Madden NFL 21 Review

September 7, 2020
Also on: PC, Xbox One
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Dropping the Ball

It’s that time of year again. We’re fast approaching autumn, and EA is starting to release their yearly sports franchises. This time, we’re looking at Madden NFL 21, and let me tell you, it’s … fine. Iteration rather than innovation with some trademark bugginess is the overall package. The best parts of this game are its soundtrack and accessibility settings, but everything else is mediocre.

He leap.

Face of the Franchise is Madden NFL 21’s story mode. You create a character and embark on a rags-to-riches, zero-to-hero story arc, something we’ve seen time and time again in EA’s sports titles. The character creator is what we’ve come to expect at this point, albeit a little lacklustre in options: you can adjust skin tone, the shape of appendages, the colour of hairy bits and so on. The choices are limited in some instances, however, and you only get a choice of three voices, which only give you a sample of one voice line as you’re choosing. This caused my character to sound very Barry White when he looks very Barry Manilow — for the whole story.

The story takes place in flashbacks as you’re being interviewed by a reporter about your gridiron exploits, and it follows your persona from high school to college to the NFL. There’s an on-again-off-again bromance rivalry between you and a high school teammate who, frankly, shouldn’t even be playing any kind of sports due to an underlying health condition. It’s a generic teen drama told in cutscenes, interspersed with actual gameplay.

And the quality and polish of that teen drama is questionable. The cutscene animations are rigid, awful and lacking lip sync. Character models look truly last-gen, with strangely dead eyes and next to no definition in their bodies. The character I created had lumpy skin and an alien sheen in cutscenes, reminiscent of Marlon Brando’s later years — something I became fixated on rather than the story. When your villain has a health condition but wants to play pro sports, it doesn’t exactly give off “save the world” vibes.

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The good news is that on the field, the animations and graphics are good, with crisp graphics and shiny helmets. But here we start to see the bugginess creep in even further, too. In one offensive play, I hiked the ball and tossed it to my HB, who ran upfield swift as the wind. Unfortunately, it was a very slow wind, and he was pulverised by a large chap who knocked the ball from his hands — fumble. The ball lay there, alone. Until, through some witchcraft or wizardry, an opposing player materialised from thin air on top of the ball. The other team had gained control of the ball, and nobody in the stadium was any the wiser.

Of course, Madden NFL 21 comes with the other usual suspects —  Franchise and Ultimate Team — as well as a new mode called the Yard. This is a six-vs-six arcade mode with levels from across the world, like the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, where you take your customisable character to the field in online or offline play. There isn’t much to talk about with regards to the Franchise and Ultimate Team modes, they remain the same as in previous years of Madden games. Franchise simulates an NFL season with a team of your choosing, allowing you to make player trades and the such; Ultimate Team starts you off with a basic team of rookies, and as you complete challenges you gain various currencies and buy players to make your team better and better, which you then take online to compete with others.

Customisation and currency are both areas that EA has focused on, but they’re also the most convoluted. You can gain “creed” and “rep” with your Yard avatar by playing the game. You then use these currencies to unlock new jerseys and accessories to wear. In Ultimate Team mode, you have even more currencies: coins, points and training. Coins and training can be earned by completing in-game challenges, and you can then buy new players or items for your team. Points are strictly purchased with real money. You can purchase some items with both coins and points, but all the best high-level stuff will almost certainly require you to dig into your wallet.

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Needless to say, this system of currencies is complicated and confusing, and the rest of the game follows suit. Players new to the series will have a hard time coming to terms with not only the currencies but the modes, too, and the lack of any kind of meaningful tutorial harms the gameplay. The only semblance of a tutorial is in the game’s story mode, but even then it’s very incomplete, and I found that tooltips randomly explained things many hours in, even though I’d been required to perform some of these actions from the get-go (press R2 to sprint, for example).

The whole game has the feeling of being incomplete and half-baked, with all the personality of a robot trying to emulate what it thinks the cool kids like. A prominent example of this being when Snoop Dogg turns up to your college football game and proceeds to tell you how cool you are and how he admires you. It’s just as cringy as it sounds. Not to mention the countless weird bugs we’ve discussed, but also the ones we haven’t, like the haphazard voice acting. Most of the time it’s there, but sometimes it just isn’t and you’re left with subtitles without sound.

Despite its flaws, Madden NFL 21 does three things well. First, it has a banging hip hop soundtrack, featuring a host of original songs, as well as some by the likes of Anderson .Paak and Rick Ross. Second, it has a wide range of accessibility and difficulty settings. You can turn on menu narration and enlarged on-field graphics, and there are various settings and contrast modes for colour blindness, too. On the difficulty side, you can choose how arcade-like or simulation-like the gameplay is, and the menu explains which modes use which settings in case you want to practice. Lastly, EA seems to be taking what they call “positive play” seriously. One of the first screens you encounter is one that explicitly admonishes racism, sexism, homophobia and even transphobia, and tells players to report such negative behaviour — it’s great to see.

He dive.

Ultimately, Madden NFL 21 is more of the same. It’s fine. It’s a Madden game, but there just isn’t much to discuss because it doesn’t innovate in any meaningful way. It’s clear that EA only really cares about Ultimate Team; everything else is tacked on, and it would be better if they just dropped the story altogether. It’s buggy, it expects you to know what Madden is at this point, and it’s still the only AAA way to throw around the virtual pigskin. If you buy the game every year to play Ultimate Team, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t buy this. But it can’t be recommended to anyone looking for something fresh.

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A killer soundtrack and inclusive accessibility settings don’t make up for the lack of innovation and gameplay fumbles of this just-another-Madden experience.
Jesse Gregoire

Starting with the Sega Mega Drive, I’ve been playing those video game things for what seems like an eternity. Anything with a good narrative is my passion, but you can also find me clicking the heads in FPS games, living a second life in a sim, or looking for those elusive objects in adventure games. I’m still trying to workout what happened in Metal Gear Solid.