What is it? The latest entry in a long line of American football simulators.
Reviewed on: Windows 10, Intel Core i7-9700 CPU @ 3.00GHz 16.0 GB RAM
Release date: Out now
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Multiplayer: Local multiplayer, and a wide variety of multiplayer modes that range from 1v1 to 5v5.
Link: Official site, Steam
Madden 21 wants to make football fun again. That's been the prevailing direction of the venerable gridiron series since the unveiling of the new Superstar KO mode in last year's game. It felt like a statement. Gone were the stately simulations of America's many mega-stadiums and the dulcet professorial tones of play-by-play. Instead, players drafted an elite squad of all-pros and went for the jugular in a veritable thunderdome. No punts, no field goals, and no reason to call anything other than the ballsiest deep throws from the playbook. After a victory you earned the right to claim a player from the opponent's roster, like looting a corpse in an MMO. It seemed intended to warp football gaming back to the late '90s. Madden was finally getting cozy with NFL Blitz.
And now, in 2020, EA has doubled down. The premier new game mode in Madden 2020 is called The Yard, which as a lifetime football fan, immediately brought to mind the halcyon days of NFL Street. The lore, I guess, is that a bunch of NFL millionaires grew tired of playing for paychecks in front of a nation of fans, and instead have taken their grievances to the vacant lot next door.
The Yard is played in a six-on-six format, and is governed by backyard rules; the same players compete on both offense and defense, each team gets three offensive drives, and potential blitzers need to do the classic "one-Mississippi two-Mississippi" count before busting through the line of scrimmage.
The Yard is also probably more fun than the rest of Madden's offerings. In my second game, I learned that I could flip the ball to anyone who wasn't running downfield. The pigskin slings to the running back, then to a screening receiver, and then back to the quarterback, blowing the staid rules of the game wide open. After scoring, you elect to either attempt a one point conversion, two point conversion, or three point conversion, each of which require you to gain exponential amounts of yardage. After four decades, EA has learned a strange lesson: People love Madden the most when it aims higher than just football.
Like so many other annualized franchises, Madden has otherwise fallen into its own cozy pattern. Madden 21 is rarely flagrantly disappointing, but there is a diminishing aura when we return year after year to find so many focal points unchanged.
Franchise mode is back as a near-perfect facsimile of its past incarnations. Take control of an ailing franchise—the New York Jets, the Detroit Lions, whatever—and attempt to whip them into respectability with cornerback drills and intensive scouting reports. I've never been the type to go deep into the nuts and bolts of Madden's more sim-y qualities, but it's nice to know that the option remains on the table for the world's armchair GMs. There are times where I wonder if perhaps there is a way to offer a sports management experience that is a little less stuffy than the deep recesses of EA's spreadsheet morass, but then again, negotiating contracts with veteran linebackers is supposed to be a little bit boring.
The same can be said for Madden Ultimate Team, the infernal card-collecting closed economy that asks players to assemble a top-tier team through either a boatload of microtransactions or an absurd amount of grinding. I booted up the mode, completed the first challenge, and was immediately rewarded with a Blake Bortles card, who is most famous for being the worst starting quarterback for a playoff team in recent memory. I traded him in for a small bounty of points that, eventually, will allow me to increase the speed of a wide receiver by a fraction of a percent. The barrier of entry to actually competing in Ultimate Team is so wide, that I simply cannot muster the time or energy to commit. Why would I want to play with running backs with a 75 overall rating, when I could switch over to any of the other modes and run around the field as Saquon Barkley? Whenever I watch yet another video of a teenager opening $1,000 worth of packs my eyes roll into the back of my head.
The only true tragedy of Madden 21 can be found in the Face of the Franchise mode, which represents the death knell of EA's belabored attempts to bring a story mode to their football games. This tradition began in Madden 18 with Longshot, a well-executed saga of trauma and the restorative power of sports, as we watched Devin Wade slowly rehabilitate himself into a leader and a star. (The whole drama was anchored by Mahershala Ali, who adds prestige to anything he touches.) I kinda enjoyed the second chapter of Longshot in 2018, where Wade continued his journey as the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. But the cracks were beginning to show already, and this year's edition is a complete mess.
You create a fresh new quarterback, and quickly find yourself mired in an absurdly bland high school football drama. You're the new star on the block, who used to play hockey, and now you're about to supplant the golden boy starter from his perch! That golden boy happens to have an entirely undefined congenital heart condition, and you both are joined at the hip through toils at the state championship level, the College Football National Championship, and beyond without a single moment of meaningful character development or resonant moral complexity.
The narrative never gets off the rails it sets out for itself. I threw five touchdowns in the semi-finals and my coach still told me I'd be lucky to be a third round pick. It is amazing how bad EA has gotten at telling football stories in such a short amount of time. Longshot should've been a jumping off point, but instead they've completely lost their way. There is no interiority, no nuance, and no real connective theme; at one point I run into a digital Snoop Dogg who is wearing a golden EA medallion around his neck. We've lost our way.
But hey, the football is still fun. That's been the saving grace of Madden for several years now. All the mechanics you're familiar with are right at place; spin, juke, hurdle. Hold down the trigger to sprint, and tap the receiver's button to air out a lob. (Yes, you can run plays with your keyboard, but nobody recommends that.) As always, EA promises a slew of new gameplay wrinkles—you can now combine all of your ballcarrier moves seamlessly with the right stick—but casual players like me never seem to notice those inclusions. In fact, the new feature I've appreciated more are a few tooltips on the HUD that let me know how some of Madden's more arcane procedures work when the game senses I might be screwing up. For instance, I now know exactly how to execute an RPO, or how to audible out of a traditional return scheme when my opponent comes out in an onside kick format. Thank you Madden, for assuming that I'm an idiot at all times.
Of course, everything in Madden 21 is coated in a conspicuous games-as-a-service veneer—even The Yard, positioned as a casual's Mecca, comes with vanity customizations, a web of different builds and classes, and an interminable statgrind to the stars. You can ignore all of that if you want—that's the way I've played this franchise for years—but the predation still makes itself known at every corner. If you simply must spend your hard-earned wages on a goldenrod football uniform for your gridiron avatar, then you've come to the right place.
The game is also currently in the midst of a Steam review bomb by aggrieved players complaining about a wide variety of technical jank. I haven't seen much of that myself outside of some screen tearing and never-ending matchmaking queues, but I did play a round of Superstar KO that forgot to load in the astroturf. It was just me, my opponent, and a languid expanse of dull green. Postmodern and hilarious to be sure, but a bit unbecoming for a game that's stuck to such a rigid formula.
2020 marks the third year Madden has been back on PC since the franchise's prodigal return to the platform in 2018. The novelty hasn't worn off for me yet. There is still something inherently weird and exciting about playing such a console-targeted franchise on my desktop; to type in my player's name and college with a keyboard. But that won't sustain many players for long. Madden is desperate for some new ideas, so let's hope some of 21's more exotic ventures foreshadow a more substantial rebuild in the future.