It’s Time To Talk Next Generation
HIGH The Skill Stick controls are much improved on defense.
LOW The graphics are really showing their age.
WTF Bad acting is forgivable. Unnecessary game modes are not.
With COVID-19 continuing to rob the world of live sports and experiences, players are looking to EA Sports for a sense of Sunday afternoon normalcy — and “normalcy” is pretty much what they’ll receive. While Madden NFL 21 certainly improves on last year’s stagnant offering with a bevy of new modes and features, it’s difficult to shake the fact that fans have played roughly the same title for a few years running.
Sure, there are only ‘so many ways’ to recreate the game of football, and no one can question that Madden is still the gold standard for sports sims. But, as players await the next console generation, there’s a lingering question about whether the current-gen version of Madden NFL 21 is worth the investment, or if it’s better to wait for the hotshot rookie waiting to debut in the second half.
Starting with a positive, EA Sports has vastly improved the visual presentation this season. While there’s always going to be some glitchiness when this many character models are moving independently, Madden NFL 21 has far fewer instances of players walking through NPCs, balls disappearing at random, or skinless faces in the story mode.
Even better, character movement is far more realistic after the whistle blows, eliminating the strange ‘rushed zombie’ walks back to the huddle. While these moments never affected gameplay, the lack of realism definitely reduced the sense of immersion modern players want from sports sims.
Since the end of the current generation is near, it’s unfair to expect major graphical improvements, but Madden’s player models and facial features still leave a little to be desired. One can only hope these features are being worked out for the new machines coming this fall.
Madden NFL 21’s best improvements occur under the hood, with a distinct focus on improved defensive controls and more realistic pacing. For starters, the Skill Stick — a recurring, if inconsistent Madden feature for the better part of a decade — is finally ready for the big leagues, adding unprecedented levels of depth and control to defensive gameplay. In short, tackles don’t feel incidental, and defensive wins feel earned, not random.
On the offensive front, the Skill Stick is an asset as well, giving running backs new levels of control when avoiding oncoming contact. Though many of the juke animations still feel a little canned, the overall experience is more fluid. Seasoned Madden veterans will likely be pleased with the improvements.
This season, EA Sports finally made good on its promise of improving AI, and those players who spam the same crossing patterns are in for a rude awakening — and a lot of interceptions. The game might still be easy to beat on “rookie”, but even then the AI learns, adapts and punishes lazy strategy.
However, the reduced game speed is perhaps the most notable improvement, giving a more deliberate, measured feel that previous editions only hinted at. While it may be subtle, this slower pace also creates new levels of tension when trying to find open receivers or finding gaps in defensive lines. In other words, it’s much more representative of actual NFL games. Those who want a quicker experience can still adjust speed settings in the menu sliders, along with a litany of other tweaks and optimizations.
As users know, the Madden NFL experience isn’t limited to on-field gameplay, and the expected slew of modes and features is at an all-time high. This year’s newest addition is The Yard — a lighthearted, style-focused arcade mode that plays a lot like the classic NFL Blitz, updated to reflect the flashiness of today’s most-outlandish NFL stars.
As a side experience, The Yard is a welcome addition, but its lack of depth and strategy will likely sideline it in favor of more-traditional Madden modes over time. This offense-heavy, simplified approach works a lot better for basketball than it does with football, and after a few dozen easy touchdowns, most players will likely revert to something deeper.
Returning this year is the Madden NFL story mode, Face of the Franchise, and unfortunately, the same flaws we’re seeing in titles like NBA 2K and FIFA have surfaced in Madden. Primarily, it’s the story itself, which borders on the preposterous. As usual, the narrative centers on yet another “scrappy underdog” ideal, with the user portraying the deserving upstart that overcomes the odds to win the day in grand fashion. This edition plumbs new depths of ridiculousness with predictable storylines, cartoonish characters, and ‘twists’ that come without explanation, regardless of how well the user performed in the gameplay portions.
In contrast, the stalwart Franchise and Ultimate Team modes remain as deep and engaging as ever, with the former offering the most complete NFL gaming experience to date by giving users as much (or as little) control over their teams as they wish — a boon for those who want the attention focused on deep, strategic football gameplay, and not the price of hot dogs at a new stadium.
For those looking for more balanced challenges, Madden’s online offerings are as deep as ever, and those looking to take their skills public will be rewarded handily. While the online component still tends to favor experienced players, there’s a more welcoming vibe to this year’s online modes, making true newcomers feel like valued players, rather than inexperienced nuisances.
In my five or so hours of multiplayer, the matchmaking was balanced and the games were quick and responsive, with no lag or delay. I had no issues finding a suitable game and given the fact that the title had just launched, it’s expected that online Madden gameplay will only improve as servers become more available.
Even better, those who purchase Madden NFL 21 for current generation consoles will receive a free upgrade to the Xbox Series X or Playstation 5 version if/when they purchase a new console.
Given the sheer depth of the title, this Madden NFL 21 review could theoretically go on for another 1,000 words but there’s a good chance most readers already know whether or not they plan to invest in another season of tried and true NFL gameplay. Make no mistake, Madden NFL 21 is the best rendition of football this generation, and is A solid experience for anyone who takes the plunge — it just comes down to whether or not the new features warrant another purchase for regular fans.
Disclosures: This game is published by EA Sports and developed by EA Tiburon. It is currently available on XBO, PS4, PC and Stadia. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox One. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. Multiplayer was not available during our testing.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E and contains Mild Lyrics in the in-game music selections. Additionally, this is a lifelike representation of full-contact NFL football, and some tackling animations and injuries may concern some parents.
Colorblind Modes: There are colorblind modes available in the Game Settings menu.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Madden NFL 21 features subtitles and numerous tactile feedback features within the controller, in all modes. The game is easily playable without sound. I’d say this is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable.
When not writing for Gamecritics, Brad spends his days managing several sports and entertainment websites, handling several freelance writing contracts, and occasionally playing the role of "Dad" when time permits.
Brad is also the only guy on this staff who prefers the Xbox One to other platforms. And he's not budging on that one bit.