I don't envy the task facing the developers of Madden NFL 21. With next-generation consoles on the horizon, EA must split its effort to produce versions that work on everything from PS4 to Xbox Series X—and in the middle of a pandemic to boot. It's no wonder that this year's version of Madden is more ragged than usual, with glitches galore both on the field and off.
This mirrors past points of transition, all of which have struggled to one degree or another. The last game to make the generational leap, Madden 25, was probably the worst release since the infamous Madden 06—the entry that inaugurated the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era. It contained few if any real improvements, its most notable addition being an owner mode that remains busted to this day. Madden 21, to its credit, aims a bit higher, but only a bit.
This year's version of Madden introduces a brand-new mode, the casual-focused The Yard mode, as well as a new story for Face of the Franchise. It also introduces some marked improvements to the on-field gameplay, particularly in the way that the defense covers difficult to defend routes. These are notable additions, altering the strategy on the field while expanding the range of ways to play Madden. The Yard in particular should pique the interest of arcade fans who have long yearned for an experience akin to NFL Street, nicely complementing the Superstar KO mode that was introduced in the middle of Madden NFL 20.
Both modes round out the current generation and set the foundation for the one to come, which is kind of the best you can expect from a transitional entry. Of course, this being Madden, it also has plenty of issues.
The biggest of them by far are the bugs. Madden 21 is absolutely rife with them: balls that bounce awkwardly off players, fields that load in without any hash marks, and glitched stats among others. EA has already released a Day 1 patch intended to address the most blatant of them, though past experience suggests that these issues tend to linger throughout the life of the game. Madden Ultimate Team has similarly been afflicted with sluggish menus, making bidding for new cards and completing sets an exercise in frustration and boredom.
These glitches have been heavily criticized on social media, and indeed reflect a certain lack of polish on the part of Madden 21. Being a sports game fan frequently means having to forgive a certain amount of buggy weirdness, but it feels worse than usual this year. Whether because of COVID-19, the console transition, or both, Madden 21 is a messy experience to say the least.
Thankfully, the bugs don't detract much from the gameplay, which feels like an appreciable step forward from last year. No, it doesn't have a flashy new addition like Madden 20's "X-Factors," which imbued stars like Patrick Mahomes with special abilities when certain conditions are met, but it does feel like a more balanced and enjoyable experience overall. Defensive adjustments in particular are a smart, understated addition that make it easier to react to powerful plays without resorting to manual coverage, allowing you to set zone coverage depth in order to take away the parts of the field where you are the most vulnerable.
The give-and-take of offense and defensive is one of the most appealing aspects of NFL football, and Madden 21 captures it well this time out. The ability to double team opposing defenders to open holes in the line is balanced by revamped defensive line mechanics, which make it easier for defenders to burst in and strike down a halfback before they get going. Star defensive ends like Danielle Hunter similarly have an easier time punishing QBs if they hold on to the ball too long, but without being overly frustrating in the process. Key animations like reaching out across the goal line and throwing out of a sack, meanwhile, can mean the difference between a touchdown and a turnover.
All of this comes with the usual caveat that a patch could throw everything out of whack at any time. Sports games are notorious for trying to fix one feature, only to break five others. But for now, I'm comfortable saying that Madden 21's gameplay is in a better place than usual—I would even go as far as to say it's good.
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for flagship modes like Face of the Franchise and Connected Franchise Mode, each of which is left wanting in some crucial way. Last year I wrote a treatise on what Madden needs to fix in its franchise mode, and little has changed. It remains the same tired, one-note simulation it has always been, with hardly any sense of rewarding progression. Owner mode has barely changed at all since its return in Madden 25, featuring income mechanics that make little sense, as well as a stale and uninteresting stadium upgrade system. Its biggest problem remains the lack of incentive to keep pressing on after winning the Super Bowl. Why bother when there's nothing to unlock and the game barely acknowledges your accomplishments? The only reason to play Connected Franchise Mode is if you have an online league to join—quietly one of Madden's best features.
Face of the Franchise's story, for its part, is equal parts dull and absurd. The hero is a customized character with the banal nickname "QB2" who reveals that the team's starting QB has a heart condition, earning him an impromptu promotion. This becomes a rivalry that continues into college, with the two QBs forced to share snaps at the same school until… yeah. Honestly, it's cool that there's a story mode in Madden 21, but "QB2" might be the single most unlikable protagonist in sports game history—an unrepentant douchebag who can't understand why his rival hates him so much.
This is Face of the Franchise's second year, and it's hard to discern much in the way of forward progress for the mode. As neat as it is to have a high school atmosphere—and to even play in U.S. Bank Stadium for the state high school championship when choosing Minnesota—the gameplay seems strangely divorced from the story. On gameday, you control both the offense and defense, lessening the sense that you're roleplaying as one particular character, and the individual games take forever to complete. It sets out story objectives like throwing the ball to one particular player, but offers little to no feedback on whether you're actually succeeding in that objective. It's neither a useful tutorial mode nor an interesting simulation of what it's like to be a star in the NFL—it's just kind of there.
Ultimately, Madden 21's most successful mode is also its newest. The Yard is a pure, silly vision of backyard football in which you lateral the ball three times before heaving it to your friend. Featuring the same customized character used in Face of the Franchise, it's built on online teamplay with your friends, though you can just as easily play solo. Different locales like Berlin and Lambeau Field have different challenges, with new cosmetic items like helmets and shorts being unlocked as you go.
The Yard has quite a bit of overlap with the returning Superstar KO, another recent arcade mode in which you draft existing stars for silly challenges, so it's not entirely clear what its intended niche is outside of selling cosmetics. I guess it's what you would call a "change of pace" mode to play with friends, and in that it seems to work. It can be genuinely fun to run around like an idiot, tossing the ball back and forth while taking turns being quarterback, running back, and receiver, often all in the same play. Add in a global progression meter that continually unlocks new cosmetics no matter where you play, and you have a nice little mode.
As for whether The Yard is enough to carry this particular version of Madden, that's another question entirely. The gameplay is certainly a solid step forward, but it's offset by the bugs and general lack of polish, and the main single-player modes are once again not up to scratch. It will be up to Madden Ultimate Team to once again pick up the slack—a mode that has attracted no shortage of controversy owing to its microtransaction-driven card-collecting mechanics.
Last year I declined to review Madden 20 because I felt like I was spinning my wheels complaining about Franchise and weird glitches, and much the same can be said about Madden 21. With a new generation will come a fresh start and hopefully a new outlook on single-player. But if Madden 21 shows anything, it's that there's still plenty of work to be done.
Madden 21's gameplay takes some appreciable steps forward as the generation comes to a close, with The Yard providing some casual fun. The experience is marred by an abnormal number of bugs though, and the single-player modes remain a major sore point. Ultimately, it's able to pick up a few yards on the way to the next generation of consoles, but just a few.