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May 2024

Madden NFL 21

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Sports
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: Aug. 28, 2020


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PS4 Review - 'Madden NFL 21'

by Redmond Carolipio on Aug. 28, 2020 @ 12:01 a.m. PDT

Go All Out in Madden NFL 21 with innovative gameplay mechanics that offer advanced levels of control and inspire creativity on both sides of the ball.

Buy Madden NFL 21

Madden NFL 21 arrives to us in a sports maelstrom of social-justice boycotting and pandemic-induced uncertainty, which — ready or not — makes its release one of the most important in the franchise's history. We are in a world where every day for the past few months, sports networks have been rebroadcasting football games from the past with the knowledge that people will watch them, just to experience the spectacle of football in stadiums packed with fans. The people of "sports nation" need places to go, and for better and worse, Madden 21 does its best to give them a place worth visiting.

I've already stated my belief that a game's cover athlete is indicative of where that year's game is trying to go, and Madden 21 can't do much better than Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning NFL MVP who has evolved into one of the avatars of newer, modernized and diverse football thought as well as one of the faces behind the changing narrative of the Black quarterback, a decades-long odyssey that has involved everything from questioned intelligence to coded language in an attempt to steer them to play another position. Jackson, who has played QB his whole life, had been infamously asked if he would consider a shift to another position during the draft process. To those reading this who don't follow sports, yes, that's a thing.

It couldn't help but hear a few faint echoes alluding to Jackson's experience during several trips in the game's retooled story/career mode called Face of the Franchise, which now takes you through a season of high school, two quick seasons of college football, the NFL combine, and what was, for me, a short-ish NFL career en route to the Hall of Fame. Instead of playing every game and going through every practice every week of the season, Face of the Franchise focuses on playing key games and moments, and choosing dialogue paths during cinematics that can influence the type of player you'll be and the kind of personality you'll have. Each response can lead to certain boosts (or subtractions) to the attributes to your player and others.

The overall storytelling in Face of the Franchise was generally fun and engaging, but it was also insulting to me as both an experienced football fan and someone who absorbs all manner of tales. At times, it was a heavy slog through a storm of football clichés, like the Old-School Coach Who Doesn't Believe in You and Time To Prove You Still Have It. I would've probably enjoyed it more if some of the things in the story didn't feel like forced left turns that made my eyes roll into the back of my head.

For example, there are several moments when my created quarterback has to take over for my frenemy/rival/brother-figure Tommy at QB when his heart condition flares up and makes it too difficult for him to play. For context, we'd been part of a weird, alternating, dual-starter system the whole season, and every game my created player started, he put up sick numbers in blowout victories.

It's the national championship game, and Tommy put up three points in the first half. My dude puts up something like 350 yards and 4 TDs in the second half en route to a blowout to win the national championship, and the following offseason, Old-School Coach comes over to tell me that Tommy is coming in as the starter because "he's a better fit for the offense," and perhaps I could consider changing positions to play my senior season or enter the draft. It's slightly reminiscent of Cardale Jones and Ohio State in 2015 when they won the title, except Jones was a definitive third-stringer forced into action, not an alternating co-starter like my created player — hence the eye-rolling when the coach made his decision. The first time I saw this, I went to the draft. The second time, I switched to running back, put up huge numbers when called upon, and won another title with Tommy at QB (now my bestest friend ever). It was when I reached the pros that things got a little weird.

I dig how personalities from the NFL Network pitched in for cameos, specifically Rich Eisen, who offers some talk-radio readings during your college career and welcomes you in person at the NFL combine before its time for your player to work out. The combine isn't as grueling as you'd think, but there's some logic-bending stuff that happened to me in my first literal run through it — I ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard-dash as a quarterback, yet when I looked at my physical ratings, I had a speed rating of 65.

Your whole pro career seems to age in dog years, offering an abbreviated jaunt through a variety of games and milestones, like establishing yourself as a rookie, winning the Super Bowl, managing a rivalry with an opposing player, fending off competition for your position, and emptying the proverbial tank in your final season. All of these were interesting scenarios to consider, but each one lacked some nuance in the execution that led to ludicrous situations.

The strangest example that comes to mind is how after a season where my created player puts up galactic numbers and is considered a budding all-time great, the coach calls him into the office and announces an open competition for his spot, and that he has to compete to fight to remain the starter. I need to mention that my quarterback is rated in the mid-to-high 90s, is 26, maybe 27 years old and has already won an MVP, a Super Bowl and even a Comeback Player of the Year after missing most of one season with an injury earlier in his career. As a sports fan, it made me laugh to imagine if this happened in real life to mid-20s Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady, or even current-day Patrick Mahomes. It's beyond silly, and I remember legitimately offended having to play through drills to keep myself as the starter. I managed to pull through, which led to another implausible (but fun) situation: My coach calls me back in to say, and I'm paraphrasing, "Sorry we put you through that, but I'd just like to tell you that we'd like to go forward with you as the starter!" For a response after winning the job, I can either "express gratitude" or "demand release." I demanded my release, got it, signed with another team and led them to a Super Bowl while my former team plummeted in the standings. It was petty and satisfying, I'll admit.

I ended my career at the ripe old age of 28, not because of some injury, only because the game decided it was time for me to go. I was still pretty highly rated and effective, but it was interesting to hear the commentators referring to me as if I were 10 years older and barely hanging on for my dear football life. By that time, I had learned to suspend some of my sense of reality. I liked the premise of the career mode, an interview-documentary with the aged version of your created player at his old high school. The voice acting was solid on all levels, and I enjoyed Tye Sheridan ("Ready Player One," "X-Men") putting in the work as Tommy.

In terms of the pure on-field play, Madden 21 appears content to build upon and refine the X-factor system it established in the last game and layer on some nuanced improvements instead of an overall leap. Both in the preview and in the full build, it was easy to notice an extra dimension of new animations to the players, which contributes to a more natural look in the action. My favorite stuff to see is in the running game, where backs have to deal with linemen getting tangled up and rolling/falling in front of them in the hole. Ball carriers fall forward a little more, and they gloriously contort and reach for the first-down markers or the goal line. This can lead to more questionable-looking touchdowns to the naked eye that should call for booth reviews, which add a different energy to the game. I also enjoyed the implementation of the right thumbstick as the focal point for a grander variety of moves, which is where I felt the influence of the aforementioned Jackson, who is as electric a player with the ball in his hands as there is in the NFL.

The right-stick revamp also applied to the other side of the ball, as I enjoyed playing defense on the trenches a little more than I have in years past. Now the right stick uncorks a variety of pass-rush moves, some of which you can string together in an effort to get past linemen with varying degrees of skill. For a few seconds, you can find yourself in a mini-duel to get to the QB or into the backfield, and that's more than enough to get some more joy out of playing closer to the line of scrimmage.

Another thing that stood out to me was the continued evolution of the Madden playbook, which now includes more things like run-pass options (RPOs) and orbit motions that can help you determine if a defense is in zone or man coverage. That feels like a nod to Jackson and his work with Baltimore, who used an entire offseason to build an offense around his abilities, and to some other coaches around the NFL, who have been finding different ways to design concepts and plays to attack defenses.

For me, the jury is still out on The Yard, the callback to the NFL Street days of projecting turbocharged, backyard-style ironman football. It's 6-on-6 with a timed blitz, laterals and double passes, and customizable players in the hopes that a community can be built from it much in the same way that NBA 2K has created a bustling community of virtual park ballers. I didn't expect to have as much fun as I did with the handful of Yard games I played, mostly because of the quirky play design. It was a fun distraction, and time will tell if it'll be anything more.

I respect the attempt Madden 21 is making more as a celebration of football as opposed to a straight-up simulation, but even with all of the smaller improvements, I don't feel like we're truly there yet … and I feel like I've been saying this for years. The career mode could use more fine-tuning, though I'm glad we're a ways away from the days of Longshot, and The Yard has potential.

Considering that this could be the closest thing we see to "normal" football for a long time, Madden NFL 21 works. However, I can't shake the feeling that more could be done. Some things feel practically untouched. The create-a-player faces are still weird. Why can there be such a discrepancy in head sizes? Why can't I seem to port over the player I created in Face of the Franchise into a regular roster or at least have him available in regular create-a-player? The array of quarterback throwing motions still seems limited, and it pales in comparison to the way players in other sports games are so heavily signaturized. I still feel there's plenty of work to be done with this franchise, and that so-called "next level" we keep looking for can be reached. For now, I might tighten up my Yard skills, see what new decisions I can make in a new career mode, and beef up on my RPO mastery while I hope for more in next year's Madden outing.

Score: 7.8/10

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