This year's installment of football places a larger focus on arcade-like play than on traditional football, which is fine for newcomers, but hardcore fans may be disappointed. Madden NFL 21's two newest game modes, The Yard and Superstar KO, have games that can be completed in less than 10 minutes for fans who want a quick hit of football. The Yard is like a pickup game where you take the position you want to play on both sides of the ball and try to complete challenges. It even feels like playground rules, down to a rush or pass timer (virtual "one Mississippi" counts) before defenders can go after QBs -- that is, if the playground happened to be in locations like the parking lot of Lambeau Field. If you want higher stakes, including powered-up cards for your Ultimate Team, Superstar KO lets you draft NFL stars to see if you can stop opponents from getting into the end zone on their turn and then try to score when you're on offense. The tension ratchets up when you're tied with an opponent and stuck in a Tug of War battle to see who can gain the most yards in three plays, because the winner moves on, but the loser has to start over from the beginning. It's the closest thing to resurrecting EA's fan favorite NFL Street franchise. Ultimate Team has also received some upgrades, such as cleaning up the card interface and adjusting how you can upgrade players. It's mainly similar to last year's mode, but it's much easier to dive into and understand for newcomers, while still offering a lot of variety of missions and challenges.
Face of the Franchise returns, and while the story's interesting, it still falls short. It's clever to have a player that's already a Hall of Famer talking about their career from high school through the pros to a member of the press. There's even the twist of learning a new position, which happens to some players in college. But many characters and decisions feel thin and not fully fleshed out. For example, your high school teammate that's set up as a frenemy disappears once you turn pro, although he's supposedly playing in the league as well. What's worse is that it ties into the Franchise mode once you get to the pros, but virtually no updates or changes have been made from last year's game, which is disappointing. The same disappointment can be said for the PS5/Series X version of the game, which sports minimal visual and on-field updates. It should be expected that the game would have sharper graphics and faster load times to take advantage of the hardware, and it does. In fact, the players look better than they ever have, and their animation looks tighter than ever before. The PS5 version of the game also has a nice extra bit of pop thanks to the haptic feedback of the controller, so when you launch into someone with the hit stick, you feel that pop. But while the addition of the next-gen stats to provide extra details on the play is nice, it feels tentative whenever it's run. You're shown a pre-canned camera sweep down the line and a little hesitation in the video before the clip and stat are presented. It's not as dynamic as the stats that pop up in broadcasts, and isn't as effective as you'd want it to be once the novelty wears off. And while the next-gen version has clearly fixed some of the visual bugs that plagued the older version, the limited revamping of the play calling system isn't enough to provide significant depth on either side of the ball. All in all, you can't help but feel that this year's arcade-focused Madden is rebuilding towards next year's season.