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Virtual NFL life: Playing Madden 2021 after a summer of playing Madden 2020

CNET's Scott Stein and Eli Blumenthal take a look at EA Sports' latest copy of Madden for the Xbox One X.

Madden 21 features Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson on the cover.
EA Sports

Madden 2021 is here and instead of a traditional take, we thought we'd approach this NY football style: one Jets fan, one Giants fan, playing Madden. Gang Green and Big Blue. With the NFL preseason games not happening and NFL games around the corner, video game football is all we've got right now. Here's our team-specific takes.

Scott: In 2028, the New York Jets are pretty damn good. They've won six straight Super Bowls and rookie Kionte Banks is already amazing. Wide receivers DeAngelo Northern, N'Keal Harry and Denzel Mims are stars. Quinnen Williams has a 98 rating. I'd been playing Jets games every night on Madden 20 during my endless time at home, chronicling the passing seasons, the drafts, free agency and all over again. 

Now, Madden 2021 is here. The year 2021 already sounds like a long time ago, from the vantage of my virtual 2028. As always, I'm curious what a yearly update to a sports game can do when community roster downloads and franchise mode can already make last year's Madden seem more than good enough.

Madden 2021, played on an Xbox One Series X, doesn't show all that many changes at first glance. In normal games, that is. Defensive players have different rush moves. Once again, players have different physics (which can still be weird and buggy, with balls popping in odd directions and running backs seemingly gaining too much forward momentum and a fumble being recovered right outside the endzone being placed at the 20-yard line). I find it harder to pass to receivers. Or, maybe the New York Jets in 2020 just suck a lot more than the Jets in 2028.

A new "The Yard" mode aims for an NFL Street-type casual 6-on-6 game, but I didn't love it. The gameplay feels like normal Madden practice modes and the players are hard to keep track of in both their odd uniforms and odd play formations. It also lacks the outrageousness, both in hits and player builds, that made games like Street and NFL Blitz so fun. 

It's a good first step, particularly the 3-point conversion after scores, but it doesn't go far enough.  

There's a storyline-type mode, Face of the Franchise, that I haven't even gotten into yet. I play mainly as the New York Jets.

What bothers me is that I can't instantly import last year's franchise. I've spent hundreds of hours building up my special team and now I have to abandon it. Madden should welcome old franchise mode saves and bring them into the new game to play. Imagine a franchise that I was playing for fifteen years, growing it from version to version like some sort of heirloom tomato?

Gameplay and presentation are in need of a generational leap


Madden 21 features new ball carrier controls, but graphically is not much improved compared to Madden 20. 

EA Sports

Eli: When it comes to gameplay, Madden 21 doesn't feel like a step down when playing online, but it's no major improvement compared to last year either. 

In my testing on an Xbox One X, bugs and glitches are still present (as Scott mentioned) with tackling, especially in the open field, being at times particularly cumbersome with players not moving where you'd like or expect them to. 

Moving players on both sides of the ball feel "looser" compared to prior versions, almost like the response from the controller is now a bit too sensitive. I also had times where players on offense seemed to be moving at 1.5x speed (which made cover star Lamar Jackson seem even more unstoppable, particularly when his "Truzz" X-Factor was enabled). 

I did notice a few times where players extended for the first down or the goal line, an improvement EA has stressed in its early marketing of Madden 21 and one that was long overdue. I also enjoyed the greater controls on the defensive line, though I wish EA didn't consolidate some of the pre-play defensive adjustments to the RB button and instead left them on LB as they were last year. 

EA is rolling out a "Day 1" patch on Friday with another update due to arrive next week that will hopefully address at least some of these wonky issues. 

Graphically, when playing the actual games Madden 21 feels almost like a step down from last year's Madden 20. Playing with Saquon Barkley and the New York Giants, the stud running back looks less realistic on my 4K HDR-enabled TV than he did a year ago. 

It's not a big drop, but the more I play the more I feel as if EA scaled back the graphics on current-gen systems to make the next-generation editions of Madden 21 (due later this year) seem more impressive. 

EA hasn't shown off much of what Madden will look like on next-gen, but it's something I'll be keeping a close eye on. The good news for current-gen buyers who do plan to upgrade to PS5 or Xbox Series X within the next year is that EA is providing a free upgrade from the current-gen version of Madden 21 to the comparable next-gen version of the game (PS4 to PS5, Xbox One to Xbox Series X).


Madden 21's color scheme is not its best look. 

Screenshot by Eli Blumenthal/CNET

As might be expected, there is some awkwardness around the Washington Football Team, with EA doing a pretty good job cleaning out the old name. Still, it is odd hearing generic terms like "their opponent" instead of a team name. Hopefully, EA will further refine this with its broadcasting updates throughout the season. 

The presentation, meanwhile, was also unimpressive. The commentating duo of Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis remains solid, but other aspects could use some improvements. 

The score bar along the top of the screen seems larger and more pronounced compared to past years. It would be great if EA went to a smaller bug, a la NBA 2K, or offered options for different presentation styles similar to MLB The Show

Madden 21 has a new dark blue and bright teal color scheme, which doesn't look particularly good for the score graphics and is really difficult to use when it comes to kicking and punting. The white line for kicking almost disappears at times in the bright, light blue at the top of the power meter making even routine attempts a squinting challenge. 

There are also a host of small details that the game is missing. Tattoos on a number of players are MIA, including for big names like cover star Jackson. 

Players on the sidelines still look like unidentifiable generic characters (that occasionally, but rarely, will step onto the field of play while you're running down the sideline). These are obviously not game-killers, but for the officially licensed NFL video game it remains yet another break from the real thing.