It’s hard to imagine a world without football. Even in a pandemic-ridden world, it would feel unequivocally weird to have September Sundays come around without the chance to watch hours upon hours of America’s most popular sport. It’s a constant that gives a bit of comfort and hope at the same time every year.
In the same way, the Madden series is a constant in itself. Every year, its newest version evolves the formula and makes changes to improve the feel of the game, but it never strays from its core football simulation. Madden NFL 21, though, starts to confuse being a constant with stagnation. While it adds a major new mode and tweaks its core emphasis, its changes to the existing formula make it feel more like a glorified update than an entirely new game.
"Madden’s flagship new mode this year, The Yard, is the poster child for the shorter, non-traditional football game, trying to mirror the backyard football games you’d play as a kid or as an adult at a tailgate."
One of the most noticeable changes for this year’s Madden is its much heavier emphasis on players, specifically the sport’s superstars. The X-factor system, initially implemented last year to give specific players special super abilities to match their real-world talents, is expanded to include dozens of new abilities, which are activated when you complete a minor in-game task specific to the player.
These are still great ways to not only add small missions inside the larger context of a game, but also to highlight the best players on a team and give a quick sense of who’s the best of the best. Activating Lamar Jackson’s ability to scramble always felt like I was truly running in the shoes of an MVP, even if he sometimes comes a bit too close to feeling like a cheat code. Even loading screens rotate through a handful of the game’s superstars and give breakdowns of their talents.
"While Madden NFL 21 adds a major new mode and tweaks its core emphasis, its changes to the existing formula make it feel more like a glorified update than an entirely new game."
Two of Madden’s newest modes take the star power to the next level. Superstar Knockout, which came into Madden 20 after launch, pits you against an online player in a single overtime matchup. The twist comes in choosing three superstars to headline your team. You can choose to stack your offense, load up on defense, or find a mix of the two. What works about this mode mirrors what works about superstars as a larger mechanic, but in a single short overtime match, your superstars can get lost in the mix. What it offers is a great way to engage in a short burst, but I wish it offered more options in how to engage with it, given the entertainment value of the superstars.
Madden’s flagship new mode this year, The Yard, is the poster child for the shorter, non-traditional football game, trying to mirror the backyard football games you’d play as a kid or as an adult at a tailgate. Every match is 6v6, and, instead of having a clock, each team gets a limited number of drives. First downs are fixed every 20 yards, and there’s no punting or kicking. It even takes a hint from the XFL, the real life poster boy for less serious football, in that it allows for multiple forward passes behind the line of scrimmage, and its extra points are worth 1, 2, or 3 points depending on where you start your play. It even implements the superstars by allowing you to choose a player prototype for your character, ranging from Lamar Jackson’s “Truss” to Michael Thomas’s “U Can’t Guard,” each of which has its own strengths.
While it can be initially confusing to reconcile the rule differences between The Yard and traditional football, I came to prefer it to even a regular exhibition match. Each of its four current locations, ranging from a Lambeau tailgate to a beachside Miami port, offers something different; some locations have you play full games against increasingly difficult teams, while others make you score on a single drive or make consistent defensive stops. It always feels like a less rigid, more laid-back way of playing that doesn’t have the penalties, clock management, or other stresses of a real game. It’s a great addition that makes Madden feel fresh again, even becoming one of my preferred ways to play the game because, unlike the NFL itself, everything else feels a little too safe.
"In its traditional modes, Madden 21’s gameplay feels almost unchanged from past years."
In its traditional modes, Madden 21’s gameplay feels almost unchanged from past years. Tweaks here and there make tackling and pass rushing more intuitive and responsive, and both the UI and broadcast presentation have seen significant changes, but at its core it’s tough to distinguish last year’s gameplay from this year’s. This is disappointing, too, because some persistent problems are still present. Tackling can still teleport players across the field, and minor adjustments often makes players completely change their direction and lose momentum. One addition that further emphasizes the focus on player expression is the celebration system, allowing you to choose a celebration at the press of a button after big plays or touchdowns. It’s fun to showboat in ways that the real-life NFL would probably penalize, though these opportunities happen almost too often to be special.
The Face of the Franchise mode, evolved from last year’s divergence from the pure campaign of Longshot, is more fleshed out and has a lot going for it. Framed as a documentary-style interview at the end of your career, you narrate your own story. Playing as your created character, you start as a backup high school player – though this time you can be a quarterback, receiver, or running back – who takes over when the starter has a health issue, and you’re ultimately recruited to one of a handful of big real-life NCAA football programs. I took my talents to LSU, where I won a national championship before making my way to the pros and onto my beloved Chicago Bears. Before the pros, you have a bunch of major cutscenes and decisions to make, and it plays like a traditional campaign. But once you make it to the pros, it’s similar to an abridged franchise mode.
Every once in a while there are press interviews or conversations with teammates, where you can incite rivalries or improve your player stats, and every few seasons have you facing a different challenge, from winning Rookie of the Year to facing a season-threatening injury. This mode, like last year’s, is a great way to control your own player and see through an entire career. Some of the major moments are a little contrived, but altogether it’s a great way to focus on your specific player and role play what kind of NFL star you want to be, without having the wide-ranging focus of a true franchise.
"Disappointingly, two of Madden’s most popular modes are the two most unchanged from past years."
Disappointingly, two of Madden’s most popular modes are the two most unchanged from past years. Ultimate Team has a slightly higher inclusion of missions to have you finish more short bursts of content, but, apart from that, it feels incredibly familiar compared to previous versions. Classic Franchise, too, is disappointingly similar to last year’s version. You can still choose to play as a player, coach, or owner, and you still have the chance to control a lot of the team’s operations alongside managing its games, from signing players to scouting and drafting new talent, but, as fans of the series made known on social media, there are almost no improvements to speak of. While EA’s response to fans implies meatier changes next year, it holds that this year’s version of Classic Franchise can be played almost identically in last year’s game.
If you’re a fan of the Madden series, you’re familiar with its staples, and you’ll be right at home with Madden 21. Some minor tweaks don’t overshadow the fact that its traditional gameplay is mostly unchanged, alongside its disappointingly similar Franchise and Ultimate Team modes. The focus on personalities through superstars and X-factors, alongside the fantastic new The Yard mode, are great ways to both highlight specific people and allow for different, more eccentric ways for the game to be played. While its gameplay is still undeniably the best football simulator out there, though, it’s hard to deny the feeling that Madden is stagnating, especially in its established modes, and that’s a tough pill to swallow as we head into a new console generation.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Great new “The Yard” mode; Welcome focus on superstars; Enjoyable Face of the Franchise story.
Stagnating Classic Franchise and Ultimate Team modes; Unchanged gameplay problems.