‘Madden 21’ review: Forget fringe features like The Yard, the core still feels great

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In this modern era of 5,000 yard passing seasons and spread offenses, I was in the shotgun. On first down no less. Something that was once a video game only method of play, right up there with always going for it on fourth down every time, but both are now very much a part of real life 21st century football.

The simulation experience of a live football game has never felt or looked better in “Madden 21.” Whether all the good that comes with that, the speed of the game, the top-notch graphics, pinpoint passing and an accurate running game experience (you have to read your offensive line’s holes, the days of just sweeping to the left or right have long since passed), and more options for defensive movements to get to the ball, is markedly improved from say, “Madden 19” or “20,” is up for debate.

“The Yard” is the newest feature to the Madden franchise. It’s a six-on-six, spread out game on a smaller field designed to have an arcade-like football feel. There is a mild nostalgic feeling of fun when playing in this mode to anyone who has ever played backyard football (hence “yard” in the name). The player snapping the ball to you can immediately run out as a receiver. Laterals are encouraged on plays that call for receivers to run in motion on the snap. Pitch it to your receiver behind the line of scrimmage and if you don’t have a defensive player posing as your shadow and ready to take you down immediately, you can either run for glory or look downfield for an open pass-catcher.

“The Yard’s” most throwback aspect is the “one-Mississippi” aspect of the pass-rush. When the ball is snapped you must wait a second before you can rush the quarterback, waiting for a red line of scrimmage marker to turn green.

Fun? Yes. For hours? Maybe if you’ve got a second player with you. Against the computer, not so much.

“The Yard,” along with other Madden modes like “Superstar KO,” “Ultimate Team,” and “Face of the Franchise,” seem to come off, at least to older Madden-ers like myself, as additions implemented to justify the latest version of Madden being newer and engaging to younger players who aren’t old enough to remember when John Madden was actually the guy on the cover and ambulances ran over injured players in the game.

I’m 40 years old. I’m more likely to tell a kid to get off my yard before wanting to play “The Yard” with them online. But Madden has always been a part of my video game DNA. My Madden experience, and what I want from the game, no matter how long it has been since I’ve played, will hinge on how much I’m digging the graphics and gameplay, and what the Franchise Mode offers me over multiple seasons with the same team. That and crazy video game stats.

The Franchise Mode has been hit or miss over the last few years with only so much meaningful change. Those looking for something groundbreaking when managing a team in Franchise may have to wait to see what the upcoming next generation consoles offer.

The games within the game you can play in your mind with “Madden 21” still matter. Mobile quarterbacks are the ultimate offensive threat (but you better slide) and the most fun to play with. The Los Angeles Chargers, with their myriad uniform options (try the navy blue with yellow pants) are a perfect example of the fun those mini mind games can provide.

With a first-round draft pick at quarterback (Justin Herbert), whom “Madden 21” automatically places in as the starter, the Chargers also have duel-threat abilities and experience with Tyrod Taylor as the backup. A built-in quarterback controversy ready to be managed.

You can also take a chance on running the now nameless Washington Football Team in “Madden 21,” which is the only way this team can be managed drama free, which is to say virtually.

The Madden monopoly on realistic NFL sims will continue even with 2K announcing they will soon be back in the football video game business. Whatever comes in the future from 2K will not be a full-game simulation experience. So Madden, now, and come the arrival of next-gen consoles, is the present and future of football game simulations.

This is, however, a swan song of sorts for Madden with the dawn of newer, shinier and much more expensive next-generation consoles in the PS5 and Xbox Series X. Perhaps you’ve been Madden-ing long enough to remember the not-so-seamless transition from say, Madden on the Xbox (loads of fun) to the Xbox 360 (hardly any joy that first year), and the memories of preferring to play Madden on an older console until EA could figure out next generation technology and how to incorporate it into their games.

The good news there is that purchasing “Madden 21” on either current-gen console before the end of this year guarantees you a digital upgrade to the PS5 or Xbox Series X version of the game. That’s provided you stay within the same console family. If you’re playing “Madden 21” on an Xbox One like I am, but can’t wait to play as “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales” on the PS5, you’ll have to buy a new next-gen Madden game for the PS5. Still the upgrade feature is quite enticing, at least until you factor in we still don’t know how much those new-gen consoles will cost.

To that end, is “Madden 21” a fun enough gaming experience to snag ahead of the next-gen debuts? Yes. If “Madden 21” on Xbox One or PS4 is the only football gaming you do for the next year, you’ll be plenty entertained.

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