Madden 21 is in a weird place right now. With the current generation all but finished, EA Tiburon is being asked to split its resources between the past and the future. That naturally limits the scope of the PS4 and Xbox One version of Madden 21, which just finished its first round of beta testing over the weekend.
As a result, the current-generation version of Madden 21 is more about refinement than revolution, with most of the focus being on gameplay rather than new modes or major overhauls (sorry to all of the people tweeting under the #FixMaddenFranchise hashtag). More specifically, it seems to be focused on fixing a lot of the problems from Madden 20.
Where Madden 20 put a premium on defense, Madden 21 seems more tuned toward offense (at least for right now). And where Madden 20 had an extremely powerful running game, Madden 21 makes it harder to get easy yards off stretch runs and halfback dives. Pass rushing is more dynamic thanks to some new mechanics, but it's also much easier to get rid of the ball; a relief given how often I got sacked in the middle of a wind-up animation last year.
After years of catering to a particular style of play, it feels a little like Madden 21 is pulling back a bit. The word I feel like I'm searching for to describe its approach is "simulation," which may be giving it far too much credit, but nevertheless feels nice to write.
EA, of course, will tell you that Madden has always tried to be realistic. "If it's in the game, it's in the game," and all that. But in recent years, Madden has tried to have it both ways, pushing the notion of being "realistic" while simultaneously catering to a very specific competitive metagame; one which puts a large amount of emphasis on controlling certain players so they fly around like missiles tackling ball carriers. Truth be told, I've never cared for Madden's meta—or the online game in general—so basically anything that pushes back against it is a welcome change to me.
During the beta, a couple features in particular have been the subject of much discussion among the Madden community, a lot of it negative. The general consensus is that EA needs to tune these features, or in the case of Earl Thomas's new Film Study ability, remove them altogether. I don't know that I agree, though, so I'm going to use this opportunity to pushback on some of the general discourse around these features.
Actually, Early Thomas's Film Study Ability is Good
I'll start with the Film Study ability, which has been the biggest discussion point among the Madden community. Basically, this ability allows those with Earl Thomas to see offensive plays that are used too often, making it an attempt to rein in offensive play spam.
It's provoked a passionate response from certain corners of the Madden community, who argue that it will neuter mid-level players who try to fashion multi-part offensive schemes out of one or two powerful formations. To be sure, it's a bit of a ham-fisted solution by the developers; a hard counter intended to curtail certain playstyles. It might not even work that well, as most casual players aren't sophisticated enough to counter such schemes, even when forewarned.
Yet, one of my biggest complaints about Madden is how stale the playcalling can get. Most of the discussion has focused on high-and-mid level competitive play, forgetting that the average random player on Madden Ultimate Team will happily spam the same broken play over and over again. A veteran player can generally spot and punish this strategy, but it's still annoying enough that I appreciate that Madden 21 might force people to open up their offense, even if it's just a little bit.
Honestly, I don't even really expect this feature to make a huge difference at any level. Pro players are skilled enough that they can disguise their play calling even with Film Study in effect. At lower levels, it might be annoying enough to force people to change their habits, but hardly in a way that could be considered "gamebreaking."
All of this has the whiff of being the usual kind of controversy that springs up around sports games: a new feature is introduced, everyone frets that it's too powerful, and then it's quickly forgotten after release.
Madden 21 Takes a Welcome Step Back From Total User Control
That brings me to the other big topic of discussion concerning Madden 21's beta: user control. With each passing entry in the series, Madden has put more and more emphasis on being able to read offenses and manually break up plays, usually with a speedy linebacker or safety. The logic behind this approach is sound; after all, Madden is a video game, and sports games should have some element of skill behind them.
Intuitive as this approach may be though, it's had some negative side effects. For one, it tends to narrow the metagame, funneling players in MUT and other modes toward speedy, heavy-hitting linebackers like Anthony Barr. Even as a Vikings fan, it's become tiring to see Barr in seemingly every MUT lineup, turning defense into a one-dimensional affair.
Perhaps realizing that it has gone too far, EA Tiburon has made user-controlled players far slower and more difficult to control. As in real life, if an offensive player gets a step on your defender, they're almost certainly going to win. In his in-depth look at the beta, YouTuber EricRayweather observed that it's actually better to play as a pass rusher right now, and I tend to agree.
This will no doubt irk Madden 21's developers, who have always expressed a desire to get players comfortable with manually controlled linebackers and safeties rather than a defensive end. It's part of a much deeper question with Madden: how do you make defense fun? EA's answer has long been "user control." Now it seems as if the developers are having some doubts on that front.
I don't think there's an easy answer to this question, honestly. Structurally, American Football is not an easy adaptation for a competitive video game; certainly not in the same way as FIFA or NHL. I think EA mostly just needs to get two things right: 1. Players should feel like defensive playcalling does something, and 2. Playing defense in Madden should look roughly like it does on TV. Madden has historically struggled on both fronts.
Regardless, it's obvious to me that defense needs a rethink in Madden, and I'm glad to see EA pulling away a bit from its user-heavy approach. There's still some tinkering to do, but hopefully this opens up the defensive playcalling and gets people to vary up their MUT lineups a bit. Sorry, Anthony Barr.
Perhaps my biggest issue with Madden over the past few years has been that it just isn't that much fun to play. Madden 20 exemplified a lot of my issues with the series of late, introducing a broken and overpowered X-Factor system, putting a huge amount of emphasis on the hit stick and user control, and featuring narrow and unbalanced offensive playcalling. That the most recent Madden Bowl champ was able to win without calling a single pass kind of tells you all you need to know about the state of the series.
I don't know that there's an easy fix to these issues, but the Madden 21 Beta has at least left me hopeful that EA knows that there are some major issues here. All I really want is to be able to play an online game where my opponent doesn't run around throwing the ball across their body, or spam the same broken play over and over again. I'll be able to forgive a lot if EA can provide a gameplay experience that's at least marginally entertaining, if not exactly good.
As always, baby steps. I didn't have a lot of enthusiasm for Madden 21 going into the beta—I cannot overstate how much I disliked my Madden 20 experience—but I feel a little more hopeful now that I've seen the direction that EA Tiburon is taking with this entry. I won't pretend to hope that it will fix all of Madden's myriad issues, but I can at least keep my fingers crossed for a game that's actually fun to play this time around.
Madden 21 will be out on Xbox One, PS4, and PC on August 28, with next-gen versions to follow later in the year.