Madden NFL 21 Review – Sometimes Fun, But Not Impressive

    Title: Madden NFL 21
    Developer: EA Tiburon
    Release Date: August 28, 2020
    Reviewed On: PS4
    Publisher: EA Sports
    Genre: Sports

At a crossroads in my life, I could have been a football player. Instead of picking up a football, however, I picked up a controller. When it comes to the sport, I spent some time playing fantasy football leagues, but most of the knowledge of the players and teams came from playing the Madden series of video games. Madden gave me a chance to experience the sport in my own way, while also providing me with insight in case I wanted to inject myself into a conversation about the topic.

You can boil down the customization and simulation aspects of the more modern titles to that of a skill-based RPG, which is a bit more in my wheelhouse. With the upcoming release of Madden NFL 21, it’s that time of year where I get behind the controller and build up my NFL career once more. Did I have fun? Absolutely, but was I impressed? Not at all.

One of my favorite things about Madden NFL 21 is the fact that it has a story mode. As someone who doesn’t really like to play games online with other people, having single-player offerings can make or break an experience for me. Madden NFL 21’s single-player mode, Face of the Franchise, is certainly something. It tells the story of an NFL Hall of Famer, created by the player, and their journey through high school, college, and finally, the NFL.

This premise sounds simple enough in concept, but the game tries to force in an over-the-top melodramatic storyline involving one of the players’ rivals from high school. The story has competition, betrayal, drama, celebrity cameos… and it’s terrible. Like, so, so bad. All of the characters feel like generic, unbelievable caricatures and, for the most part, are all unlikeable. Furthermore, all of the main characters are jerks, even when you attempt to make your player a good person.

Face of the Franchise was an experience, but not necessarily a good one. Either way, I couldn’t seem to put it down. Making the journey from high school to college to the NFL was admittedly fun when actually playing games, but the story bits between the gameplay simply brought everything to a drag.

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Something else that felt off about Madden NFL 21 were the graphics. With the Madden NFL series being one of the best selling games year after year in the United States, I was surprised this was even an issue. The game itself pulls in millions of dollars each year between game sales and microtransactions, so clearly, there are funds to invest in this department. Oddly enough, however, there are certain aspects of Madden NFL 21 that make me stop and think, “why does this big-budget game look this bad?”

Now, this isn’t to say that the whole game looks terrible. It certainly doesn’t. Most players and environments look fine, good even. The ones that look bad, however, completely ripped me out of the experience. Most of the characters (especially player-created characters) have a terrible “uncanny valley” look to them. Something just feels off about their faces, and the same can be said about some of the other players.

Outside of the character models themselves, I ran into constant visual glitches during gameplay. Players would frequently walk through each other, reach through each other, or clip into walls between plays. This isn’t anything I haven’t seen in video games before, but I would have just expected a little bit better from this title.

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Madden NFL 21 is at its best when you’re in a game. The folks over at EA Sports have perfected the football formula and have ensured that players of all skill levels can enjoy this title. Difficulty can be changed at any time in the settings, ranging from easy, arcady action to realistic, ultra-difficult simulation. If you happen to not know anything about football or simply don’t play that many video games, turning the difficulty down will ensure that you can still feel like an NFL superstar.

No matter what difficulty you choose to play on, Madden NFL 21 just feels undeniably good to play. All button prompts and plays feel responsive, and whether or not a play is successful is completely up to the skill of the player.

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Perhaps surprisingly, to new players, Madden NFL 21 is more than just simple football. Sure, you can jump into games back and forth in exhibition mode, but there are a plethora of other ways to play.

For instance, perhaps the most popular mode in Madden year after year is the Ultimate Team mode. Ultimate Team is half football games and challenges and half collectible card game. As players complete games and challenges, they will unlock currency to buy card packs that contain random players of different skill levels. Upgrading your team and seeing your overall team rank increase is a ton of fun, as is collecting new players, auctioning old players off, and completing all of the unique challenges the mode presents.

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The newest mode that Madden NFL 21 is pushing the hardest is The Yard. The Yard is meant to emulate old-school backyard football, with two teams of six going head to head in small arenas. This new mode is a blast to play, simplifying the rules of football and racketing up the craziness to 11. Each player wears colorful, over-the-top uniforms that scream “high school backyard football league,” making the mode stand out visually from others.

Other modes include Franchise, which puts players in charge of an NFL team over multiple seasons, and Superstar KO, a co-op eliminator mode featuring 5-minute games and special rules. One of the best things about Madden NFL 21 is that all the modes I’ve mentioned (except for Face of the Franchise) can be played online with friends, making the experience last as long as you want it to.

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Madden NFL 21 is a strange beast. It is the same fun football experience that millions of players have come to love, yet I still expected a little more from it. While it features refined gameplay and fun game modes, its lackluster story mode and plethora of graphical glitches don’t reflect what a game releasing this year should look like. The online modes will keep you playing through various simulation and customizable options, but most of this is just more of the same in comparison to what has already been delivered. If you’re a seasoned Madden fan looking for your yearly fix of football goodness, I doubt Madden NFL 21 will disappoint you, but that doesn’t mean it’s a flawless experience.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Jake Yoder

Lover of all things gaming, anime, film and theatre. Shonen anime/manga enthusiast.