Just like it is for all 32 clubs in the NFL, the Madden quest for glory is won and lost based on offseason maneuvers. After last year's game made Belichickian changes like the inclusion of X-Factors and smarter Ultimate Team progression, Madden 21 feels it's been handed over to an Al Davis type. Its new additions are flashy, but often incomplete, and with a few off-the-field issues.
Release date: 28 August 2020
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Publisher: EA Tiburon
The biggest and brightest change to Madden NFL 21 is The Yard, an entirely new game mode which has given the annual football sim a clear path to the future. In The Yard, games of 6v6 backyard-inspired football are played on shorter fields with more scoring, trick plays, and tons of player customization. It's obvious and exciting to see, with just a single glance, how The Yard could be - and should be - one important branch of Madden for years to come.
With laterals galore, an ability to hike the ball to anyone on any play, and some wild mechanics such as punching or kicking the ball to teammates like a one-timer in soccer or hockey, The Yard infuses Madden with a sense of arcadey fun that's been missing for the game's less serious players. An in-game cosmetics store and tons of "Prototypes" (think character builds) reveal a months-long tail which will easily carry the game into next summer's renewed marketing campaign.
But like the Raiders' first-round draft picks of yesteryear, all that style comes without some substance elsewhere. It legitimately stings to write this sentence, but Franchise mode has been all-but-ignored yet again, perhaps unlike any season ever before. Even the marketing materials had very little spin to deliver on what Franchise devotees could expect for new experiences this year, so much so that for what must be the first time ever, they began talking of next year's game before this one was even out. Truly, I struggle to find one new item to highlight in Franchise, my favorite mode, and that's troubling.
Even more surprising is the little attention paid to Ultimate Team. For over a decade, Franchise has felt forgotten in favor of the cash-happy MUT, but somehow this mode also evades fresh marquee features in Madden NFL 21. Last year's Mission structure, which greatly improved the way players progressed through the fantasy football-like mode, makes a welcome return, but it does so bearing no gifts. It's startling to see just how similar this year's MUT looks next to last year's. I'm used to it with Franchise, but for MUT, it's unheard of.
If you fell off Madden NFL 20 early or missed it entirely, your first brush with Superstar KO comes with this year's game. Added post-launch as a free update, this playoff-style mode made for an exciting new way to play quick, high-stakes tournaments. Draft a few players to start and play online to move up the ranks. Each win gives you more draft picks as you face off against other players on similar trajectories. By the end, should you make it that far, two teams stacked with superstar athletes go head to head. Like The Yard, it's a fantastic distraction from the more simulation-based modes, but in this case, it's nothing new for the diehards who never stopped playing the previous edition.
On the field, the most important change is a bevy of new pass rush moves which allow linemen and edge rushers to get after the QB in ways that more rewardingly resemble real life. Using better UI and granting the full potential of the right stick, shoulder, and face buttons all to a defender's repertoire, the front seven finally feel as important in Madden as they do in the pass-happy NFL. Beyond that and another half-step of better character models, the on-field game is, like a lot of this year's effort, too close to last summer's instalment.
At least the story mode is the best it's ever been. Face of the Franchise builds on last year's laissez-faire approach by giving players a longer story, but still mercifully few hard-and-fast scenes. The opening few hours while your created player is in college still have its share of apparently unavoidable cringe moments, like an on-field meet-and-greet with Snoop Dogg which seems written only for the cameo, or a string of contrived plot points that never mesh with your player's actual contributions to his team.
Face the future
Still, what FOTF gets right is a much longer commitment to your career. Deep into my sixth season of the NFL, I was still witnessing new story beats play out both on the field and off, and I could easily track my career progress across a number of interesting metrics, like my stats, skill progression, and lifetime standings among the NFL's elite. There's more control over how your player performs than before, with fewer moments of closely directed scenes to go awry. It's far from perfect, but by allowing for more positions like running back and wide receiver to be chosen alongside the ever-present quarterback playthrough, Face of the Franchise feels like a worthy time sink in a way no Madden story ever has.
Between Face of the Franchise and The Yard, Madden NFL 21 has starkly different high-profile game modes compared to the series a few years ago, when it still felt like MUT and Franchise were the headliners, even if the latter was already being ignored back then. This transition reveals that Madden is not stagnant in the way it often appears to be. Over several years, the game has changed dramatically, but Madden NFL 21 has only one major stride to its credit, The Yard, while other features feels like incremental adjustments spanning an entire console generation.
This year's game features six distinct modes spanning Exhibition, Franchise, Face of the Franchise, Superstar KO, Ultimate Team, and The Yard, but the breadth of a half-dozen game modes veils a lack of improvements in half of them. Last year, I said Madden was in a rebuilding year, showing promise but not a contender quite yet. With Madden NFL 21, like the perennially doomed Browns, Lions, and Jets, forever seeking consistency in their staffs and stars, it feels like the Madden team needs to hit reset once more.