It’s not looking like a good year for football. The NFL was slow to react to the coronavirus pandemic, forcing its players to step in on social media to ask for action. It still looks like fans won’t be able to attend most of the games, if any. At least they still have Madden. Madden NFL 21, from the EA Sports division of gaming juggernaut Electronic Arts, is the latest installment in the franchise where you throw a ball and run around. And this year, there’s a mobile version of the game for Android and iOS. And because my job title is “mobile game reviewer,” I am going to review it. Starting now.
If you didn’t know, Madden is a video game franchise where you play virtual football with the players and teams from the NFL (National Football League). Though they indisputably peaked with their 2004 installment, EA Sports continues to release a new Madden game every year. That means each fall, fans face a choice: give sixty red-blooded American dollars to the vampiric corporate overlords at EA, who one day in the not-too-distant future, will laugh at us from the safety of Elon Musk’s Mars colony while the Earth burns, or instead you could hold on to last year’s game like a commie.
So what’s different about this Madden? Not much usually changes from year to year. The roster gets an update, and maybe the graphics improve a little. This year’s game has what EA’s press release touts as “new innovative gameplay mechanics,” so also whatever that is. Like I said, I’ve only played the mobile game, so I’m only concerned with one thing: can the real “Madden Experience” be smartly compressed into a phone app, or is this just window dressing for the real thing? Let’s investigate.
It’s in the Game
As far as the look and feel of this mobile game, it is directly on brand with the regular versions of Madden. A great effort was directed into making Madden NFL 21 Mobile Football look like a console Madden game, even if the gameplay suffered as a result. For example, the console button inputs are still over receiver’s heads when you drop back to throw a pass, for no discernible reason. You don’t hit corresponding buttons to pass to them though, you have to tap on them. It made me realize how much I missed the buttons whenever the receiver’s routes overlapped and I ended up tapping on the wrong receiver to throw a pass I didn’t want to throw.
Madden also missed a big chance to give the player more freedom with finger controls. You have to hit a button on the console version when the defensive play breaks down and you want to change to a different defender. You don’t have control over the player they switch you to, so you have to guess and hope you are bending the joystick towards the ball-carrier to make the tackle in time. Playing on the mobile version, it felt like I should be able to just tap the character I wanted to switch to. Nope. The only way to switch characters is by hitting a button on the side. Why can’t I just tap on the defender I want to switch to? How is that different from tapping on the receiver I want to pass to?
Any Given Payday
The game modes were also similar to what you’d expect from the console. Every sports game for the better half of the last decade has been driven by an Ultimate Team mode, where you collect trading cards of players and various other miscellany of power-ups to assemble a unique roster. In Madden Mobile, you build your Ultimate Team through something called the Master Series, a set of situational challenges where you can also collect resources for more cards. The challenges are thoroughly repetitive, most of them asking you to make a comeback in the 4th quarter or run a passing play a few times. There’s nothing about this mode that improves on the concept of Ultimate Team, except now it’s on your phone.
Madden NFL 21 Mobile Football isn’t the full Madden experience. But then again, “the Madden experience” is far removed from the football experience. Professional football, despite the violence and NBC color commentator Cris Collinsworth’s weekly assault on American ears, is a beautiful thing. A large group of men conspiring together using the full capacity of their minds and bodies to safely deliver an oblong ball across a chaotic warzone of AstroTurf and shoulder pads is the reason I bolt out of bed with excitement on Sundays in the fall.
Madden NFL 21 Mobile Football is a lame and choppy version of that. The whole franchise is for that matter. It fails to capture the unpredictability of each play and the fluidity of human movement. Anyone who has played at least two copies of this franchise knows there’s not a lot of skill involved. Just because you put a lot of time and effort into it doesn’t mean you will learn how to do anything cool or impressive.
Silver Linings Checkbook
“The Madden Experience,” from the shiny cover art to the heart of Ultimate Team’s loot box mechanics, is about buying things. It’s about the newness of unwrapping a cellophane package or unfolding a crisp new jersey with the NFL patch stitched right under the collar. I get it, it’s a satisfying high. I bought every Madden from 2008 to 2012, and I remember as soon as I ripped the cellophane off I would stick the case right up to my nose and inhale that sweet, sixty-dollar scent. How disgusting and odd I must have looked to my family from under the Christmas tree.
Were the games ever really that good? That I can’t really say. I played them a lot, but I can’t remember. I remember that if I went over to a friend’s house and he didn’t have the most recent copy of the game I would wonder about how much money his parents made. That’s a pretty shitty conclusion to draw, even for a 13-year-old, but I don’t think I was the only one who made it. Madden games were an important middle school status symbol, but now they are collecting dust in my basement somewhere. The cases are beat up and they’ve lost their sheen. As soon as I put my nose to the case, it lost value.
If you were to put Red Dead Redemption 2 in front of me in 2010, my brain probably would have exploded. Say what you will about that game, but its commitment to realism, attention to minor insignificant details and the fluidity of its storytelling were unimaginable ten years ago, when its predecessor came out. The improvements that franchise made in the eight years between releases were astronomical, and indicative of how much the video game industry has grown in the past decade.
If you were to put Madden NFL 21 Mobile Football in front of me in 2010, my brain probably would have exploded. Tom Brady on the Buccaneers? But beyond that, there’s nothing interesting about the game itself. (Assuming there’s no way for it to tell me about the Eagles’ Super Bowl win.) There’s nothing to be proud of, or look forward to. That’s because Madden is the product of two corporations, the NFL and EA, who consistently value money over things like player safety or creating a good product. As a fan of both football and video games, it’s hard to look at the barely perceptible progress Madden has made over the years and not be more than a little disappointed.
Another depressing installment of a vague capitalist ritual that really only benefits the hyper-wealthy.