Madden 21 launches globally to massive expectations.
This year's annual release boasts the record-setting Lamar Jackson on the cover as a follow up to last year's strong outing from the league's MVP. It also drops at the tail end of a console generation, where releases should be at their apex before new systems launch.
Fittingly, Madden 21 features some significant gameplay tweaks to improve the experience and attempts some bold things, including an NFL Street-styled arcade mode.
Promising continual updates as a live service alongside the overhauled gameplay and daunting number of modes, Madden 21 enters the scene hinting it has big staying power.
Last year made some strides in the realism department as ratings were parsed down and superstars' X-factors made the best of the best really stand out. Better line play improved the general feel for the better, too.
Deliberate might be the best word for the new feel to the gameplay. Madden 21 feels a little slower, though in the best way possible.
A variety of details go into the feel. Prominent among them is the Skill Stick feature, an enhanced version of the right analog stick control from previous games. The Skill Stick allows for far more fluidity and natural movement when busting out moves as a ball-carrier or pass-rusher without taking your thumb off the stick.
It leaves you wondering "why wasn't this in the game already?" Accurately pulling off jukes and stutter steps to breeze through defenders is a blast as it feels better than the previous editions. It's the sort of feature that is not only fun for pick-up-and-play purposes, it's also clearly going to be a decisive factor on the competitive scene.
It's the same story on the defensive side of the ball. Employing the correct pass-rushing move off the edge or inside based on the opposing offensive line and offense does feel amazing. It also trends toward being a little overpowered on easier difficulties, but it's hard to perfectly stress just what a welcome addition it is.
Other factors in the smoothed-out gameplay generally feel rather balanced. After getting realistic throwing motions for passers in the game last year, quarterbacks can now attempt a pass while taking a sack. A deep throw accuracy cutoff in the ratings eliminates some of those arcade-y lobs that are really only exclusive to Patrick Mahomes in real life. It's a much-needed similar story on cross-body throws and throwing on the run in general.
Player fatigue also seems to play a slightly bigger role, which makes the game a bit more strategic.
The player now doesn't feel helpless on the defensive side of the ball. The location of the tackle (high or low) and style (big hit, wrap up, etc.) plays a role in how plays and drives go. And in an area that seriously needed addressing, A.I.-controlled defenders finally have better awareness when a ball-carrier is close to them and they actively try to break free from blocks and gang tackles.
Madden 21 also promises opponents will better react if things get too predictable via repetition, though it's something that clearly varies based on the difficulty level.
Arguably more important is how the measured, realistic gameplay changes based on the attention to detail near the end of and between plays too. More than ever, players extend arms for first downs and the option to instantly celebrate is nice (even if it is called a "Swag Break" in some instances). As silly as it sounds, how players move around each other between plays has been reworked too and feel more realistic.
As a result, this is by far the best-feeling Madden yet. Superstars can dominate with proper usage but don't feel overpowered, and surprisingly, the changes have helped the defense still keep pace with the Jacksons and Mahomes of this world. Like last year, players aren't going to dominate with an 80-rated player—the key seems to be smooth, strategic-minded play where smaller details like tackle location matter most on a play-to-play basis.
Madden 21 shouldn't get knocked for making the expected or predictable upgrades to gameplay, especially when the result is this good. Provided it doesn't take a step back after the leap to a new console generation, gameplay is the biggest reason the franchise will remain in its current top spot.
Graphics and Presentation
Fluidity was a big part of what made Madden 20's presentation and broadcast-style so good. Player proportions got fixed, faster players got to the line quicker and monstrous guys bulldozed their way through lines.
The theme extends well into Madden 21 as individual player ratings in specific areas like speed dramatically make themselves known on the field.
Otherwise, Madden is as smooth and visually appealing as players have come to expect. On the field, jerseys are true to form and wear during a game, helmets reflect lights and shadows cast on the turf look great. The stands remain littered with realistic-looking crowds from a distance, and those fans notably put out more chants at appropriate times.
Sound design is a fun part of the package too. The commentators will run into repetitive hiccups, but the stadium announcers sound better than in past games. Player banter makes itself known just enough to have a positive impact too.
There are always some immersion-breaking items though from a simulation standpoint. When a player is going through a lengthy celebration, sometimes teammates just walk around or outright through the player. Helmet-less character models are far from perfect for certain NFL players, and in a story mode like Face of the Franchise, they can be distracting with rough lip-synching.
But, as expected, the hiccups are few and far between. Madden has nailed a broadcast-style feel with its sound design, visuals and camera cuts. There are small issues betraying the fact it is indeed a video game and not a live broadcast, but the package as a whole is as good as it has ever been.
Face of the Franchise, Ultimate Team and More
Face of the Franchise is front and center as the marquee mode for Madden NFL 21.
And while it doesn't match the Hollywood-esque production values of past cinematic experiences like the story of Devin Wade and friends in past games, the mode does a good enough job of expanding on the idea that players can put themselves into a career mode and potentially make it to the Hall of Fame.
Players create a character and start at the high school level and soon jump to college while making a few meaningful decisions here and there. The narrative permits non-quarterback characters for the first time, which is a good way to freshen things up.
Like past stabs at inserting the player into the game, though, the dialogue and characters can get cheesy at times. Some story arcs that can happen throughout a character's career are nice but don't necessarily vary up the monotony considering the mode becomes something players have played before pretty quickly once out of college.
Which isn't to say the mode is bad, but like other offerings in this area lately, it has the feel of a one-and-done experience. And it's a little jarring to see this sort of mode came at the expense of traditional franchise mode, which has minimal upgrades this year and some glaring issues such as trade logic (the Indianapolis Colts will accept a second, third and fourth-round pick for two-time First-Team All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson, aged 24, for example).
Ultimate Team again returns and has received plenty of attention. It is even more strategic this season via Ability Caps. It's a smart way to add an RPG-lite element to roster building and make sure online games don't get too out of hand with major X-factors running around all over the place.
Within the card-collecting bonanza, it's still a little intimidating to get underway. There are a dizzying number of modes packed into lots of menu options. But the game has addressed this area somewhat by a process that provides the player a series of tutorial-like challenges.
Still, it's nice to build a roster how a player wants. Certain modes allow the unlock of legends, others tailor the rewards to types of cards a player desires. There's an MUT level separate from everything else, again furthering the sense that it is an entire game within a game.
The Yard can classify much in the same way. It's a new arcade-style side mode with fun mechanics just oozing NFL Street goodness.
Players create their avatar and hop into games while tackling challenges or find competition. At its most basic, The Yard is street ball across varying locales ,and it has fun little details like casual behind-the-back passes and stuff usually only reserved for Patrick Mahomes in real life.
The offensive creativity is off the charts, and the mode has no problems breaking all the way away from traditional football. Multiple players can receive the snap, unique pass-rushing rules mean the offense can toss the ball behind the line of scrimmage a few times, and it's going to be a thrill to see how creative the competitive community can get.
There's a nice intensity to it all in an environment than lends itself toward big scores often. Overtime is a blast, as is picking from point-after attempts worth one, two or three points, with the three-point attempt coming from 30 yards out.
The presentation can be a little weird. Pre-game camera shots showing off the different locales are nice, but the sounds coming from the crowd never seem to differ no matter how big or small the audience count actually is.
Players have to level up prototypes throughout their journey in The Yard, which offers another RPG-lite way of kitting out different builds. It'll be interesting to see how the mode evolves over time with additional support, though it's pretty clear based on the number of unlocks each level up has that cosmetics are going to be a big part of the equation.
That's a thought that extends to the idea of the player's Madden Rank and customizing their avatar. There are some funny options (customizing hair in the "Gilette Style Zone" for example), and the amount of unlockable attire so far has been downright staggering.
It does all seem to fit a bigger general theme, though. Menus have a fun flair to them, almost in a Need for Speed graffiti style, with videos impressively popping up while hovering over a certain mode. There's an arcade-based push to it all, which is a little interesting to consider given the simulation roots of the series.
Madden NFL 21 is a stellar football title, albeit with some odd priorities.
While the gameplay boasts simulation-based tweaks, the big-ticket new features largely center on the arcade formula. It doesn't really earn that "something for everyone" classification again when one of the franchise's core original modes again goes largely ignored.
Even so, the balancing act on gameplay that doesn't leave defenses hung out to dry is impressive. And as a whole, Madden still presents one of the more feature-filled sports-game packages out there.
While bigger leaps to solo-oriented experiences like franchise would've been nice to see at the end of a console generation, the sheer quality of gameplay hints at strong things for the future of the series on next-gen consoles.