Football is back! My natural enthusiasm for the fall sports season has me incredibly excited to pick up the controller and juke some defenders with this latest iteration of the Madden series. However, there are some undeniable issues with this year’s Madden NFL 21 release that won’t discourage those gamers who feel that the yearly releases are little more than glorified roster updates.
I am a fan of the yearly releases in sports video games, because it matches the cadence of the annual sports season. There is always a sense of renewed hope that comes with a new season, the deep hope of fans such as myself that this year will be better than last year. I have been playing the Madden series since its earliest days on the SEGA Genesis, and unfortunately a trend has emerged over the years that holds true this year as well: the series generally struggles during years when there is a new console generation being introduced.
I am not entirely sure why this is, but my theory is that the developers are having to split time and resources between the current gen and next generation consoles and that leaves them too thin to make sizable improvements with the tight one year timeline. That is how it felt again this year. From a core gameplay perspective, Madden NFL 21 is fine. The gameplay is still exciting, and the generally authentic presentation has me itching for the regular season’s kickoff. There are numerous modes here and ways to play as well, but the issue is that most of them feel very similar to last year.
One exception to that rule is The Yard, which is sort of a backyard take on football with family and friends with a shortened (60 yard) field that is more focused on arcade action than an authentic simulation experience like Franchise Mode. It is fun, but a mode I struggled to really get invested in. The other heavily updated feature is Face of the Franchise, which I generally enjoyed quite a bit. It is a mixture of the narrative-heavy Longshot story mode that Madden introduced a few years ago, and last year’s take on your custom quarterback going through a story mode that leads to a franchise experience.
Here Face of the Franchise finds your raw athlete having to sub in at quarterback for the local star (very Varsity Blues in that sense). However, your story doesn’t end in high school and goes to college and then to the pros. One of the things I really liked was that unlike last year, I wasn’t boxed into just being a quarterback, but I had the option to play a running back or wide receiver if I preferred. Seeing as I generally play a running back in my career modes, I welcomed that particular change. It will be interesting to see if this mode can mature into other roles such as defense as well (I tend to like to play a defensive lineman or linebacker as well).
The actual story is hardly revolutionary, but I liked the sense of ownership over the different decisions and how your pro team evolves based on some of the choices made along the way (even if they did not always make a lot of sense. For example in my Lions franchise, my player backed a stud receiver as well as two other really good ones on the roster and the big roster move presented to me was either another stud wideout or a subpar tight end – neither of which really made much sense when weighed against the roster’s current construction). The way it jumps from one big moment to another, interlacing story around these events actually kept me invested in how my player developed while the related achievements felt far less grindy than the Legacy achievements in prior versions of the game. All in all, this mode is a win with potential for growth that I’m pretty excited about.
Outside of these two modes however, not much else has changed. I liked the way everything kicked off with creating your avatar right away (similar too what UFC 4 did as well), but otherwise Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) still feels a bit like a money grab (over and beyond the premium $60 price tag the game costs). For those unfamiliar with this mode, it’s basically a combination of fantasy football and card collection. It has made some nice strides over the last couple of years and my favorite of EA’s ‘Ultimate Team’ modes found in FIFA, NHL and NBA (if that series ever gets back on its feet), but it’s still not my favorite mode.
Outside of career mode, I spend the majority of my team with franchise mode. My Detroit Lions might be terrible in real life, but here I can make them the champions that the real-life football gods will never seem to allow. It is a deep mode, with lots of options that… is pretty much where it was at near the end of the PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 era. Over the last few years some ‘new’ things were added like owner mode… that had existed last generation. For being the most popular and robust feature in the Madden series, Franchise is starting to feel very neglected at this point and is in dire need of some innovation at this point.
The core gameplay is fun, as linebackers seem less superhuman and running backs have ample entertaining animations while blockers seem to lock-in properly – all things that you expect but often go underappreciated because a lot of effort goes into them. When you have 22 players smashing into one another on a field as big as this, there are numerous physics in play that the series had generally handled rather well. Still, there seemed to be more bugs than usual in this year’s release. Some of them are pretty cosmetic, some more annoying. For example, a weird animation occurred after my team recovered a fumble and my player wound up in sort of a crouched / hopping animation that the other team showed no interest in tackling. I sort of three-point stanced myself into the endzone. It was truly weird and I wish I had recorded it in retrospect.
Other odd bugs surfaced during gameplay, such as one of the times in Face of the Franchise, my team was lining up for a punt return except instead of it being my special teams – it was my starting offense. Equally odd, Matthew Stafford (my quarterback) jumped offsides immediately and the other team’s 4th and 3 turned into a first down. It was a really buggy sequence. Simple text errors show up as well, such as when in Face of the Franchise my goal is two rushing touchdowns but the update tracker at the bottom of the screen said ‘receiving touchdowns’ in two different games. It still tracked properly based on rushing, but seems like a weird, simple oversight.
The commentary also struggles mightily this year. I enjoy the team they have bene using the last several years, but there is just wrong or too often repeated commentary. In one game, my running back Swift (which is just a fantastic running back name, by the way) had already had a reception for a touchdown in the first quarter. But each subsequent RUSHING touchdown triggered a line from the commentator that it was the running back’s first receiving touchdown… all three times. Repetition is particularly problematic at times also.
For example, there was a line about how the front office had made a concerted effort to improve the defense and how they have to be liking their returns. It was triggered by fumble recoveries for touchdowns – something that should be a relatively rare event, but I was playing the Bears and they suck – and I had three of those events. Each time I heard the same line. Other lines I heard sometimes two or three times in the same game as well. These kinds of on-field glitches really take away from what should be a polished, AAA experience by now, especially given how little actually changed from last year to this one.
Issues popped up off of the field for me as well. Voice acting is weirdly not there at times during Face of the Franchise, replaced by oddly flickering text splashes as questions and answers are dealt with. I get that they can’t voice players like Matthew Stafford but reporters and faux GMs? Also, for some reason my franchise mode’s save file went from my name (Nick Herber) to my FB turned TE (Nick Bawden). I have no idea how that happened, but it has me a bit concerned about the file save integrity as that’s just really weird.
Other glitches like an inability to train (selecting start training just kept kicking me back to the main hub screen in Franchise Mode) forced me to fully quit the game and restart on three separate occasions now. None of these is a deal breaker in and of itself, but it’s a solid sampling of issues for a game I’ve only been playing for about a week so far and that I generally expect much better from. It will be interesting to see if these kinds of issues persist on the next generation consoles in a couple of months.
None of these offenses in and off themselves is that big of a deal, but taken as a whole, they do detract from what is still a deep, entertaining sports simulation with a ton of things to do. Progressing through Face of the Franchise was really fun. I still spent hours tweaking my roster to fit my playing style in Franchise Mode. While The Yard is shallow, there is undeniable appeal in its fast-paced arcade style of gameplay. The visuals are better than ever. In particular I love the slick feeling of chaining together moves in the running game or delivering bone rattling hits with the right control stick. Some of the new ideas here are interesting, if some missed opportunities are visible as well.