersey rather than playing the mode itself.
Its 6v6 action streamlines the heart of American Football to its base elements, while bringing a few different gameplay elements (and customisation) in to liven things up. Primary to the way you play is your selection of Prototypes, which dictates your player’s skill tree and abilities. Fancy playing as a scrambling QB like Lamar Jackson? You get to pump your speed and finesse running to the max, while a Pure Passer like Aaron Johnson has the potential of utterly destroying an opponent with the passing game when fully upgraded.
Each setting has House Rules, so maybe you’ll score 10 points for a 40 yard or more pass, or perhaps the passing clock will be shorter. Games are generally limited to three drives each, so they’re a swift and light diversion, but ultimately, it all feels so inconsequential. It’s not wild enough to be what you’d consider a true arcade experience, nor does it have enough weight to have you coming back over and over again. The mild draw is that abilities you earn here can be used in the largely unchanged Franchise mode, and vice-versa. I know which of the two I’d rather be playing.
Face of the Franchise bring another dose of narrative-driven football, but it feels like a long time since the original Longshot episode brought some heart and compassion to Madden. What you are getting is the opportunity to play two seasons of NCAA College Football, which many fans have been crying out for in the absence of a dedicated game, but that’s tacked onto a linear path that you have to take with one of the most limited player creation tools in sports games. I guess it’s because they’re going to be wearing helmets most of the time? At least the performances are enjoyable enough and include a star turn from Snoop Dogg.
Ultimate Team is largely unchanged from last year’s outing, and while it’s still a compelling game of fantasy football card collecting, this year’s other problems have made it the first Madden game where I haven’t dropped any extra money into the mode. This is possibly one of the few things that might actually make EA think again when it comes to Madden 22 – but probably not.
When you’re actually in a game, Madden 21 plays as well as last year’s outing, adding in some further tweaks to make playing defence more involving. When you get it right, you can’t help but smile, dialling the satisfaction of a good tackle or a great running play up to 21 with excellent replay angles and audio feedback.
Presentation remains a strong-suit for the franchise, and Madden 21’s TV-style setup brings you closer than ever to a real game-watching experience. Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis simply sound like the voices of Madden at this point, and largely their play calling matches up well with the on-screen action.
Regardless of what the game gets right, Madden 21 is creakier than a log cabin in a hurricane. On Xbox One the most anxiety-inducing of these is that full, paid versions of the game keep telling players they’re playing the trial version. This happened to our review copy and based on similar reports on the Madden Reddit page, it’s not a localised issue.
Add in an array of gameplay issues, including players glitching through each other, invisible tackles that fell your runner when no one is near them, broken animations, and a number of weird QA failures that show the wrong team logo, or wrong team initials when you’re setting up and heading into a game, and the overall impression you’re left with is that Madden 21 simply wasn’t ready for release. Whether it’s the result of this year’s Covid lockdown hampering development, or that more time had to be spent prepping for the game’s cross-generation release, EA need to respond with some serious patches.