Madden NFL 21 review: A familiar face

Hello Madden, my old friend.

Madden Nfl 21
(Image: © Electronic Arts)

When it comes to the Madden NFL franchise, many fans are convinced that recent releases are just more of the same. With Madden NFL 21 - the latest entry in the series - EA Sports has done a better job than usual of making sure the game feels much fresher. However, despite the tweaks to gameplay and new modes, many of Madden NFL 21's problems feel familiar and may give fans some hesitation as they prepare to get back on the virtual field.

What you'll love about Madden NFL 21

When it comes to sports games, massive changes aren't something we see too often. When it comes to Madden, those big changes happen even less, as developers seem to instead tweak and improve yearly rather than innovate entirely new ways to play. However, that changes a bit when it comes to Madden NFL 21. This year, the folks at EA Tiburon have attempted to juggle a ton, giving loyal fans the big updates they expect while also adding in some new modes and features that older fans coming back to the series will enjoy.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
DeveloperEA Tiburon
PublisherEA Sports
PlayersSingle-Player, Local/Online Multiplayer
PlatformsMicrosoft Windows, Xbox, PlayStation 4

As is the case with every iteration of Madden, some of the biggest improvements made in Madden NFL 21 focus on the smaller aspects of the game, including the way games are broadcast and how the play. Realism has always been a massive factor in the Madden series, and things are as good as they ever have been in Madden NFL 21. Not only do games look and feel like an actual NFL game, but player animations and movements are almost identical to the real thing. Little quirks or movements that a star quarterback like Aaron Rodgers may have, or the way a certain offensive lineman kicks off the grass to prepare to block are all found in Madden NFL 21, making it one of the most realistic football games ever.

When it comes to actual gameplay, attention to detail is still a significant focus for EA Tiburon. Whereas past Madden games have opted for a more arcade-like style, Madden NFL 21 slows things down, giving fans the chance to appreciate each and every play and moment that occurs on the field. This also helps elevate some of the many gameplay features, including the Skill Stick and X-Factor system, higher than they usually might. Using the newly tweaked skill stick is as easy as mastering the various moves of the right analog stick, and the rewards for doing so are much prettier highlight plays. Getting into a gap as a running back and juking out a defender in real-time feels incredible, as does bull-rushing past an opposing offensive linemen to take down the quarterback. Mastering these moves takes time, too, making each and every game you play feel more like a chance to learn than simply another moment to grind through.

While the NFL is the ultimate team game, superstars still make or break everything. Introduced in Madden NFL 20, the X-Factor system gives some of the best players in the league various boosts. In Madden NFL 2021, X-Factors are back and continue to act as an incredibly fun inclusion, albeit one that seems more on the arcade side of play. Superstars like Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson will be able to unlock special X-Factors by completing a task in the game. These X-Factors vary by player but can include the ability to never be intercepted by the CPU, being able to hurdle a defender without fumbling, and much more. Because of how realistic Madden often is, X-Factors represent an excellent way to reward some of the best players in the league without making things feel too silly. The fact that not every player gets one is excellent, and makes you think more about individual matchups as you take to the field.

Madden Nfl 21

Source: Electronic Arts (Image credit: Source: Electronic Arts)

Elsewhere in Madden NFL 2021, you'll find many of the same modes you've come to expect. Madden Ultimate Team - or MUT, as it's known - is back again, and continues to allow fans the chance to build up their own custom team by collecting cards. Thankfully, this mode has seen a bit of an upgrade over the last couple of years and relies a lot less heavily on microtransactions than it used to. Alongside MUT, Superstar KO is back after the mode received rave reviews following its introduction midway into Madden NFL 20's lifespan.

Acting as more of an arcade-like game mode, Superstar KO gives players the chance to draft a small team of stars and battle it out online with unique rulesets. It's not an incredibly deep mode but does offer some fun if you're tired of the drag of a full NFL game, and it can offer some rewards for Madden Ultimate Team if you happen to play that mode a lot. Two of the most significant changes to Madden NFL 21 come in the form of The Yard and the revitalized Face of the Franchise mode, however, which help make this year's title feel like way less of a rehash than in years past.

Positive steps forward

Madden Nfl 21

Source: Electronic Arts (Image credit: Source: Electronic Arts)

The Yard is the newest way to play a game in Madden NFL 21 and brings a fully arcade-style football experience to anyone who wants it. Operating as more of a backyard football mode, the Yard allows players to create their own custom player and take them onto the fields to go up against either the CPU or other players online. Where the regular play of Madden NFL 21 is a strict, hyper-realistic recreation of actual NFL football, The Yard is essentially what it looks like when you and your friends meet up in the park to play with each other.

The Yard consists of either 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3 multiplayer, and is much less focused on the rules than simply having fun. Kicking the ball to your teammates for extra yards or flicking behind-the-back passes is all well and good in The Yard. Its commitment to allowing players to risk on every play is a breath of fresh air for a game that so often chooses to focus on some aspects of football that only hardcore fans may enjoy. Besides just playing for fun, The Yard also gives players the chance to rank up their players as they grind. As you play, you'll level up and gain new gear, locations, and more for your character, so there's more than enough incentive to keep going back if you find yourself having fun there.

Joining The Yard when it comes to a bigger presence is the new and improved Face of the Franchise mode. Introduced in Madden NFL 20, Face of the Franchise acts as a narrative-driven create-a-player mode that allows you to go through various parts of an athlete's life.

Madden Nfl 21

Source: Electronic Arts (Image credit: Source: Electronic Arts)

Unlike last year, though, Madden NFL 21's Face of the Franchise is much bigger and has many more options. Instead of just playing as a quarterback, you'll be able to become a running back or wide receiver as well, and will have to rise through the ranks of high school football before making your way to college (the mode features ten actual NCAA teams, including Michigan State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Clemson, Oregon, Miami, LSU, Texas, USC, and Florida) and the NFL.

While it isn't the most groundbreaking or innovative mode to be included in a sports title, it does a good enough job keeping your interest as you play through its story. As sports games continue to try and include more narrative-based aspects, it'll be interesting to see where Madden goes, as they've laid a pretty solid foundation down in the present.

As the world of games and content continues to evolve, Madden does as well. While it's always been a game that's updated itself often, Madden NFL 21 also positions itself as a continually updating service. According to EA Tiburon, players will be seeing more content drops and updates throughout the NFL season, including obvious things like player rating changes to new things in The Yard and Superstar KO. Likewise, players who purchase Madden NFL 21 will be able to upgrade their copy of the game to the next-generation of consoles at no extra cost. In a year as hectic as 2020 and with so much upheaval occurring across the sports and gaming world, it's nice to see Madden doing its part in that regard. On the flip side, though, you may want to wait until the next-gen launch or until later in the year to pick the game up, especially if you don't find yourself being a hardcore fan of Madden or football.

What you might not love about Madden NFL 21

Madden Nfl 21

Source: Electronic Arts (Image credit: Source: Electronic Arts)

The problems that arise in Madden NFL 21 aren't new to the series, which makes them that much more frustrating when they continue to pop up. I was lucky enough not to experience any significant glitches or errors throughout my playtime. It seems that many others have, with Superstar KO, The Yard, and Face of the Franchise all having problems in some form or another during the week of early access granted to players. Luckily, it seems like EA has taken notice of these problems, and has announced that the company is doing a series of updates both this week and next to take out any issues players may be experiencing.

Outside of glitches and bugs, one of the bigger issues with the Madden series continues to be in the way it presents things that it doesn't focus heavily on. For example, mid-game highlight packages and animations are presented beautifully, and player animations on the field are pretty stellar, more often than not. This makes it even frustrating, though, when pre-game and postgame content is the same cookie-cutter videos over and over, and animations for CPU players on the sideline are seemingly the same as they have been for almost four years now.

It's a massive problem for a game that strives for the most realistic presentation available and isn't something that affects gameplay too heavily, which is likely why it hasn't been fixed yet. Still, it should be something EA looks to improve upon next year, especially if they want to keep up with providing the most authentic NFL gaming experience.

Of course, the biggest issue by far in Madden NFL 21 is one that dates back all the way to Madden NFL 18, and that's in just how poorly the games classic Franchise mode has been handled. Despite an incredibly active fanbase that continues to call for changes, Madden NFL 21's Franchise mode is once again seemingly tossed to the wayside for newer and fresher ideas. This wouldn't be too bad if the Franchise mode got some upgrades, but it almost feels like you're playing the same exact mode as you were two years ago, just with new players in the game. Thankfully, EA has said they heard fans and will be looking to fix things similar to how FIFA 21's Franchise mode has reportedly been fixed. If they can handle this, that'll knock off one massive complaint from the Madden community, and likely earn EA a ton of brownie points in the process.

Should you buy Madden NFL 21?

Madden Nfl 21

Source: EA Sports (Image credit: Source: EA Sports)

When all is said and done, Madden NFL 21 is another incredible entry in the series and delivers the most realistic NFL game you'll find out there, period. Of course, this is because it is the only authentic NFL game out there, and the lack of competition EA has when it comes to football titles shows in various ways.

The tweaks to the gameplay - including the Skill Stick and slowing down of things in general - are massive improvements, and the inclusion of The Yard and a revamped Face of the Franchise make it so that any player can jump in and have fun. Unfortunately, there are also still many problems, including various bugs and glitches found early on, and in the way that the classic Franchise mode has been handled. Madden NFL 21 is almost certainly a must-buy for fans of the sport, but fans will have to hope that as we move into the future, EA is ready to take things to another level once again.

Madden NFL 21 retails for $60 and is available on Microsoft Windows, Xbox, and PlayStation 4.

Anthony J Nash

Anthony Nash has been writing about games and the gaming industry for nearly a decade. When he’s not writing about games, he’s usually playing them. You can find him on Twitter talking about games or sports at @_anthonynash.