Madden NFL 21 Review — Death by A Thousand Jurdles

Madden NFL 21 Review — Death by A Thousand Jurdles

Madden NFL 21 is a mess of lazy modes, bad gameplay, and a continued descent into a focus on over-monetized offerings. The Yard is a neat idea though!

In terms of video games, the yearly Madden release used to be one of the biggest events there was. Not only did it signify the busy holiday season was nearly upon us, but it was also one of the few games that casual gamers bought in droves. In the US, at least, Madden was one of the few games that could hope to match Call of Duty in terms of sales.

However, over the last console generation, that hype has pretty much dried up. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the biggest is, without a doubt, how purely iterative the games have become. Sure, they’ve always been this way to some degree, but the past few years have truly just felt like a roster update. With new consoles on the horizon, it’s hard to imagine EA doing much with Madden NFL 21 on current-gen consoles. But, there’s always a small glimmer of hope that they might finally surprise us.

Unfortunately, you can pretty much toss that hope away immediately. As someone who’s been playing the series since they put my man Dante Culpepper on the cover in 2002, this might be my least favorite iteration yet.

There are many reasons for my overall disappointment with Madden NFL 21, but the biggest culprit is the gameplay. What you’re about to read might be going a bit too into the weeds for some, so apologies. However, it’s important to understand the many details that make Madden feel like one of the worst sports simulations on the market.

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Let’s begin in the trenches. It’s been a problem for a while now, but blocking in Madden continues to be one of its biggest issues. It runs rampant throughout each and every game. These are things that should be simple. You’ll see players not bother picking up a double-team. Instead, they just stand around hoping a defender flops into them so their animation will pick them up. This will either cause a hole to disappear quickly or give your quarterback a pocket that even a toddler’s hand couldn’t fit into.

And once your blockers move down the field, that’s where the “fun” really starts. For whatever reason, anyone blocking downfield, no matter their statistical ability, suddenly becomes a fifth-grader on their first day of practice. You’ll see guys block defenders into your running lane. Sometimes they’ll skip the defender barreling down on you and instead go block that safety that’s 10 yards away. More often, they just run down the field pretending like they might do something, but they won’t.

Blocking is probably my biggest issue with gameplay, but it’s far from the only one. Madden fans know most of the legacy problems. That said, here are just a few to give you an idea of what to expect. Defenders will still magically speed up to swat away balls they have no business getting to. Poor pass trajectory makes throwing fades one of the worst routes in your arsenal only because EA can’t figure out how to fix it. The same old plays will still beat the AI every single time, making CPU play feel somewhere between pointless and eye-gougingly dull. Player switching on defense is completely borked. Instead of switching to someone in a position to make a play, you’ll jump to a guy behind the runner with no hopes of catching up.

Heck, they gave cover star Lamar Jackson a new X-Factor ability because the second quarterbacks get out the pocket, they apparently lather the ball up in butter given the rate they fumble. So, to make him usable as a runner, they had to give him an ability that means he’ll never fumble when he’s “in the zone”. If that doesn’t scream poor game design, I’m not sure what does.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. You can watch back nearly every play and instantly see things that don’t make any sense in the context of a football simulation. It’s baffling that the team continues to add shiny new modes instead of fixing the core gameplay.

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Maybe, to some degree, I’m being a little too harsh here, but I don’t think so. Look, if you’re going to go out and get the exclusive license to make “simulation” football games, then I’m going to expect you to do that. Instead, Madden NFL 21 increasingly feels like it’s own bizarro version of the sport we watch on Sundays. For me, that’s not good enough.

It’s especially not up to snuff when you take a look at how they continue to prioritize the modes they have on offer. Of course, the main cash cow continues to be Madden Ultimate Team. As far as I can tell, they left the mode largely unchanged. However, currently, the menus are incredibly laggy. Just trying to hop into my squad page and make a change forces me to sit through several long waits. It’s enough to make me drop the mode completely until they can provide a fix.

On top of the predatory loot boxes that are still in MUT, EA has put in a brand new way to take your money. The Yard is a new, 6-on-6 mode that’s meant to emulate backyard football. However, as the saying goes, “look good, play good”, and Madden NFL 21 has thus provided players with yet another store to acquire the latest “drip” (I’m so old).

For the most part, you earn these through acquiring in-game currency; however, there is a rotating store with gear that can be purchased with real money. The one positive is that you at least get to see exactly what you’re getting. These aren’t random drops. That said, it’s yet another dumb way to take even more of your players’ cash in a $60 product.

The Yard as a mode is a decent enough effort. The biggest plus is that there’s no blocking, so you don’t have to deal with that terrible system. And, they’ve added in some fun stuff like the ability to snap to any player and multiple throws behind the line of scrimmage.

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, you’re still playing “simulation” football. Plus, you can’t actually play 6-on-6 with every character controlled by a real person. You instead have to deal with at least three AI players on your team, which is disappointing, to say the least.

The Yard is screaming to be its own release with arcade-style gameplay, but I guess that’s asking too much. Hopefully, 2K can deliver a quality product and not some mobile drivel that no one wants to play when they put out the arcade-style NFL game they’re supposed to be working on.

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Franchise mode, as you might have heard, is mostly unchanged. But don’t worry! EA has already promised they’re going to commit to bigger franchise changes for Madden NFL 22. The fact that they said this before this year’s game even out spoke volumes. Hopefully, they stick to it. But given the short shrift franchise mode has gotten since MUT became popular, I’m not holding my breath.

The other mode the team did do a lot to is Face of the Franchise. They introduced this in Madden NFL 20 as the new Player Career mode and was mostly a dud in its freshman effort. For Madden NFL 21, the team has added quite a bit, but it’s almost universally terrible.

This go-around, you start as a high schooler joining the football team after the coach notices your athleticism. Immediately, they thrust you into the quarterback role, even though the team already has a major star at the position. See, he has a heart condition that forces him to sit out. He tells you this and you choose to tell the coach. I decided not to, but then the game acted like I had ratted him out. Though saying I ratted him out is probably the wrong way to put it. I mean, I potentially saved his life, but whatever.

Eventually, he rejoins the team, but the coach makes him switch to receiver. After the season, you decide to go to one of ten colleges. For reasons, he goes wherever you go but still wants to play quarterback because that’s a thing that happens. Players totally go to the same school just to settle a grudge. Sure, there are like 120 other schools to go to, but that wouldn’t be enough drama!

When you get to college, your coach says he’s going to rotate you as starters. This does happen in college, but usually, when a player goes for 350 yards and four touchdowns to win the first game in a season, he’s just the starter. And, if he wins you the National Championship behind 300 yards and five touchdowns, you definitely don’t tell him the other guy is going to start and he has to either go pro or select a new position.

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That said, this might be the one good part of the mode. Unlike last year, you can choose to not be a quarterback. You still can’t have a defensive career like in old games, but it’s better than nothing. The narrative behind why you can now do so is still mind-boggling stupid though.

It’s worth noting that, as far as I can tell, this guy that they set up as your big rival doesn’t actually follow you to the NFL. Oh sure, the game tells you he did, but he’s not on any roster. Unless there’s some secret expansion team I don’t know about. I won’t spoil more for you in case you decide to play this awful mode, but the whole thing is just so dumb.

When you get to the NFL, they hit you with various challenges that shape a narrative of your pro career. And, like all of the cutscene-based storytelling, these are mostly abysmal.

At one point, my coach asked me what player I wanted to bring in during free agency. I asked for a tight end and the game told me that the player now had an X-Factor ability. He didn’t. It kept saying his ability was “activated” after press conferences where I praised him, but it didn’t exist. In fact, he didn’t even start. The game said he’d been upgraded, but he still rode the pine behind the same mediocre tight end we had before he joined.

Another time, the game decided that I, a 94-rated running back, was suddenly in a “position battle” with a 76-rated back. I had just won both the MVP and the Super Bowl, but this nothing player was somehow pushing me for reps? In what world does that happen? If I was aging, I could see it, but I was 26 at the time! It just seems so lazy.

Truthfully, that’s the feeling I got throughout the entire mode. A notification would tell me I had to rush for 100 yards against the Lions this week. We were playing the Cardinals. I would unlock X-Factor skills that I’d already unlocked. It all culminated in an ending cutscene after my forced retirement as a 99-rated, 30-year-old that played through with no sound.

Madden 21, EA Sports

It was all just so frustrating. The idea that this could be a mode that changes based on what you do and how you perform is awesome. Its execution is the exact opposite. The lack of care is a theme that runs throughout the mode, and frankly the entire product.

It’s also worth mentioning that EA does have a Day One (technically Day Four if you bought the Deluxe edition) patch in the works. However, these are mostly small bugfixes for Face of the Franchise and a supposed fix for the menu lag in MUT. It’s not going to change most of the myriad problems I have with the game.

Madden 21 is a mess. Last year, the team masked bad gameplay with shiny new X-Factor abilities. However, with 21 not fixing any of the big issues, that luster is completely gone. What you’re left with is a game that’s fully concentrated on squeezing every last cent out of its customer base. That’s nothing new for EA, but Madden NFL 21 just seems even more blatant than usual.

As always, there are spots of good in the ocean of inadequacy. The Yard is a legitimately cool idea that I would love to become a standalone game mode. Face of the Franchise has tons of potential but needs some extra time in the oven. And, I still love how the X-Factor skills help differentiate the best players from everyone else.

That being said, unless you’re a hardcore MUT player or have a group who really wants to get into The Yard, I’d steer clear of Madden NFL 21. Outside of those two player bases, there really aren’t any reasons to upgrade this year. If you’re jonesing for some football, just pick up Madden NFL 20 on sale. The blocking will be just as atrocious.