Madden 21 Review: Gameplay Perfected, Modes Neglected
With a new console generation on the horizon, EA's NFL series comes back around for a final drive before it touches down on the Xbox Series X and PS5. After a promising couple of entries, however, Madden 21 feels like a franchise that's spinning its wheels, rather steaming forward as an unstoppable freight train.
In many ways, Madden 21 is the peak of the franchise so far, but it lacks attention in areas that were already lacking, fumbling the off-the-field modes and content.
Madden 21 Review: Gameplay Perfected, Modes Neglected
In terms of how it looks, Madden has never looked better, although it does feel as though we've reached the limits of current-gen hardware. Animations are impressive aside from the usual jostling at some strange angles, and short of a visual glitch that turns the screen almost entirely white until the ball goes out of play, the game is frequently a joy to look at.
Cracks begin to show in the game's reused assets, particularly the Super Bowl's presentation. The crown jewel of the football calendar looks almost entirely identical to the way it did in Madden 20, and that's a real shame for an event that many consider a showpiece.
Thankfully, this year's game plays exceptionally well, and that applies whether you're a relative novice or a pro. Madden 21 offers a variety of more accessible options, including (but not limited to) clearer on-screen prompts to recommend passes, leaning on the pass types that have been introduced in recent years. These tweaks, combined with improved catching, make riskier long-throw plays feel more viable.
Catching animations are much more fluid, meaning even a receiver that's jostling with a pair of defenders will have a chance of making the catch. It goes a long way to lending every play that "heart in mouth" moment you'd get watching on a Sunday.
Defenders get a little boost, too, as the game will now make you aware of a player that's snuck out of coverage so you can do your best to catch up. It's a handy way of shutting off running lanes, and at the very least can get your tackler closer to receivers for when they receive the ball.
As you'd imagine, you can also strip the entirety of these assists out for when you go head to head with a tougher opponent, and that's where X-Factors come in.
X Gon' Give It To You
Arguably more important this year than they were in Madden 20, X-Factors are abilities bestowed upon some of the best players in the game. They're tailored to positions, so you won't get a bizarre mix of buffs, but each helps that specific player fulfill a role. There are now more than 50 new abilities to learn and use to implement a killer strategy.
Whether the pass lands or not still comes down to skill, and that helps these X-Factors feel balanced — for the most part — as players that have an increased chance to force fumbles are likely to be highly sought-after. There are bonuses for runners to increase their agility, increased throw distance for QBs, and even one that highlights blitzing players for easier reads.
Adding these X-Factors into your team dynamic turns into a meta-game in itself, and knowing your opponent's X-Factors and countering them where possible becomes crucial to success - perhaps just as much as using your own.
Thankfully, the variety of abilities, combined with the Superstar abilities introduced last year, mean there's usually a counter to be found. It also adds more to franchise mode, knowing that you need to sign a certain type of player to counter a specific threat.
Sit This One Out
Speaking of franchise mode, we have bad news. Despite the hashtag "#FixMaddenFranchise," EA has essentially left the mode untouched. While X-Factors are in and tweaks have been made to ensure more realistic trades and contracts, the mode remains a shadow of what's offered by the likes of NBA 2K.
If you're buying the game for franchise mode, be prepared for an almost entirely identical game. Scouting, contracts, free agency, and even the mode's custom faces are the same.
In perhaps more surprising news, Madden Ultimate Team is also relatively unchanged. The mode is, inarguably, a huge cash cow for EA, but this year's set of additions are few and far between. There's a new onboarding process to get players caught up, but the main change is the new ability caps.
Players can now assign abilities and perks to players, with an overall "AP" cap set for offense, defense, and special teams. X-Factors are also part of your team's lineup, but these don't count towards the AP cap, making players with the perks we mentioned earlier all the more important in Ultimate Team.
In better news, Face of the Franchise is vastly improved, and the narrative-focused mode continues to go from strength to strength. Face of the Franchise now offers players the chance to start their career as a wide receiver or running back, as well as the glamour-puss role of a quarterback. Each features its own set of drills and progression through the Draft and Combine, and it feels like a much more flexible system than the previously restrictive story-based content.
The mode kicks off in high school with 10 colleges to play for, but you'll have two seasons to hone your skills. Not only does it contribute to the grassroots feel of the mode, but it also allows players two chances to earn the College Football Playoff Championship. The extra seasons also make the mode last longer, although we'd have liked to have seen it flow into the full franchise mode.
If you've not played in a few years, you'll be pleased to know that the game's dialogue has improved since The Longshot in Madden 18, and with the likes of Snoop Dogg along for the ride, it's fun while it lasts.
This Is My Yard
Perhaps the biggest mode-based addition to Madden 21 is "The Yard." This pits two teams of three against each other (single-player or online), playing on smaller fields and with an emphasis on trick plays and quick matches.
It's not quite NFL Street (RIP), but the mode remains great fun and a change of pace from the sim-based nature of the main modes. That said, it's lifespan will depend on whether you can find anyone to play it with in a few months time.
Players can also take their own avatar to The Yard, and this custom character is set up when loading into the game for the first time. Everything from exhibition matches to Ultimate Team and Face of the Franchise ties into a singular progression system, and you'll be leveling your creation to earn new customization items as well as stat boosts.
It's a nice carrot to chase, knowing you can level up through whichever mode you choose, and with seemingly hundreds of pieces of gear, it's worth doing.
Madden 21 Review — The Bottom Line
- Great on-field gameplay
- The Yard is a great change of pace
- Accessible for newcomers
- X-Factors give players extra personality
- Franchise mode is disappointingly neglected again
- MUT has also received less love than expected
- Laggy menus
As good as Madden 21 feels to play, it’s impossible not to wonder what could have been had the field-side action been able to keep up.
Die-hard Madden fans will be disappointed in a complete lack of attention given to Franchise mode and MUT, but the addition of The Yard and a much more rounded Face of the Franchise mode soften the blow somewhat.
[Note: EA provided the copy of Madden 21 used for this review.]