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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes drops back to throw against the Las Vegas Raiders in Madden NFL 21
Madden NFL 21’s tweaks and assists on defense should make containing K.C.’s Patrick Mahomes a lot less harrowing.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

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Madden NFL 21 is an old friend in a time of social distancing

And a reminder of how much more we stand to lose

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Over the course of a week with Madden NFL 21, I kept returning to an uncomfortable, unanswered question: If the pandemic wipes out the upcoming NFL season, does that make Madden more necessary, or less?

This is a fine Madden release, engaging in its own way. But Madden NFL 21 should also be called out for, once again, making incremental updates to its most-played components, rather than giving fans all-new features or a total overhaul.

You can still deliver a lot of fun without taking much risk. Madden’s become notorious for it. The Yard, Madden’s newest mode, is a blast. But it appeals to so many known quantities — who doesn’t like razzle-dazzle plays or blinged-out customizations? — that it can’t be compared to things like Connected Franchise’s debut eight years ago, or the Longshot narrative in 2017.

And Face of the Franchise, the role-playing package that’s supposed to merge both of those things, has a story so eye-rollingly contrived and threadbare as to make itself unnecessary and skippable. Just start a regular Franchise playthrough with your star already in the pros. No, you don’t get to give him a big football-factory alma mater, but you won’t miss anything. Plus, in the NFL, you can control the entire team he plays for while still going through his RPG progression.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson juking a Pittsburgh Steelers defender in Madden NFL 21
Cover star Lamar Jackson’s rushing and passing threat makes him a role model for the game’s big modes: Face of the Franchise and The Yard.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

If you start playing Madden NFL 21 with Face of the Franchise, as I think many will, its lengthy, color-by-numbers onboarding gives the overall game a half-assed first impression. Or maybe Madden, like the real-life league, has had its plans altered — whether by COVID-19, or the development obligations of a new console generation. I also spied a number of glitches, hangs, and freezes during my initial sessions, but they seem to have been mostly cleared up with the game’s day-one patch. Still, the necessity of a day-one patch to take care of that kind of housekeeping, while also fixing typos in menus, doesn’t inspire confidence that this edition received the attention it might have needed.

That all being said, I found the two areas that always seem to catch users of average skill out — defense and running the ball — to be sharper and more sensible than ever.

Streamlined sticks for defense and running

Many players avoid or simulate the defensive half of a single-player game, judging themselves to be more of a danger to their team than the AI. Others take a pass rusher and try to bull him through the offensive line every time, figuring that is the easiest task, or the one that causes the least harm if it’s not executed well.

Playing a defensive back or a linebacker lurking in pass coverage is a lot simpler now; I get a callout of the receivers, or the parts of the field my player should be getting to, after the snap, as the play is developing. It’s as much an assist to players with low defensive skill as it is an encouragement to try new things.

Still, for the defensive line (or with a pass-rushing linebacker), players get a streamlined action stick serving up context-appropriate moves to get through the blockers. The defense doesn’t feel overpowered, though, partly because defenders really need to be in position to make an effective tackle, rather than simply be in the neighborhood and run into the ball carrier or press a button in time. Glancing blows lead to stumbles and stronger gains on a run between the tackles than I have ever seen before in Madden.

a close-up from behind Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, looking toward a Los Angeles Chargers defender at the line of scrimmage in Madden NFL 21
With new animations helping runners gain ground even when they’ve been hit, it’s a better idea to go for a solid wrap-up tackle.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Similarly, just focusing on wrapping up a runner and bringing him down pays greater dividends now, such that going for the big hit all the time (with the dive command, or the hit stick) is likely to extend the other team’s drive even if you make contact.

In the rushing game, I feel like every year Madden’s developers tweak the game speed a tick or two slower to allow players more time to spot holes in the blocking or make better decisions about where to move. That’s again the case, but running backs get better, and more context-appropriate, evasive moves on the right thumbstick. The combination of more deliberate speed and a streamlined skill stick makes it easier for players to chain moves, like a juke going into a stiff-arm if you’re dealing with multiple pursuers.

The window for pulling off effective jukes and spins took time for me to suss out — again. I found that snapping a quick juke was still likely to register no move if the thumbstick rebounded too hard in the opposite direction. But I was astonished to be tearing 15-yard runs through the middle of the Baltimore Ravens defense — on All-Pro and Simulation difficulty (the baseline for ranked multiplayer) — with a power runner, who invites the kind of contact that usually stops my plans before they can begin.

But despite more supple gameplay that becomes understandable after just a few games, the real encouragement to pick up a sports video game often comes from the context wrapped around it.

Madden NFL 21’s presentation — the commentary and fictitious television package — seems rote and lifeless. But the number that COVID-19 has done on the NFL preseason as well as Madden’s development (announcers Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis have recorded everything together, in studio, the past five years) likely puts a big dent in what’s safe, or possible, while creating this mode.

Madden measured by The Yard

This makes The Yard more of a focus than I had expected (and infuriating to the many die-hards now tweeting the #FixFranchise hashtag). The freewheeling, arcade-like mode has several backyard-rules changes, few of them applicable or even helpful to the defense.

Going in, I thought most Yard games would be shootouts settled by who had the ball last. They’re more likely controlled by those who stop one drive, sort of like penalty kicks in soccer. Since games in The Yard are played with a fixed number of drives, as opposed to a clock, the biggest play often isn’t a direct snap to a wideout, or a zany, improvised hook-and-lateral. It’s taking control of a defensive back and landing with an absolutely crushing interception.

There are customization options galore in The Yard’s menus (many of which, yep, can be bought for real money), and the created player goes on a world tour that is so reminiscent of NBA Live 19’s The One, it reuses some of the same instrumental music.

a player hides the ball behind his back to avoid a defender in Madden NFL 21’s The Yard
Jukes and spins in The Yard are often accompanied by flashy, basketball-esque ball fakes, too.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Overall, it’s very enjoyable, and it’s fun thinking you’ve come up with a new fundamental, or meta-strategy, for a brand of football that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Figuring out how to pull off the midair lateral — where a receiver immediately shoves the ball to a nearby teammate, like a volleyball player setting the ball — was a fun breakthrough. Of course, I then abused this trick enough that I would often lose possession, or bat the ball back to a player behind the line of scrimmage for no good reason.

Maybe not having a “normal” season, or threatening all the normalcy an NFL Sunday has come to represent, makes this the year when a more outsized, less realistic version of the sport can carry the banner. In real life, there is enough uncertainty about how the regular season will proceed that it’s a real head slap watching a Madden game begin with the full-bore presentation of an NFL Sunday (especially if Gaudin mentions “the Washington Football Team”). I often wonder if I’ll see even a fifth of that in real life. It’s not a good feeling; the idealized presentation of football inside a world without COVID-19 brings more pain than relief.

The smaller-scale, messin’-around, fewer-expectations atmosphere of The Yard — plus the arcade-like Superstar KO challenge mode, which returns from Madden NFL 20 — is probably where I’ll spend most of my time. That’s especially true if the NFL itself can’t be expected to provide a real comparison, where I can judge how great my out-of-nowhere star or underdog team really is. Racking up stylish gear and other vanities as I advance through The Yard’s XP system is, I admit, a solid motivator to keep me playing.

Madden NFL 21, then, is a lot like a best friend in the time of social distancing: someone I desperately want to see and spend time with, except doing so also recalls how much we’ve actually lost over the past five months. Of all the video games that could embody or allegorize the turmoil of present-day America, it’s somewhat startling to find Madden NFL 21 at the top of my list.

Madden NFL 21 is now available on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One; it will be released on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X later this year. The game was played on Xbox One using a download code provided by EA Sports. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.