I’ve played a couple other sports games recently, namely NHL and The Show, but did not get far enough to review them as I realized I would rather be playing Madden, my true pinnacle of sports simulation games. I fell in love with Madden around its 2005 iteration but haven’t gone deep into a franchise since about Madden 2012 and a bit in 2014. I was looking forward to getting back onto the gridiron to relive those moments and see what updates the past decade has brought to the series.
Clearly the graphics have improved since my last Madden entry, and play-by-play commentary had been made slightly more realistic, but other than that I was not impressed with the presentation. I was surprised to see lackluster efforts for the pregame introductions, halftime show, and postgame reports. We don’t see into the booth like in previous games and the highlight reels are bizarrely just still snapshots instead of video replays. Mid-game and post-game reports fall silent quickly without reason. It does not feel like I am watching a real NFL game at all.
Animations are also canned as they have always been in this series, which is something fans have been asking to change for years. It takes me out of the moment when I see unrealistic body movements to get to a catch animation, or to see multiple players stepping exactly in sync after the play is over.
My initial thoughts were that I was slightly disappointed in the lack of innovations to the gameplay and presentation, but I was happy to see some minor innovations in other areas of the game. For instance, the progression system and the additional game mode “The Yard” seemed like a good step forward, although I know I am not alone in saying that I really only come for the franchise mode. And although there are slight changes since Madden 2012, they don’t show a difference of two generations of consoles.
Again, I am here for the franchise mode, but I was excited to see Madden explore more casual gameplay modes such as “The Yard”. However, this mode truly felt uninspired, as I was hoping for something even more arcade-like and wild akin to NFL Street or NFL Blitz. It also lacks depth as I couldn’t pursue a career mode in The Yard, only pick-up games. It has been so many years without major changes to Madden that I don’t think it would be a huge ask to have a fully functioning version or NFL Street or Blitz added into the Madden package. With the massive amount of money that Madden makes it seems so doable.
Back onto franchise mode, I was happy to be back controlling every aspect of my team as the “Owner” but really nothing has changed in this mode since 2007 when they added the ability to start a franchise mode as a player. Drafting, trading, progressing, moving, all feel very familiar and good, but where are the innovations? Better yet where are the aspects that were dropped from previous versions of the game never to return? Mini-camps were a favorite in Madden 06 but no longer exists. Managing assistant coaches also seems to be gone from the formula, along with the option to export a franchise-mode team to play in exhibition games. Moving my team was always something I looked forward to, but for some reason there are far fewer options for mascots/ locations/ team names. Just let me create my own team again. All-in-all more has been taken away from franchise mode than added in and that is truly a travesty to the huge number of fans who love the mode.
Madden 21 seems to focus more on “Face of the Franchise Mode” and Madden Ultimate Team (MUT). Clearly it is better for Madden to have fans playing MUT because they are likely to purchase additional packs and send EA more money. This may explain why EA refuses to make meaningful additions to franchise Mode. Face of the Franchise is simply a more heavily narrated and less realistic version of franchise mode with a player. There is more of a story to Face of the Franchise, but if I wanted to control my own player, I would still rather not have my hand held in this mode and try my luck in franchise.
Inside an actual game of football there doesn’t seem to be many differences from what the series has always had. A few aspects that stood out to me we were that running felt more engaging and challenging that I had previously remembered. Gone are the days of holding down sprint every second of the game, as getting through the line of scrimmage often involves some more precise maneuvering. User catches and lineman play have also been revamped with a few more options to keep things fresh when controlling those positions. Although I miss being able to easily take my defensive end off the line of line of scrimmage before the play.
The biggest gameplay difference from previous generations of Madden games that I played was the emphasis on star players. Top-tier superstars not only felt dramatically different to control from average players, but also felt dramatically different from each other. A superstar run-stopper felt game-changing but also uniquely different from a superstar pass-rusher. This difference was even more apparent in quarterbacks and halfbacks. The addition of X-Factor stat boosts in the game doubled down on the game-changing ability of these superstars.
Along with the emphasis on star players in-game comes a progression system that similarly benefits superstars. In previous Madden games there seemed to be many more players in the 90’s overall range, where now those kinds of numbers are limited to a select few. This is true even after years of progressing in franchise mode as only a small number of rookie selections have a high enough potential to get to superstar status. I remember the days of getting all my rookies to at least 90 overall within a couple of seasons but that seems to be gone. I think this works well, again, with the emphasis on a smaller number of stand-out players in the game.
This progression system can be fine-tuned though. Much like difficulty sliders, progression sliders now exist to make improving players overall easier or harder by position, and I could even choose how many star or superstar player potentials I wanted there to be in the league. This sort of customization within the franchise is welcome. Although, when it comes to in-game stats I wish Madden had some more customizability to it. By this I mean that CPU vs CPU games are always 15 min quarters, meaning CPU quarterbacks rack up 4000-yard seasons easily. In order to have my QB compete on stats I need to either lower my game difficulty or to extend my games to longer than I’d like to be playing. An option to change the CPU vs CPU game length to match with my own would be a great addition, and some effort to have progression milestones match up with that change would be great.
In progressing players I did not appreciate as much the fact that players now have different “overalls” depending on the scheme of the offense or defense. If a running back is supposed to be a power back in the offensive scheme but is actually a very talented pass-catching back, their overall will appear lower than it should be in the depth chart. This adds some more tactical thinking to determining my scheme and what players I want to pick up, but really this only affects the numbers on the depth chart and in the team page and has no impact on the game itself, especially when I am calling the plays. If I am using that HB that is supposed to be a power back in my scheme to run routes, then what does the number matter. Give me the option to just see players true overall again.
I have played a fair amount of Madden and will keep coming back to the franchise as long I am looking to take control of a sports franchise. As I said, Madden still has that secret formula for me that makes me want to scout and progress my players season to season and rack up the MVP awards. However, reviews need to be taken in context, and that makes this review difficult. Madden 21 must be reviewed while looking at past Madden iterations and as I discussed with franchise mode, Madden seems to be stripping away more features than it is adding from year to year. Even though I see some significant changes since my peak Madden days on PS3 and PS2, they are not nearly what they could be with two or three generations of time. And from what I have read Madden 21 makes almost no major changes from Madden 20 save for “The Yard” mode.
For years Madden fans have been asking for innovations or to even bring back old features and Madden continues to charge $60 for what is nothing more than a roster update – which should be free for past versions anyway. Madden only looks to innovate on Ultimate Team, which is what is best for EA and not for the fans.
Having not really played a Madden game in years I did see some positive changes in gameplay and in how top-tier players feel as well as some negative changes in features that have been removed from franchise mode. I still consider Madden to be my go-to sports simulation game, meaning I was happy to pick this up on Game Pass and have a good time with it. However, the very few changes that Madden has made since 2006 is embarrassing. I wouldn’t recommend anyone purchase this game, and for Madden fans on Game Pass I would go in with the lowest of expectations to avoid being disappointed. I would give an even lower score if I was more familiar with the most recent iterations of Madden, or if I had to pay $60 for it.
Control improvements for linemen and running backs
Unique-feeling superstar players
Worsening franchise mode
Greedy focus on Ultimate Team
Lack of new features
Stale animations and game presentation