The roar of the crowd on any given Sunday will be sorely missed this season in the NFL. And for us UK fans, having to cancel the International Series games is a devastating necessity in the current situation. It does however give Madden NFL 21 an opportunity to deliver the ultimate football experience, perhaps better than the real thing this season; the epic plays, crisp presentation, the insane crowd and the whole shebang. So, how does it compare in this instalment?
For anyone that has been living under a rock, Madden NFL 21 is the latest American football simulator from EA Sports. It continues along this theme of a ‘live’ game, introducing regular content updates throughout the year.
As always, all the usual modes are here. Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) is present – along with the usual microtransactions – and Franchise mode, but there are more modes than you can shake a signal pole at.
MUT is arguably the draw of Madden for most players nowadays but it can be a confusing experience for newcomers. Madden 21 is no exception. Without exposure to the mode from years previous it may leave new players with a headache. The menus all feel shifted to one side, with very little explanation from the off. Collecting players is all well and good, but little is done to explain how to use the consumables, or what exactly they do. Having the option to opt-in to a tutorial at the start to go through the basics is crucially missing.
It is also in MUT that the menus fail to keep up with controller inputs. Hopefully this is just a problem on the Xbox One version of the game, and the increased firepower of the Series X wipes away these issues.
That’s because by purchasing Madden 21 on Xbox One, players get free upgrades to the Xbox Series X version, should they choose to upgrade to the next generation. Progress in MUT, Franchise and Face of the Franchise is also transferred over thanks to the Cloud.
Another issue lies with the sheer number of currencies available to you. Even on the main screen of MUT, there are four different types in the top corner of your screen, along with a MUT level that is different to your overall level on the main screen. Then, you have Credits which can only buy cosmetic items for your created Superstar. Levelling your overall level also grants Rep which can be used in The Yard, Madden 21’s brand-new mode.
The point is though that with so many currencies across the variety of modes Madden is sometimes left feeling more complex than it needs to be, especially when modes such as Franchise feel like a copy and paste job from Madden NFL 20, even down to the background menu animations. These animations though have been copied from even further back. As such, Franchise is made to feel like a lesser component whilst other modes have rewards coming out of every orifice.
In fact, in the pre-release notes one of the biggest changes to Franchise mode is listed as the expanded Wild Card Playoff round. So, a rule change is supposed to be the biggest improvement of this mode?
Franchise mode really feels like a missed opportunity in this current climate. It is missing some presentational issues; a pre and post show, better, reactive commentary and that real TV experience. Instead, it just feels like a lacklustre Madden experience.
Once again Face of the Franchise mode returns, offering a story-driven football experience starting from High School, through College, the NFL Combine and Draft, and then many storylines as a star of the NFL. This time around Tye Sheridan – of X-Men and Ready Player One fame – is your rival, alongside Robert Patrick, Snoop Dogg (again) and more. If you prefer your football a bit more Friday Night Lights rather than just on the field, this is the mode for you.
The story that is present though is thread-bare, and far from an original tale. It also seemingly doesn’t matter what your performance on the field is like; you could be sacked on every play as the back-up QB and still make it to Draft Day.
Voice acting for the most part is good enough, but character designs are rooted in the uncanny valley. Character models in Madden look very unusual when they are not wearing a helmet and team uniform.
Previously added as a post-release addition in Madden NFL 20, but now available from the beginning in 21, is Superstar KO. This is a much more fast-paced gridiron experience featuring 5-minute games against online opponents, with a goal to keep winning and improving your team in this constantly evolving game mode. This condensed form will also benefit from the ‘live’ service, with additional content drops throughout the year.
The biggest new addition this year though is The Yard. It is probably best described as the Madden version of Volta from FIFA 20, echoing NFL Street and Blitz. This brings the Madden experience into a format you grew up playing; 6-v-6 dual role football. When attacking, your CB quickly changes into your WR and vice-versa. It is how football used to be played on the playgrounds, or in the streets, and brings back those memories.
This mode features a similar method of challenge-based gameplay such as MUT. You earn points per uniquely created stadia, with it featuring a much more arcade-style gameplay with many rule variations.
The Yard also allows you to fully customise your avatar; there are no team uniforms here. So, providing you have enough Cred, you can kit your created player out in whatever you can afford. This does have a side effect though: tracking which members of your team are who and where can be tricky – at least when playing single player; The Yard is primarily aimed at teaming up in groups of three for a multiplayer blast.
Progressing in The Yard unlocks additional locations, and there is the promise of more being added throughout the year. You can also link this up to Madden Mobile via your EA account to share gear and ranks.
It feels that this mode was rushed through production as an answer to the news that 2K are regaining a licence for NFL games. Whilst we won’t be getting a follow-up to ESPN NFL 2K5 – and we still wait for that to be knocked off its perch at the top – 2K will be focussing on “non-simulation” football.
There are the usual tweaks under the hood as well, but these feel smaller and less meaningful than in previous years. Players are more aware of their surroundings, particularly in relation to the first down markers and other players in general between downs. The right stick also offers better control on those skill moves to dodge and juke away from defenders with the all-new Skill Stick controls.
A new Madden means a new achievement list, and there are 28 to unlock this time around. Many of these are tied into progression through the Face of the Franchise mode, so if that mode isn’t your cup of tea, this won’t be your most enjoyable completion.
There is a lot of football to be had in Madden NFL 21 on the Xbox One, and when you are on the field, the football is good. EA have created a game that if you have 15 minutes or a couple of hours, they want you tossing their digital pigskin. From modes like The Yard and MUT that offer quicker challenges to a full simulation in either Franchise mode, you will be spoilt for choice. Sadly though, they’re not all good choices. MUT is the big money earner, so receives the most TLC, but this comes at a cost to all other modes. Face of the Franchise runs along a very by-the-numbers storyline, and even Superstar KO and The Yard feel quite shallow at launch. How fleshed-out they become in the following months remains to be seen.