The old EA Sports mantra — “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game” — doesn’t apply to “Madden NFL 21,” the first major team sports video game to come out during the coronavirus pandemic.
Pro sports is in a tumultuous state as the NFL approaches its season, but the developers opted not to include that reality in the game. Crowds still cheer in the stands. No face masks are worn. Announcers Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis make what could be a passing announcement regarding the pandemic but otherwise, for better or worse, it’s business as usual.
What fans have is a football game that could have come out at any time, albeit with a new mode and a few improvements. First off, let’s look at the Yard mode, which is inspired by backyard football and brings an arcade-like feel to “Madden NFL 21.” It’s faster-paced and features a six-vs.-six-player experience with modified rules. Players can fire behind-the-back passes or hike the ball to anyone on the field. The gameplay rewards cunning and deception with the freedom to pass more than once behind the line of scrimmage and misdirect opponents. It rewards those with improvisational skills.
The Yard feels fresh at times but I wished the developers poured that effort into other parts of “Madden NFL 21,” including quality control. This edition had an embarrassing number of bugs. In one scenario, someone named Keenan Ekeler was injured for two games. I played as the Chargers and I assumed EA Tiburon somehow mashed Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler into a single super wide receiver-running back combo.
All the bugs take players out of what should be an escapist experience, and distract from improvements made to defensive line mechanics, tackling and ball carrier skills. The best improvement is to the pass rush, which now becomes more transparent as players see how offensive linemen adapt to a rusher’s move. That can be countered by using the right stick and triggers to perform a variety of moves as a defensive lineman. These small advancements could have made “Madden NFL 21” a good entry in the series if it weren’t infested with glitches and modes that don’t work correctly.
Madden NFL 21
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Stadia, PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X.