Madden NFL 21 Review
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve put a Madden game through its paces, so this review will take a fresh look at Madden NFL 21 rather than an incremental look at it compared to Madden NFL 20. The first thing you’ll learn about the game when starting it up for the first time is that the traditional modes that you probably associate with Madden games are almost afterthoughts. In fact, franchise and exhibition modes sit at the far-right end of the menu ribbon on the game’s main page. These modes have always been the ones I’ve spent the most time with in Madden games, but perhaps I am more of a traditionalist and the Madden faithful has moved beyond them. However, it’s hard not to believe that the reason that Madden Ultimate Team (MUT), the game’s build-your-own team collectible card mode, has been given the prime slot at the head of the menu is because it’s a mode built for monetization.
Understanding MUT requires that you understand a little bit about how Madden works under the hood. Each year the developers rate every player on a hundred-point scale. This hundred-point scale is a lot like the hundred-point scale used by video game reviewers in that only the upper half of the range is ever really used. The NFL players that you’ve never heard of if they aren’t on your favorite team or unheralded rookies are all rated in the 60s. Better than average players are in the 70s, stars are in the 80s, and superstars are rated in the 90s. The higher rated players also carry some additional specializations, such as quarterbacks that are elusive scramblers or defensive linemen that excel at stopping the run.
When you first play MUT you’ll start out with a team filled with 60s and a few 70s, and the opportunity to select a “Team Captain” at a skill position who will be your team’s initial highest rated player. There are several ways to improve your team from there – earning players through special challenges, playing missions to accumulate coins that can be used to purchase blind packs containing more players, and, of course, spending real-world money to buy more player packs. You can also exchange players by collecting them into sets that can then be converted to a higher rated player card. This last option is rather obfuscated, leaving it to you to figure out just how it all works. It will take some time, either in the game or on Google, before you’ll understand how sets work. In a way this can be said about the entire MUT mode. There is a myriad of menu selections to navigate with no guidance on how to proceed or how things work together. MUT – and really, all of Madden NFL 21 for that matter – assumes that you’ve dutifully bought and played the game every year and thus have an accumulated wealth of knowledge of how every works. It can all be quite overwhelming to a newcomer, and if the franchise wants to bring in new players it really needs to work to provide the necessary tutorials to help new players understand how to navigate and play the mode.
On the positive side of things, there are plenty of challenges available at any given time and the game seems to be good about providing an ever-changing list of new ones to take on. Some of them are relatively short – complete a set number of completions on a drive, rush for a number of yards – while others will have you playing from both sides of the ball for multiple drives. Most challenges allow you to set the difficulty level and also include optional goals, giving them a degree of replayability if you’re interested in five-starring every challenge. The rewards for completing challenges vary – and sometimes you need to complete a sequence of challenges to earn the reward – but they’re all some combination of players, blind packs, or coins.
The ultimate goal of MUT is to assemble a competitive team and to take it online to challenge other players, although the collectors out there may be perfectly happy building their team for their own enjoyment. If you do want to challenge other players, be aware that there are plenty of people out there willing to drop some coin to build a strong roster of players and to compete you’ll need to either do the same or spend a really long time grinding out the coin you’ll need to buy the packs that include higher level players or to accumulate enough players to build the sets that can be incrementally exchanged to eventually get you to the higher player tiers.
I spent a fair amount of time playing MUT without spending any real money, and it does take a significant amount of effort just to build a team with an overall rating in the low 70s. And while there may be a number of challenges available to play at any given time, the actual variety in the goals to be accomplished is not that varied. I wish opening packs was more streamlined and that I didn’t have to compare each new player to the current starter at that position to determine whether or not he would be an upgrade to my roster. Roster management in general is an issue as it’s not obvious - or perhaps even possible – to take backup players and move them off the roster and into sets.
Not content with one monetized mode this year, Madden NFL 21 adds a second with The Yard. Unlike MUT, all of the purchasable items are strictly cosmetic, but it’s still annoying that this mode uses a different currency than MUT – the paid currency is the same, though. The gameplay in The Yard features six-on-six street rules gameplay with an emphasis on trick plays and razzle-dazzle. You can’t block at the line but you can snap the ball to any back, pass the ball back and forth behind the line of scrimmage before throwing it upfield, and laterals are the preferred way to stretch plays for extra yards. You play on a field that’s 80 yards long with the first down lines on the 20s and 40 no matter where you are on first down. Touchdowns are six points, you can try to convert for one, two, or three points, and long touchdowns and interceptions earn you a bonus point. There is no kicking nor punting in the game. Each team is granted the same number of possessions, and since you’re scored on your overall performance and not just the final score, the game will always grant the final possession even if that team has locked-up the victory. The performance-based scoring also leads to challenges that make you play out the same match five times in a row just to tally your best three scores.
The wide-open street rules make this mode fun to play, and you can pull off some pretty wild plays if you take advantage of multiple passes and laterals. When playing The Yard solo, it’s pretty cool to pick your team from a list of NFL stars before hitting the field. You can also play with a couple of friends or go online to challenge other players. However, on the whole The Yard feels unfinished. The presentation is minimal, there’s no narrative behind any of the challenges (why are you in the Lambeau parking lot playing six-on-six football with the Packers?), and there’s an unexplained RPG element in which you can assign points to various skills. It’s as if the mode was intended to be released next year, but was included this year in an unfinished state. The Yard premiered on the mobile version of Madden this year as well, and oddly enough the mode is much more developed on that platform and even includes a story mode linking its challenges.
Let’s move on to the next mode, Face of the Franchise, which is Madden’s equivalent of a story mode - a mix of story cutscenes with occasional decision points separated by football gameplay. In this mode you start out as a high school transfer student who earns his starting position at quarterback when the current starter confides in you that he has a health issue. You’re ostensibly given the choice of whether to bring this condition to the attention of the coach or to be cool and let him kill himself, but the story arc pretty much plays out the same no matter which direction you take at each juncture. This disconnect extends to the on-field action in that your game performances don’t really have an impact on the narrative – you could throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns in a game and you’ll still have to watch the cutscene in which the coach informs you that you’re going to have to compete for your starting position. For me, this mode was more a chance to play some high school and college football, which Madden managed to capture some of the spirit of despite it being an NFL game. When it comes time to select your college you’ll have a choice of one of the ten schools the game obtained licenses from, and your games will unsurprisingly be against the nine schools you passed on, but even this small taste of collegiate action made me realize that I genuinely miss playing NCAA Football and wish that it wasn’t seven years since we last had a new release in that franchise. I can take or leave this mode – I feel that I was more engaged in the career modes of games past than in Face of the Franchise. Perhaps it was because I preferred the narrative created in my own imagination to the story that Face of the Franchise makes you a part of.
Superstar KO is a fun way to enjoy some fast-paced multiplayer gameplay. You draft a team of NFL stars, play a game against another player, and if you win you draft more players and take on another winner from the previous round. The games are essentially overtime games in which you each get a possession and if the game is still tied after that you move to a tug-of-war mode in which teams alternate possession from play to play using the line of scrimmage from the previous play. I enjoyed this mode because you can try out different combinations of players to try out different playstyles without devoting a lot of time to it or being stuck with a build you don’t like. If things go wrong it will be over quickly and you can try a different combination and get back into it.
Franchise mode has always been my favorite, and though it’s been a been a few years since I’ve played Madden NFL it looks pretty much as I remembered it. The mode feels a bit out of place in Madden NFL 21 because its style and presentation are completely different than the other modes. Play any other mode and you’ll feel like they are a cohesive part of the Madden NFL 21 whole, but jump into Franchise and it feels like you’re in another game. I enjoy the challenge of guiding a team through a full NFL season, especially playing each game in full myself. You’d think that this would be one of the primary ways that gamers would enjoy the mode, but it’s geared more towards spending time with the front office menus than it is towards the on-field action. The game seems to treat the option of playing each game as a tertiary “are you sure you want to do this” option rather than just playing a few select moments from the game or simulating the thing entirely.
As for the on-field action, a lot of attention has been paid to improving player moves, primarily stringing together multiple moves when carrying the ball or as defensive linemen trying to get through the offensive line. These new game additions are welcome ones, especially on defense because playing as a lineman is the most interesting position, at least until the ball is actually in the air. However, I wish more attention was paid to the AI in the game. This version of Madden seems a step backwards in that regard from years past, especially when it comes to play calling. I found a couple of pass and run plays that work almost every time against the defensive AI, and I could run them in succession without the defense making any adjustments. In the past, a play action was effective because you could set it up with a number of running plays and get the defense to commit to the run. Now it seems as if the defense is based entirely on the down and yardage with no regards for your tendencies or the personnel you have on the field. The same plays that work so well in Madden NFL 21 work just as well in the mobile version of the game, which makes me wonder if they share the same pared-down AI code.
A football fan can have some fun with Madden NFL 21, but overall I can’t help but feel disappointed with the game. The Ultimate Team mode that’s obviously its signature feature can become a grind if you’re not willing to pay for packs that have a higher probability of better players. The Yard has potential, but feels like more of a work in progress than a full-fledged mode on its own. Face of the Franchise would be better as a simpler create-a-player mode, letting you hit the field as yourself without having to slog through so many overly dramatic cutscenes between games. And Franchise mode simply needs an overhaul and some love sent its way. The biggest disappointment comes in the gameplay, though - the game AI is simply not as challenging as it used to be. Sure, I enjoy going online and taking on other players, but for me playing Sunday’s games during the week leading up to them, and replaying games to change their disappointing real-world outcomes, has always been a big part of the enjoyment of the game. Running the same handful of plays over and over again just takes a lot of the fun out of that.
Final Rating: 66% - Madden NFL 21 feels like it's more interested in running out the clock than it is in going for the extra yard.