‘Madden NFL 21’ sloppiness mars improvements on the field

The old EA Sports mantra had been “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game,” but that takes on a different meaning nowadays.

As the first major team sports video game to come out during coronavirus pandemic, EA Tiburon is venturing into unknown territory. The industry is already in a tumultuous state. The NBA, WNBA and NHL are playing in bubbles. The MLB has canceled games because of COVID-19 outbreaks in the clubhouse. No fans are allowed to attend any of the matchups.

The NFL has faced similar upheavals leading up to its season, but in “Madden NFL 21,” the developers opted not to have that reality as part of the game. One could call the entry a bit of escapism from what people are dealing with in real life. In “Madden NFL 21,” crowds still cheer in the stands. No face masks are worn. Announcers Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis make what could be a passing announcement to 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 other 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 arcadelike feel to “Madden NFL 21.” It’s faster-paced and features a 6-vs-6 experience with modified rules that make it different from professional football.

In the Yard, players can fire off 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 while behind the line of scrimmage and misdirect opponents. It’s less rigid than traditional football and rewards those with improvisational skills.

A progression system and deep customization options aim to keep players hooked. They can upgrade the prototypes, which can be seen as classes in role-playing games, that players choose for each matchup. The prototypes have traits and abilities that are geared toward different play-styles such as a scrambling QB and pocket passer. Meanwhile, players can change up their looks with colorful helmet, jersey and accessory designs.

Although the mode is meant to be more casual and draw a new audience with the trick plays and unpredictability, it didn’t pique my interest in the same way the traditional modes do. The Yard feels fresh at times but I wished the developers took the effort used for that mode and poured it into other parts of “Madden NFL 21” such as the quality control.

This edition of the series had an embarrassing number of bugs. In most years, I could overlook them, but in “Madden NFL 21,” the visual glitches, typos and broken systems were just too hard to ignore. Everything from misspellings to lost seasons showed up in Franchise and Face of Franchise modes.

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 together into some super wide receiver-running back combo. It was amusing at first, but then I realized, I wouldn’t know which player was injured until I started the games.

Another situation had me celebrating a championship win but the players were still frozen on the field. It was a distracting flaw in a moment that fans should be proud of. In Face of the Franchise, I upgraded my quarterback with the Bazooka ability, but when I went to activate it, it was still locked. Separately, these problems are annoyances but taken together, it ruins the experience altogether.

All the bugs take players out of an experience that they’re supposed to escape into, and they distract from the real improvement made to the 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 player’s move. That can be countered by using the right stick and triggers to perform a variety of moves as a defensive lineman. It becomes more of a game of chess rather than an exercise in redundancy and reaction.

Meanwhile, tackling is easier and more intelligent. The defense will move into better angles to stop the ball and prevent a first down or score. That eliminates a long-held frustration that favored the offense at that end of the field. Lastly, the ball carrier moves have been expanded to include the dead-leg and jurdle. Many of these moves have been shifted over to the right analog stick so players can link one move to another to get free for major yardage.

These small advancements become the selling point of a new entry, and they could have made “Madden NFL 21” a good but not great entry. Unfortunately, what drags down this edition of the game is the multitude of bugs. It’s infested with glitches and modes that won’t work correctly.

Despite that, EA Sports will still likely have success with the series, and it puts developers in an intriguing position. Every sports simulation is a time capsule of sorts. If you play older editions, you step into the past to see old broadcast styles, gameplay trends like the Wildcat offense or the heyday of Michael Vick.

With that in mind, EA Tiburon has changed previous “Madden” games to fix bugs and also to reflect the changes on the field. It operates as a live service that evolves over time. The developers and the NFL will undoubtedly face challenges dealing with the virus in the fall, and it will be fascinating to see how they do that. If it’s in the game, it should be in the game after all. Although this version of “Madden NFL 21” isn’t the best, it has the potential to be the most interesting and one that players can show off if they survive an increasingly difficult 2020.


‘Madden NFL 2020’

Two stars

Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Stadia, PC, PlayStation 5 (TBA) and Xbox Series X (TBA)

Rating: Everyone

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