It’s a yearly tradition. School starts for millions of children, signs of fall are in the air, and the fall video game release season is kicked off with the release of Madden. Electronic Arts’ NFL behemoth has long had an exclusive hold on the NFL license, and that has caused some discontent among fans. Each year’s iteration brings some changes, and Madden NFL 21 is no different. However, are the changes in Madden 21 enough to please fans dying for a deeper experience?
Madden 21 offers a full suite of game modes for fans to enjoy, whether they prefer a solo experience or playing with friends. Series mainstays like Franchise, Ultimate Team, MUT Squads, MUT Draft, and Online Versus have all returned in Madden 21. In addition, Face of the Franchise has received an overhaul and the all-new mode The Yard is introduced, giving players a fast-paced 6v6 experience. Each mode has had its tweaks and adjustments, with some being more impactful than others.
How Does it Play?
At the core of any sports video game experience is gameplay. In sports games, no amount of modes or frills to modes like franchise can save a game from a poor gameplay experience. Madden 21 continues to build on previous years while adding new skill moves and expanding on the X-Factor and Superstar abilities introduced in Madden 20.
The running game, which was absolutely dominant in Madden 20, has been adjusted for realism in Madden 21. Outside runs will no longer result in frequent 10+ yard gains. While running the ball is no longer a sure thing, it is still effective if done correctly. Madden’s development team deserves credit for not overcompensating by completely nerfing it – something that has happened in the past with other adjustments.
New to Madden 21 are the improved skill stick controls. Offensively, you can still juke, spin, and truck like always. New moves like the jurdle (what Madden calls the the juke and hurdle at the same time) and dead-leg are introduced to the skill stick controls in Madden 21, giving players more options for evading tacklers in the open field. Defensively, pass-rush mechanics have switched to the skill stick for Madden 21. Gone are the days of simply pressing X or A to perform a rushing move. Now, players will need to master timing of both the triggers and skill stick to get to the quarterback consistently.
Tackling has also been changed up this year, with Breakdown Tackling being introduced. The idea behind it is that players will get in better position to make an open-field tackle, wrap up the ball carrier better, and turn Madden into less of a big hit parade – instead, giving players a more accurate feel and rhythm to games. Conversely, ball carriers will instinctively reach for that extra yard regularly.
Great, But Are Those Changes Good?
The result of these changes is an experience that feels different but not game changing. Tackling feels more realistic, and skill stick moves feel more intuitive after getting past the newness of it. Still, Madden 21 would feel largely the same if that was the extent of the changes.
The biggest game changer in how Madden 21 plays is the AI improvement. This year, opposing AI teams will learn how you like to play and adjust their game plan on the fly to counter it. Like calling the same play all the time? Watch the AI call audibles to defend it perfectly. Like using the same pass rushing technique all the time? Watch the offensive linemen adjust and shut you down. This goes a long way towards accomplishing two things in Madden 21. First, it makes games against the CPU more challenging. Second, it forces players to learn new strategies and become better overall players.
So, What’s New This Year?
Leading the charge of new additions to Madden 21 is The Yard, a 6v6 mode in which teams compete in a small, fast paced environment inspired by backyard football. The mode can be played solo or with up to two friends cooperatively online against another three opponents.
The Yard is chaotic, but in a good way for fans that enjoy a more fast-paced experience than the standard simulation football game. New trick play animations like behind the back passing, snapping the ball from anywhere on the field, and more give The Yard a unique identity that you won’t find anywhere else in Madden 21.
Adding to that unique identity are the gear and locations that can only be found in The Yard. You’ll be able to show off your avatar’s style with a large selection of gear that helps your player stand out in any crowd. You and your friends will be able to bring your individual looks into each game, meaning teams won’t have the same uniforms. This can be slightly confusing at first, but I was able to get past that pretty quickly.
Locations like Lambeau Tailgate, Brandenburg Football Festival, Miami Port and more bring a fresh feel to The Yard in comparison to the rest of the modes in Madden 21. New locations can be unlocked as you progress, taking your avatar to all new places around the world to show off your skills.
I Just Want To Hoist the Trophy
If you’re looking to live out the fantasy of leading your favorite NFL team to Super Bowl glory, then the revamped Face of the Franchise mode is for you. Begin as a teenage backup quarterback with big dreams at a school that you can completely customize down to the mascot. You’ll start as a backup for star quarterback Tommy Matthews and attempt to lead your team to glory and gain the attention of college scouts.
Once signing day arrives, you’ll have your choice of 10 FBS universities to choose from. Face the challenges of dealing with a new coach and teammates as you try to define yourself as a star at the college level. Madden 21 gives you two seasons of the college experience before heading off to the draft combine and the NFL Draft itself. At the combine, you’ll even have to show your abilities on the mic during a big time press conference. NFL GMs will be evaluating your every move.
Madden 21 attempts to add more depth to Face of the Franchise by introducing story lines that are ripped from the real headlines surrounding the NFL. Part of the issue with previous iterations of this mode is that it felt largely like a glorified practice mode much of the time. New, deeper story lines sometimes add a lot of weight and tension to how you perform, and that is a refreshing change.
One of the best investments made in Face of the Franchise is the cast. Tye Sheridan, Robert Patrick, Snoop Dogg, Rich Eisen and more lend their talent to Madden 21, giving instant credibility to a lot of the interactions in Face of the Franchise. Anytime you can have the man who is the T-1000 and Agent Doggett in your game, you’re doing well.
For fans who love Face of the Franchise, Madden 21‘s version is a definite step in the right direction. For those who buy Madden for Ultimate Team or Franchise, it might give you more reason to play it this year. Face of the Franchise is definitely better in Madden 21, but I still find myself wanting to play other modes more.
Can I Just Play As My Favorite Team?
One of the most popular game modes in Madden every year is Franchise. One of the most disappointed fan bases every year is fans who love Franchise the most. The feeling that EA focuses heavily on Ultimate Team and pays little attention to Franchise has long frustrated loyal fans.
Well everyone, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that change is on the way. The bad news is that you’re not going to see the bulk of it until 2021 or 2022. It really isn’t all bad for Madden 21, though.
Franchise mode in Madden 21 features the expanded playoff system to match the real-life NFL changes. In addition, player feedback has resulted in a commitment to real-time adjustments to Madden 21‘s Franchise mode throughout the season. At launch, Franchise mode will include revamped rookie contracts to more accurately reflect what happens in the NFL, as well as all of the new Superstar and X-Factor abilities too.
Throughout the season, EA Sports has committed to supporting and improving Franchise mode in Madden 21. This will include improvements to trade logic, AI team management, tuning, and commissioner tools. It’s not the deep, immersive experience that players were hoping for – but it’s a start. EA has also committed to more significant changes for Madden 22 and Madden 23.
Perhaps the most impactful change to Franchise mode in Madden 21 is the Live Playbooks 2.0 feature. Live Playbooks updates each team’s playbooks for accuracy in both Play Now and Franchise modes. Now, when your favorite team adopts a new set of plays or a new scheme, it will be reflected in your season experience. It is a relatively minor but nice addition that enhances the experience for hardcore fans. If you like every last detail about your team to be right, you’ll appreciate this addition.
Ultimately, Franchise mode is the same Franchise mode you’re used to. Take your favorite team to the Super Bowl against the CPU or up to 31 of your closest friends. It is still fun and still a great experience. It will just be next year before you see any significant alterations.
Build the Ultimate Fantasy Team
The undisputed powerhouse of Madden, Ultimate Team, returns this year with some new elements in Madden 21. Ultimate Team allows you to build a team using player cards that you acquire from completing solo challenges, online events, and yes, spending your hard-earned money on packs. In past years, it was easy to get sucked in to spending a lot more money than you’d care to admit on things like legend pack bundles, elite bundles, and so on. The barrier to building a good, competitive team isn’t quite as bad this year, but it’s still high.
Can you build a 90+ overall team in Ultimate Team without spending money? Yes, you can. However, it will not be easy at all. It requires a lot of time and skill, so if you like playing a lot of different games this won’t be for you. In one sense, it makes it more rewarding to finally get that amazing team. In another, it can be seen as a way to encourage spending more money.
To get you off to a good start in Ultimate Team in Madden 21, there are solo challenges that actually do reward you with good players upon completion. Completing the Rivalz challenge will get you an 85 overall rated player, and completing the Team Captains challenge will allow you to choose from one of four high-80s rated players. Finally, NFL Epics challenges will allow you to earn four 85 overall rated players. All of these can be done in solo mode, and all of them are relatively easy to complete.
From there, you’ll need to round out a competitive team. There are many ways to earn better players for your team. One is to play games in head to head seasons, earn coins, and buy better players in the auction house. Another is to complete sets that reward you with high overall players. Of course, a third is to spend real money on pack bundles that guarantee at least some highly rated players to add to your team.
Another way, and a pretty fun one at that, is to take part in the MUT Draft and MUT Squads competitions, both of which are returning in Madden 21. MUT Draft consists of a multiple round draft to select a team and then playing online and climbing the wins ladder. Getting to the top before the maximum amount of allowed losses will get you some really nice rewards. Lose too many games, and you can re-draft and start over.
MUT Squads puts you on the same team as two friends using segments of each of your Ultimate Team rosters. One player will bring their offensive roster, another will bring their defense, and the third will bring their special teams and playbooks. The more games you win together, the better rewards you’ll all receive.
The Rest of the Story
Online versus is also back in Madden 21, and it’s as fun as it’s ever been. Take your favorite team and play against another user in a competitive match. The usual downsides exist – you’ll only be playing against the same three teams all the time and defending a lot of the same glitches – but competitive multiplayer adds a level of fun and intensity that single player modes often can’t match.
Menus are usually clean and crisp in Madden NFL, and Madden 21 is no exception. It is easy to find what you’re looking for, and the presentation is bright and appealing. Music is about the player’s preference, but if you don’t like the soundtrack you can still select the NFL music as your soundtrack too.
In-game presentation feels familiar in a nice way, and new lines have been recorded. Still, I feel that a shakeup to the broadcast team would be a welcome change in coming years – maybe for the first truly next-generation version in 2021? I feel that a true broadcast presentation would go a long way in an NFL simulation game.
Finally, if you plan to purchase the Xbox Series X, Madden 21 gets a free upgrade to the next-gen version if you buy a Series X before the release of Madden 22. All of your Ultimate Team and Franchise progress will carry over with the next-gen version, too.
Madden NFL 21 adds some new elements while maintaining a sense of familiarity that is comforting in sports simulation games. Animations still dominate the game play experience but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Do some annoying glitches still exist? Absolutely. Is Madden 21 still fun. Sure is.
Madden cornerstones like Franchise and Ultimate Team bring die-hard players back for more in Madden 21, while The Yard and a revamped Face of the Franchise give players new experiences. Hopefully, the new modes will continue to be supported and expanded upon throughout the game’s life cycle. They have a chance to bring in new players – especially with The Yard.
In the end, Madden NFL 21 offers an improved game play experience with a more realistic running attack and better AI opponents. The intensity of competitive multiplayer is still there in Versus, Ultimate Team, and Connected Franchise. However you like to play, Madden 21 has a mode you will probably enjoy. It’s not a perfect football sim game, but it’s the one we have right now. And while it’s not perfect, it’s still pretty good.
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Note: Electronic Arts provided a copy of Madden NFL 21 to us for the purpose of this review.