A funny thing happened almost immediately after Madden NFL 21 dropped. It seemed like everyone who had the game did one of two things: Get blown away by how much of a buggy mess it was, or hop onto one of several ratings sites and toss a one-star rating its way. As of this writing, here’s what users on Google think of the game:
Real bad! If Dylan from the Making the Band skit on Chappelle’s Show dropped an album — not the person it was based on, I mean Dave Chappelle doing Dylan for 45 minutes — it would have done better than this. There is an evident sense of frustration among Madden fans over the current direction of the game, something that has been going on for years and seems to have come to a head for this version.
A fascinating subplot is what happens in future editions of Madden, but you did not come here for that, you came for a review of this game. As I played through it, one overarching thought was seared into my brain: Despite some things I really enjoyed, this just felt like last year’s Madden with a few more bells and whistles.
Let’s start with the good. I really liked playing The Yard. Would I recommend dropping serious coin on Madden just to play it? No, I would not, but if you’re going to purchase the game, this is a really fun addition that breathes some life into a game that feels a bit stale — for fans of the other football, think of it like VOLTA Football in FIFA 20, both in terms of aesthetic and how it adds a different dimension that wouldn’t otherwise exist in the game.
The general concept of The Yard seems to be heavily inspired by NFL Street. It’s backyard-style football with backyard football playbooks, taking place on a collection of fields and letting you mix and match players together. You can read more about it right here, but in general, this is the mode to play, especially if you can get together with a group of friends. It’s not quite the same as The Neighborhood in NBA 2K — which is a pretty easy comparison to make — due to the fact that there isn’t a whole world where you exist, but the general comp of a street/backyard game mode with different rules, a different approach, and one individual, customizable character isn’t a bad one.
It’s not perfect, if only because it doesn’t always feel like you’re playing a different game and it can feel like you’re playing a slightly looser version of Madden if you don’t have down the various little tricks that give you a leg up, plus I am not someone who gets super into customizing my avatar, although I certainly understand that that’s a personal preference. An option that would let gamers build their teams where they are picking teammates from every NFL roster would be interesting, too. But generally, The Yard is fun, and I’m excited to see how it develops over the years.
I’m also a fan of Superstar KO, if only because it’s quick, fun, and customizable. The act of playing football over and over can, of course, get a little repetitive, and while I enjoyed The Yard more, Superstar KO is a good way to get a few quick, unique games in. It can get a bit hectic, and the gameplay issues I have that we’ll get into in the next graf or two, but this is one of the two game modes that, I believe, you’d enjoy sinking the most time into if you picked this up.
The mere act of playing Madden isn’t a negative, but generally, it’s fine, albeit imperfect. The main thought that went through my head the entire time was something that Steven Petite of GameSpot also articulated in his review: Playing Madden, along with the apparent ignoring of Franchise mode and Ultimate Team — both of which feel exactly the same as last year’s version of the game — makes this feel like more of a season update than a game that, ostensibly, had a full year to turn into something new, fresh, and worth $60.
Two main examples of things I didn’t love in last year’s Madden that are still evident in this one. For one, if a player’s Superstar X-Factor is activated, you are absolutely useless trying to do anything against them. While playing against the Packers, Jaire Alexander’s “Shutdown” x-factor was activated, and if I threw the ball within his area code, it was picked off, with my wide receiver not even attempting to make a play on the ball. The other issue is how frequently my receivers would catch the ball, come down with it, have a defender bump into them, and drop the ball. In an obvious attempt to make it so every game doesn’t turn into a pass-happy shootout, the last two Madden games have made passing unnecessarily finicky.
After getting a few games under my belt, I referred to this post on the EA Sports site about gameplay. It was, admittedly, a little less tricky to do run defense, but for the most part, all of these gameplay tweaks didn’t really stick out. Again, it largely feels like you are playing the exact same Madden game as last year. Which is fine! It’s just not sink tons of money into purchasing a new game levels of fine.
This is the issue at the heart of having to put this game together during a global pandemic. This is something that, I believe, needs to be front and center during the Madden discourse — due to circumstances outside of the control of every single person at EA Sports, the game needed to be put together with people unable to sit in offices together and do all of the things you normally need to do to build an entire dang video game. That’s really, really hard to do, and it’s something that I think about a lot as I am playing Madden, because it feels like a game that just isn’t complete, something that EA Sports has tacitly admitted with the number of patches and updates, such as the September title update or the Franchise Mode one that is coming in November.
I suppose this is where I should talk about bugs and glitches. Boy, there are a lot of them, aren’t there? A few, in my experience:
1. SMOOTH FIELD.
— Bill DiFilippo (@billdifilippo) September 2, 2020
2. Whatever this is supposed to be.
3. Some general sloppiness in Face of the Franchise (which we will get to shortly!). This included things like needing three tries for the game to accept the player I created’s build and features, or my difficulty automatically resetting to “Rookie” when I’d exit out of the mode. Little things, too, like my tenure at Oregon featuring teammates that wore generic white and blue uniforms during a cutscene, or the inability to simulate and only do offense/defense/key moments being taken away during one FotF for no identifiable reason, or in my first game in the mode, when I’d do kickoffs and the camera would set up shop right behind the uprights, so my entire screen would be blocked for a hot second.
4. The strictness over profanity in names was completely insane — in a weird personality quirk, I like to name my characters one of “Gil Faizon” or “George St. Geegland,” because I am a loser, but both “Gil” and “St. Geegland” were ruled to include profanity, for some reason. I swear, I am not making this up.
Again, it is not hard to see how putting this game together during a pandemic hurt EA Sports a ton, as little things are just not right. You have, certainly, seen compilations of bugs and glitches that exist in this game, so this is not an issue that only I dealt with. One can only wonder if the game could have gone through another two weeks worth of quality control checks before going out to gamers would have smoothed over those various cracks, because they are as much a part of this game as pressing “X” on my PlayStation controller to hike the ball.
Ending on a sour note isn’t fun, but this is where talking abut Face of the Franchise fits in. It’s just not good. I’ve been of the thought for a year or two that we really don’t need to have big narrative modes in sports games — Madden, FIFA, 2K, maybe The Show, etc. — but this cemented my belief. It is all done through the eyes of your character giving an interview after his career, and you, as is commonplace in these modes, go through an entire career, from a new player on a high school football team behind a star, to taking over for that star as a junior because he has a heart condition, to playing alongside him as a senior, to going to the same college as him, to a pro. You’re called the Heartbreak Kids, which is an admittedly good name for a football duo, in large part because I am a Shawn Michaels stan. Your NFL career ends up having ups and down, but generally, it’s nothing remarkable.
The whole thing felt inflexible as a story. An example: During your junior year in college, you start the season opener, then you jump right to the College Football Playoff semifinal, where you start after being told the two quarterbacks rotated all year. While there, I torched LSU, 70-0. The other QB ended up starting the national title game, anyway. He gets hurt at halftime, you come in, save the day (for me, this was against USC), and win a national title.
Then, the next scene is the coach telling you that you will be the backup quarterback next year, and you have two choices: Go to the NFL Draft or switch positions to running back or wide receiver. While I did the former, a colleague did the latter, and he got two extra college games before getting the option to switch back to quarterback prior to entering the NFL if you want. Why you, the national title-winning quarterback, go through this is not clear. It is Sorkin-esque writing insofar as it tried way too hard to do way too many things and just ended up getting in its own way.
Ultimately, where I land on Madden is this: Despite the addition of The Yard, and despite how much fun Superstar KO can be, it would have been way better for EA to drop a monster season update to Madden 20 and perfect the next full game. While I can’t say for sure, I suspect this would have been the case regardless of the extenuating circumstances that made creating a video game so difficult right now. It’s not as bad as the flood of negative reviews it received from frustrated gamers who, hopefully, will spur major changes to future editions of the game, but I can’t justify forking over the money to buy it right now. Do keep an eye out for sales and what not, though, because there is enough to like that getting the game at some time isn’t the worst idea in the world.