Madden NFL 21 review – EA’s worst sports game of the generation?

EA’s latest American football sim is the last one before the next gen but what’s changed and is it enough to justify all the fan anger?

When judging any annual release, the focus is always on innovation and gameplay enhancements and, on the face of it, EA Sports has figured both of those out for Madden NFL 21. However, the devil is in the details and although the gameplay takes a step forward the stagnation in core modes leaves you wondering what the developers have been doing for the last year. 

Those with a keen eye will have noticed Madden NFL 21 is already the lowest user-rated game in the history of Metacritic. Sports games do tend to get piled on by users frustrated with the previous iteration but EA has this problem twice over, with FIFA also coming in for similar criticism. 

However, for fans to go out of their way to score a brand new game a zero, less than a week after its release, points to problems that run far deeper. EA’s relationship with their fans has been deteriorating for years but with little competition facing their key sports titles the narrative remains the same – fans call for fixes and innovation but what they find is a stagnant title doing just about enough to be considered a new release and not just a seasonal update. And, at upwards of £50, Madden is once again struggling to justify the price tag.

We’ll start with the positives though, because despite the user scores, there have been improvements on Madden NFL 20. The gameplay has taken a significant step forward this year and though it’s easy to nitpick, this Madden is slick and responsive with great new animations that make your superstars come to life.

Improvements to skill stick functions on both ends of the ball allow the user to take their game to another level with enough practice. On top of that, coaching adjustments have been reworked, adding options like ‘zone drop’ to your pre-snap defence and allowing for far greater micromanagement. 

Fronting Madden NFL 21’s marketing push this year is The Yard, a new backyard football mode that introduces 6v6 football, fancy gameplay animations, and a raft of kit and accessories you can buy through microtransactions, as well as currency earned through playing.

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The Yard is the biggest success in this year’s release, providing high-scoring, entertaining games of football with you playing both sides of the ball. To begin with you’re asked to create your avatar and deck him out in whatever kit combination you want or can afford, before deciding on which prototype you fancy playing as. Will you be a quarterback and safety or a running back and linebacker? There are loads of options that ensure you’re always in the action.  

On the field you will notice a pretty glaring problem with kit clashes and on certain fields it can be nigh-on impossible to work out where your player or teammates are in such a fast-paced game mode. That aside, it’s incredibly accessible and easily the most fun we’ve had with Madden in years. The games are fast and the plays are innovative, whilst the ability to pitch the ball to any number of teammates means you can wind up scoring a ludicrously drawn out and creative play. 

Whilst you can play against the computer, or online and unlock different fields and challenges to partake in, at this stage you have to wonder about the longevity and depth of The Yard. But if more content is planned it will go down as one of the best innovations in a Madden release for years and fans should be excited for where EA can take it. 

EA’s latest American football sim is the last one before the next gen but what’s changed and is it enough to justify all the fan anger?

The Yard could easily go the way of the Neighbourhood in the NBA 2K franchise and also calls to mind Volta Football in FIFA – an altogether more forgettable experience. The store does offer up a wealth of customisation options though, the backbone to any role-playing style mode in a sports game. It remains to be seen how much will be added as the game runs along its life cycle, but the early signs are promising.

However, it’s hard to play The Yard and not think of Superstar KO, the mode Madden NFL 20 introduced not long after release last year. It was a welcome addition and freshened up the game, providing another fast-paced, shortened version of football with decent rewards for your Ultimate Team

Now though, it sits there as one of many game modes we’re just not sure Madden NFL 21 needs. There are still rewards on offer and although the Lamar Jackson card on offer at release will legitimately strengthen most starter Ultimate Teams, there isn’t much point in playing Superstar KO. Its main purpose was to inject some fun into a game that can get tedious if you’re sat there grinding the Ultimate Team solos, but The Yard does a much better job of it.

Another mode that’s just sat there gathering dust is franchise mode. The neglect here is bordering on abuse and Madden NFL 21’s updated version follows the same pattern of its predecessors in practically ignoring it. And yet this was once the flagship mode of Madden. For whatever reasons, franchise mode has been starved of innovation for around five years, perhaps even longer. FIFA fans will sympathise and point out similar issues in its career mode – it’s simply not on the radar anymore. 

One reason for this is possibly Face of the Franchise, the career mode that largely flopped in Madden NFL 20. Well, it’s back this year and although you’ve got to give EA credit for the angle of their storytelling – your player narrates his career for a sit-down TV interview – it’s an extremely lukewarm career mode. 

The main thrust of the story is a rivalry that builds between you (the back-up quarterback) and the high -school legend who has designs on making the NFL despite being diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. It sounds cheesy, and many of the cut scenes are, but we did enjoy the presentation around the school and college games. However, once that novelty wears off it begins to feel like a chore.

Sitting through the cut scenes is like watching a soap opera, and any gameplay moments you’re dropped into are frustratingly short and laughably easy. Once you go through the NFL draft, the difficulty picks up but by then you’re playing a very familiar career mode, only with much less involvement as the story breaks only to involve you in career milestone events. This approach is novel enough and might work if storytelling was a forte of EA. Instead it gets boring fast. 

It almost seems silly to leave the gameplay to the end of this review but Madden is so refined now that most casual players won’t notice much of a difference at all. Although to be fair it is smooth and looks great. There will always be a certain section of fans that will pick at every tiny detail they don’t like but for most the game will feel slick and the changes to the skill stick are tangible almost immediately. 

With the ball, the right stick is your friend and you’re able to combine a number of moves, that felt unobtainable before, with little flicks and nudges. 

We also witnessed players really reaching for that final yard when you’d driven up the field and just shy of a first down – an important quality of life improvement and something that adds realism to encounters. On the flip side, defenders are now much more ardent with their efforts to prevent the ball carrier getting over the gain line, so there’s an impressive balance with the animations there. 

The graphics haven’t changed much and some will say there wasn’t much needed in that department, especially as this is the last in the current gen series, but veterans will note how stale the presentation feels. Whilst the commentary and broadcasting feels authentic, cutaway scenes and replays are almost identical to previous Maddens and it’s just dull. 

Menus have been streamlined in their appearance but the lag experienced in Ultimate Team is painful and a real bane to anyone trying to negotiate the layers upon layers of options. The amount of depth was once commendable but it now feels so arduous trying to accomplish the simplest of processes. 

Add to that the horrendous new card art – why on earth is the text in such a tiny font? And anyone with an interest in the Ultimate Team grind will find it even more of a chore than it usually is. You’ll also be forgiven for switching off the music after about an hour of listening to some of the most mind-numbing NFL-themed rap ever inflicted upon your ears.

Advancements to Superstar X-Factors give you more decisions to make when structuring your Ultimate Team, given the pool of abilities has expanded, and though not for everyone it adds unique skills to the best cards in the game, something we’re more than happy with.

Unfortunately, Ultimate Team just feels the same as last year. There’s barely a new challenge or feature and as previously mentioned the card art and menus are awful. Given it already sits as one of the biggest pay-to-win microtransaction stories in gaming, it remains to be seen how loyal regular players will remain.

Madden has one of the most hardcore fanbases in gaming and with that comes certain demands that a company the size of EA should be able to meet year after year. Instead what we’ve been served is a game that shines in one or two spots but is largely forgettable everywhere else.

Competition breeds innovation and Madden has been without any for far too long. And it shows. Modes that were once iconic and genre-leading have been left to die whilst EA’s determination to show what great storytellers they are needs to be abandoned completely. 

Though content is dropped throughout the year, Ultimate Team at launch has taken a number of steps back in both ease of use and depth. And when that is your moneymaker you’re inviting major issues just as we begin to move towards the next gen consoles.

Madden NFL 20 underwhelmed but Madden NFL 21, for anyone other than a casual player, has arguably regressed even further.

Madden NFL 21 review summary

In Short: A stale series stuck in its own Groundhog Day almost redeems itself with The Yard and will entertain casual football fans, but mediocrity seeps into almost every mode in another backwards step for the franchise.

Pros: The Yard is a great addition and loads of fun, gameplay has been refined and the reworked skill stick is a well-executed addition.

Cons: Menu lag and card design is awful. Tons of bugs. Ultimate Team is stale, Face of the Franchise is boring, franchise mode has been ignored again and the presentation is in need of a serious upgrade.

Score: 5/10

Formats: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation, PC, and Stadia
Price: £59.99
Publisher: EA
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: 28th August 2020
(next gen and Stadia TBC)
Age Rating: 3

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