Those of you who love football have probably been buying Madden Football games for years. Personally, I played the original John Madden Football back in the 1990s and had a great time with it. So I have seen quite a few changes over the years, though the criticism that the franchise changes very little from one year to the next, especially in a so-called transition year, is pretty accurate. Some years are nothing more than a roster update put overtop the core gameplay from the previous season.
For sports fans, I think Madden NFL 21 is kind of an important title given what is going on in the world today. I mean, just a couple weeks before the season started, we still didn’t know if there was going to be football. I was overjoyed watching the first few games of 2020. But who knows if we will get through a full season. I hope we do, and that the players stay healthy, but you never know.
At least in terms of the Madden game, it’s always available and COVID-free. I know a lot of diehard fans bought or pre-ordered the game in case there would be no real football this year. But now that it seems like we will have both real football and a new Madden, lets hit the virtual gridiron and see how Madden NFL 21 turned out.
I don’t normally start with graphics in reviews, but that is going to be the first thing that people notice. Like with NFL 20, everything looks amazing in NFL 21. I have been to the real-life stadiums for The Ravens, The Steelers and the Washington Football Team (back when they were called the Redskins) and they all look very real in the game. I got a thrill seeing the intro movies play where we get to fly through the stadiums and see the players take the field in a fanfare worthy of a Monday Night Football game on TV.
That said, not a lot has changed graphically since 2017 when the series started using the Frostbite engine. On the PlayStation 4, you can get pulled out of the amazing look if you zoom in too close where things are not as pretty. The one good thing is that both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 players can upgrade the game to the new consoles when available, which presumably will make the games look even better. On the PC, playing through Steam, the game look a lot more detailed overall, though you will need some powerful hardware to drive everything. Adding Direct X 12 support really smooths things out, if you are lucky enough to have a graphics card and processor powerful enough to drive it.
In terms of football gameplay, it’s a little more difficult this year on both sides of the ball, which I think is a good thing. On offence, the developers tightened up the running game from last year. In NFL 20, if you were playing with a powerful running team, you could mow down your opponents more often than not and really run up the score (like the Redskins did waaaay back in the day). In NFL 21, the lanes are a lot smaller and the defense reacts more quickly. Yes, you can pull off pivot and stiff arm moves to grab a few more yards after contact, but don’t expect to be getting a TD every few plays using only handoffs and reverses. More often than not, the defense is going to catch you after only minimal or even no gain, especially on higher skill levels.
Playing defense is more challenging too, likely to balance the difficulty curve for the offense. Defensive linemen have been pretty nerfed compared to last year. You can’t catch speedy running backs if they get around you anymore. And your linemen won’t be doing impossible dives and other cartoon-like moves to save the day at the last second. All in all, it seems much more realistic and much more like a real NFL game now.
The X-Factor and Superstar skills are back, and they help to make good players into franchise all-stars. Players have these special skills that when activated can pull off some amazing moves, like breaking tackles or completing impossible passes.
You have to activate the special move abilities by meeting a unique condition for each player, like completing so many rushes for so many yards. And there are things that will reset them too, like getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage. If they get reset, you have to meet the activation condition again to “get back in the zone.” The X-Factor skills are cool, but again, I kind of feel like they hurt the realism just a bit. Then again, who doesn’t love making their favorite player blow everyone else on the field away? It’s a game after all, so have fun.
The newest addition to the franchise is called The Yard, and it’s pretty fun and crazy. The premise is that you are playing in a backyard game, only you are doing it with some great players. It’s as if you put out a call for a pickup game in the park and 12 of the best NFL players showed up and decided to put on Super Bowl performances.
The rules of The Yard are pretty lax, and also customizable to a degree. There are no time limits. The field is short. And there are no kicks, only touchdowns or turnover on downs. There are even some wild rules, like if you get a touchdown you can go for three extra points, but only if you start the extra point attempt from the 20 yard line. Players also dress in outlandish styles that sometimes look more like they belong in the Kinky Boots musical than an NFL game. But it’s all in good fun, and I actually played The Yard more than I thought I would.
As good as The Yard is, you can skip the Face of the Franchise: Rise to Fame feature this year. The story makes almost no sense at all. You are a backup QB in high school playing second fiddle to a hometown hero. Somehow you end up in college together and it’s the same thing all over again. At different points in the game, the annoying hero guy will have health issues (he has a condition) and you will have to step in. You are supposed to feel torn between loyalty to your stupid friend and breaking out and becoming a star on your own, or something like that. Anyway, it seems like the story was penned by out-of-work afterschool special writers. I guess if you play Madden Football for the deep plot and story lines (insert sarcasm) then this mode is for you.
Finally there is the Madden Ultimate Team mode (MUT), which combines football with collectible card games. I didn’t get into this mode because of the microtransactions. You can go the free play route and not spend anything, but good luck competing online against players who have dumped big money into the packs so that they own the best players from every NFL team in history. Given the vitriol gamers feel toward microtransactions and pay-to-win schemes these days, I was surprised to find MUT in Madden 21. But it is optional at least. You can have a great time with the game’s other modes without ever touching the MUT.
Yes, Madden NFL 21 is a so-called transition year game, meaning we don’t get big changes, though The Yard is new and surprisingly addictive. And overall, Madden NFL 21 is a solid game that has been tightened up and made more realistic in matching the gameplay with real life. If you love football, then Madden NFL 21 can help you enjoy the entire season, whether or not the real one is able to completely finish up or not.