Inverse Game Reviews

Madden NFL 21 fumbles, recovers, and barely makes it to the end zone

Inverse Score: 6/10

In its current state, Madden NFL 21 is an IOU from EA Sports.

The annual football franchise by Electronic Arts’ Tiburon studio has never been one to reinvent the wheel. (Incremental improvements are the only way the development team can hope to push out a state-of-the-art NFL simulator every year.) But this latest installment begs the question: is Madden NFL’s yearly release model sustainable anymore?

Don’t get me wrong. At its core, Madden 21 is still enjoyable, but when it comes to the graphical details, new modes, and next-generation promises, EA is selling gamers a half-baked cake on August 28.

The week I spent playing Madden 21’s various game modes had me screaming for joy as I hit my first game-winning pass with my hometown Dolphins. But those fleeting moments of hype were bogged down by visual bugs, unending loading screens, and a story mode that can only be described as an NFL-sponsored parody of Riverdale.

Is 'Madden's yearly release schedule sustainable anymore?EA Sports

Like all other EA Sports titles, Madden 21 is billed as a “live service” game that will be continuously updated and improved until Madden 22 is ready to ship next year. The company even went the extra yard to give PlayStation 4 and Xbox One owners a free update to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions once next-gen consoles are released later this year. So many of my concerns may very well be addressed in the coming week or months.

Note: The night before Inverse’s review was set to go live (August 27), EA shipped a patch that fixed some of Madden 21’s most flagrant bugs and glitches. Post-patch observations will be noted where relevant in italics.

On the surface, these issues seem to be telltale symptoms of workflow disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic, extremely tight deadlines, and the impending shift to next-gen consoles. With that in mind, Madden 21 might be novel for newcomers to the series, but without significant additions in the coming months, it will disappoint diehards expecting a generational leap forward for the franchise.

Untapped potential

The Yard is by far Madden 21’s most innovative addition to the series, but it was jarringly unpolished in review copies. This backyard football-inspired mode lets players face off against their friends or the computer in 6v6, 3v3, 2v2, or 1v1 games.

To begin, you create a custom avatar you can trick out with all sorts of flashy gear, cosmetics that can be earned by playing or paying. You’ll also slowly unlock “Prototypes,” which are essentially stat and perk bundles that you can equip on your character depending on the positions you select to play during any given round.

These shorter, scrappier matches are a breath of fresh air after what might be an hour-long regulation game. The Yard also adds a new way players can show off their unique playstyle and threads other than playing the microtransaction-laden Ultimate Team mode. It’s the perfect game mode to style on your opponent with the newly introduced Skill Stick, which lets you pull off a flashy evasive maneuver with a flick of the right analog stick as you’re about to get tackled.

But all of that was cut short by the unrelenting glitches, hiccups, and bugs that overran The Yard.

Upon playing The Yard after EA’s August 27 patch, the game mode appeared to be more stable.

EA states that the mode is best played online, but since servers were largely empty ahead of the game’s release, I only got to play against the computer. Even then, my avatar routinely became unresponsive and the ball would occasionally fly in a completely random direction, forcing me to reset the entire match a handful of times.

Other reviewers and early access players have reported the same issues, a real letdown for the debut of a brand-new mode in a long-standing series.

Fun for newcomers, but more of the same for diehards

Franchise mode remains largely unchanged in 'Madden 21.' But EA has promised to add more "post launch" at an unspecified date.EA Sports

The game’s most enjoyable mode is Franchise, in which players take managerial control of an NFL team and lead it to the Super Bowl — if they play well enough.

Madden 21 allows for a completely hands-on or hands-off approach to team management — and everything in between. The computer can devise strategies, recruit rookies, draft stars, and automatically train your starting line-up if you so choose. But NFL junkies can also scout for new talent and play through every second of the still-meaningless pre-season games.

If you’re a long-time Madden fan, this might sound extremely familiar. That’s because Madden 21’s Career mode is a near replica of the previous game’s. EA has promised its players a number of “high-level Franchise commitments,” but the catch is that those are coming “post-launch.” Some of them won’t be ready until Madden 22.

EA made no changes to Franchise mode in its August 27 patch.

X-Factor customization is a particularly notable “someday” Madden feature. It will let players tailor superstar players’ abilities to their roster. This change is slated for a Madden 21 update sometime soon, but having it from the get-go would have been a natural progression for the series, seeing as X-Factor abilities were introduced last year and were well-received by fans. Its conspicuous absence contributes to the rushed, thrown-together feeling of the game as a whole.

Flag on the play

Create your own rookie quarterback in Face of the Franchise and grind through high school and college football until you make it to the big leagues. Yes, you meet Snoop Dogg along the way.EA Sports

Face of the Franchise is another area where Madden 21 could have shined. Sadly, the rookie-to-superstar roleplaying mode was marred by bugs — like completely out of whack statistics — and its ludicrous plot made it a real drag to push through.

After creating your personalized character, you’ll start in high school, grinding your way through the NCAA, and then it’s off to the big leagues. EA made the collegiate portion of the story much more in-depth this year, giving players two seasons to play and including heavy-hitting teams like Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Oregon.

Story modes have become standard in sports games, but Face of the Franchise demands that you suspend all belief in reality. Without spoiling too much, it includes more soap opera tropes than I was ready for. Virtual Snoop Dogg even makes an appearance. It aims high and lands low.

But in-depth stories and fleshed-out characters aren't why sports fans play Madden. The gameplay, the graphics, and the shot at leading your team to victory keeps players coming back year after year. Sadly, Madden 21 under-delivers in many of its bread-and-butter departments, making it a game I’ll turn on the play with friends or check in on when updates are announced. But it won’t be one that I’ll be itching to play all year. 6/10.

Madden NFL 21 will be released on August 28 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, and Stadia. PS4 and Xbox One gamers will receive a free upgraded PS5 and Xbox Series X version.

INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. For instance, we won’t hold it against a video game if its online mode isn’t perfect at launch. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)
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