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Game review: Madden NFL 21 (Xbox One)

29 Sep 2020

I’ve been playing Madden for years. In the beginning, as a pasty-faced pom, American football was alien to me. If anything, playing the game took me back to high school rugby sessions in the snow as I got myself buried under the players of the opposing team whilst my fanatical Welsh PE teacher grinned like a lunatic. I taught myself how American football works and, whilst some of it is still alien to me, I probably know it about as well as the average American, and even the average American football player. But it is still a funny old game.

This year’s review of Madden was a bit different. My eight-year-old, having got bored with soccer, has started playing rugby league. Watching his games has proven confusing, not just because I’m trying to remember a game I’ve not thought long and hard about for decades, and not because rugby league was frowned upon in the English schools of the 1980s in favour of Union. No, it was because I kept on forgetting that they are not playing American football.

The lack of a decent rugby game leaves a gap that Madden NFL 21 fills very nicely. Not only is it one of the most polished of EA’s sports sims, it’s very easy on new players.

So, this year, I had a 2UP in my eight-year-old, who begged me to play and whip my arse.

Madden NFL 21 scales nicely in difficulty and complexity. Serious fans can indulge themselves in epic games that last all day (just as the real thing can), or opt for quick arcade fixtures that are just as thrilling but better for the more time-poor. I’ve settled into the latter, taking my Miami Dolphins to glory via succinct 4-minute quarters that still seem to last 45 minutes. 

The biggest new thing this year is The Yard. Apparently inspired by backyard football, it seems more inspired by FIFA 20’s Zolta Futsal Football mode. The Yard is a casual game mode that pits 6 vs 6 in a fast-paced bit of football that throws most of the rules out of the window. The result is a surprisingly refreshing take on the game, somewhat similar to the way Rugby League dumbs down rugby union. 

Players looking for the usual cliched rookie to the big-league sporting drama of a campaign mode will be pleased to note that Madden NFL 21 has you covered. Face of the Franchise: Rise to Fame follows your rookie player from high school football all the way to the NFL. Whilst the plot is a bit much, having recently endured similar with NBA 2K21, the mode does a good job of introducing the Madden game mechanics. 

EA’s signature collectable card game come fantasy league; Madden Ultimate Team returns. As usual, players must build their own team via unlocking (or buying) card packs like the bubble-gum cards of old.  

The game delivers a graphical experience not unlike last year’s effort. It’s hardly surprising, I suppose. The developers, at the twilight of this generation of console’s life, is likely getting all it can out of the hardware. But, EA Sports, I expect big things next year. Still, Madden 21 looks really good. The animations are fluid and the action very clear. I did notice a bit of clipping on the replays, though.

Madden NFL 21 is a by-the-numbers iterative release that will leave many questioning if they shouldn’t have just stuck with last year’s game until the next-gen console comes out. For me, the addition of The Yard was the game’s saving grace, but it may not be enough for many fans.

Verdict: 7.5/10