Madden 21 review: More of the same

It seems like such a long time since hardcore Madden fans were actually happy with the game. A game release that was once celebrated like a holiday by football fans across the world now feels like a yearly competition to see who can bash the title the harshest.

We feel like this tweet sums up the general yearly sentiment:

So is Madden 21 a “$60 roster update?” Let’s dive in.


Like most years, Madden features some gameplay tweaks. There are new stick skills for ball carriers to perform, including “dead-leg” and “jurdle” as well as your usual spins, trucks, jukes, and hurdles.

The most impactful changes are the adjustments made to pass rush mechanics. Last year, playing a pass rusher was extremely frustrating. Actually getting to the quarterback felt more like random luck than player skill. Madden 21 changed that. An on-field trainer gives users instant feedback as they try to swim and rip their way to the passer. Players can combo moves together, however, there is an incentive to be strategic. In Madden 21, offensive lineman become resistant to pass rush moves, so if users keep trying to go back to the same well, they may not find water. From a strategy standpoint, this is very exciting and encouraged us to play as different players along the defensive line and to save some of our most effective rush combos for key third-down plays and critical game situations.

The same logic applies to the offensive side of the ball. While there will surely be plays that emerge that players can use to cheese their way to victory, we saw clear evidence in our play-throughs of defenses adjusting to our offensive strategy. Sure, that slip screen might work once or maybe even twice, but try it a third time and be prepared to get blown up in the backfield. This adaptive AI is exactly the kind of next-level gameplay players have been asking for.

Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough innovation here. While there are more gameplay updates like breakdown tackles, more realistic open-field tackling, and an overhaul to the player avoidance system, most of the updates here feel more like a patch for Madden 20 than a leap forward with a new game.

Face of the Franchise: Rise to Fame

All we can say is mother of God, this game mode is terrible. There is just no way to sugarcoat this. The mode is as dull as it is trite. Everything feels super generic. Yes, you can name your player and pick your specific high school name. After that, you are really just a passenger for a very mundane ride.

Rise to Fame features the usual storyline we have come to expect in this type of game mode. Your player starts out in high school as an underdog quarterback, gets his shot due to another player having a medical condition, then moves on to college for a couple of seasons before advancing to the NFL to ride the bench of a year.

Unfortunately, while you are given the illusion of “choices” during this mode, none of them seem to have a particularly large impact on the outcome of anything. The gameplay difficulty was laughable. We hung 100 points on our opponent in the state championship game. It was as if we were playing on ultra-easy arcade mode. After we got bored of scoring hundreds of points, we started trying to complete passes with our eyes closed. It worked. We went on a TD drive.

The real stinker here is the writing. The story would land a person an F in any creative writing class. There is absolutely no character development and the characters behave in strange and illogical ways. Your character’s best friend, Tommy, is also his biggest rival. We guess they were going for a competitive friendship between the two players but it just doesn’t work mainly because Tommy is intermittently kind and a total jack wagon.

Here is an example of some of the leaps of logic. Your player’s college coach is an asshole for what appears to be no reason. He decides to go with a two-quarterback system and seems to relish in the frustration and uncertainty this causes in his quarterbacks. He also makes sure to mention that he doesn’t want to see any of the flashy play his two quarterbacks displayed in high school because this is “a defensive team now.” In the College Football Playoff, our player got the starting nod and we blew out Oaklahoma by 40 points. In case you are wondering, the gameplay doesn’t get any more challenging in college. Then, for no reason whatsoever, the other guy was tapped to start the championship game. After it was all over, our player got drafted by the Bears in the 4th round, despite routinely annihilating the competition in high school and college. Seriously, there were games our player didn’t have a single incompletion.

The mode was so boring at times, we started running out the clock as soon as we got up a score just so we could get through it. There were also a number of glitches and bugs that will no doubt be cleaned up in the patch. Goofy stuff like our player changing skin color after he got to the NFL and players on the same team having different uniforms on.

It is hard to see this game mode being entertaining to anyone over the age of ten. We think Madden needs a game mode like this but they just haven’t been able to stick the landing as NBA 2K has.

Franchise Mode

These are the updates to Franchise Mode as sent to us by EA.

Franchise features an expanded Wild Card Playoff round to match the real-life NFL, the new X-Factors, updated rookie contract amounts to be more authentic, updates to all team back-end depth chart philosophies to match the team’s scheme, and more. 


No changes, essentially. The lack of attention to Franchise Mode has long been a frustration of the Madden community. The list of gripes has been mounting for years. The trade logic is weird. Users can only trade three total assets. Free agents signed after the offseason free agency period can only be signed to one-year contracts at a predetermined sum. EA has known about these complaints for a while. Heck, recently #FixFranchiseMode was trending on Twitter. EA has said they have heard the feedback and plan to make changes not only for next year but also via a patch for Madden 21. 

Here is what they have planned:

MADDEN NFL 21 – Post Launch Support

Based on community feedback (subject to change)

With each update, this list may shift as our plans for M21 and M22 come more into focus. We will share with the community as the list evolves.

TUNING – Improved progression and regression of players. Improve core player progression into the future such that X-Factors and other abilities for older players work well with incoming rookie classes.
COMMISSIONER TOOLS – See a more detailed summary below.
AI PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT – The AI will make better team management decisions in the draft, free agency and trades.
PLAYOFF and SUPER BOWL PRESENTATION – Improve and refresh.
X-FACTOR / SUPERSTAR ABILITY CUSTOMIZATION – Introduce the ability to customize X-Factor and Abilities on all players, allowing you to customize your roster as you see fit.
CAREERS STATS UI – Improved UI showing historical player performances. More immersion and depth on how players have progressed in your Franchise.
TRADE LOGIC – More fidelity, depth, and authenticity.
RETIREMENT UI – Better insight into retirements each season to allow players to react/manage.
PLAYOFFS UPDATE – Add an authentic playoff bracket screen to see who’s in, who’s won and who’s up next.
Commissioner tools is a large bucket of items with a lot of opportunities and a lot of work. We see this as something we’ll continue to work on to give you more control over your Franchise in the year(s) ahead. For Madden NFL 21 and 22 we are looking at the following tools:

Commissioner Tools Priority Ranking

Ability to undo transactions, reducing friction and control over player movement contracts and trades.
Ability to approve trades.
Ability to reset a game in case of a disconnect.

For Madden NFL 22 it is still very early. We are at the very beginning of the planning and pre-production of next year’s product. That said, we’ve been actively discussing some of the areas we’d like to focus on, stemming from your feedback and player engagement. Here are few of the areas, while not fully committed yet, we are exploring creatively:

Coaching and staff management
Scouting improvements
New scenario engine enhancements
New team chemistry system
Commissioner Tools improvements
MORE CONTENT – Examples: Relocation/Branding Assets for Franchise – New uniforms, names, and logos to relocation options for more variety and depth in deeper careers.
Plus other key additions that we’ll reveal as we get deeper into the year for Madden NFL 22 development season.

It is good that EA is listening but as of this writing, Madden 21 Franchise Mode is the same product offered in Madden 20, save for the expanded playoffs.

The Yard

The Yard is a new mode this year that is very arcade-like. Meant to simulate back yard football (except, you know, at an Army base) complete with six-on-six football, house rules, trick plays, multiple passes and custom avatars.

We found the game mode…fine? According to EA, the mode is best played with friends which we weren’t able to do because we don’t have any friends. In our experience playing against the AI, the gameplay, while snappy and fun, got old rather quickly. Players accumulate points and can level up. This mode is also another platform for microtransactions…so, you know, money.

NOTE: Madden Ultimate Team will be reviewed at a later date.

Bottom line: Is Madden 21 worth buying?

While it is certainly in fashion to trash Madden (and, well, just about everything else) on Twitter each year, we are finding it harder and harder to defend EA’s lack of advancements. It seems all of the development work goes into making modes like Ultimate Team and The Yard, which will garner microtransactions and thus, more profit, than improving the core game. Make no mistake, the core gameplay, and Franchise Mode are what built this franchise. Back in the day, John Madden insisted to developers that a game bearing his name would feature 11-on-11, realistic football. Several iterations later, Madden has gotten away from what made the game so special in the first place. In fact, even the core gameplay is trending more arcade-like. Yes, there are some transcendent talents like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson putting up video game numbers but at its heart, Madden is supposed to be a professional football simulation and Madden 21, as the kids say, “ain’t it.”

This is still an extremely fun game to play. That has been true for the last several iterations. For a new buyer to Madden, there is plenty here to warrant the game being $60. For yearly buyers, however, Madden 21 is more likely to be frustrating than enthralling. Our suggestion would be for the team at EA to stop focusing on sideshow game modes and microtransaction schemes and get back to basics for Madden 22. Unfortunately, until EA gets some competition in the football space, users may be spending a few more years waiting for the great leap forward.

SCORE: 6 our of 10 

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