Madden NFL 21 finds itself in a particularly peculiar position this year. The football simulation’s launching less than three months prior to the PlayStation 5, and while there will be a free upgrade to the next-gen console, it really shows. Despite bundling in a potential series cornerstone in the Yard, this is a relatively low-effort attempt that barely builds upon its predecessor.

It’s a flashy instalment, though, of that there’s no doubt. Buoyed by the busyness of its box art, the release’s user interface is filled with X’s and O’s and bright neon colours – it’s as if the designers wanted to capture what it would look like if team training took place at an electropop festival. Such unexpected combinations extend to the new Yard mode, where you can create your own player and combine all sorts of uniform ensembles to show off in front of your pals.

Our avatar, for example, is currently pairing a rolled-up New York Giants jersey with a pair of shocking pink Lycra pants – it’s a look, alright. Customising your character is just half the fun of the game’s headline mode, however, as its unusual ruleset means you’ll be performing some big plays in six-on-six scrimmages against some of the NFL’s biggest stars.

You’ll play both sides of the ball on an 80-yard field, with your objective being to outscore the opponent over three drives. You can hike the ball to any player, and while the playbook is pretty small, it encourages experimentation. For example, you can snap to one of your wide-receivers, juke the covering defender, step back behind the line of scrimmage, lob to your quarterback, and then throw a bomb to your other wide receiver in the Endzone.

The scoring system actively encourages you to get creative: you’ll earn bonus points for multi-pass plays that result in a touchdown, and you’ll also earn points for interceptions. This means that you’ll always be looking for the big plays, and showboating animations that allow you to throw the ball behind your back or even punch it to another player add to the spectacle of the occasion.

Unfortunately, while it’s good fun to play, the structure as it stands is fairly lame. There are a handful of stadiums to choose from, including the tailgate outside Lambeau Field and a port in Miami, and each has different rules for you to overcome. Sometimes, for example, you’ll need to wait several seconds before you can blitz; other times you won’t be able to earn first downs, so you’ll have to work the ball into the Endzone in a single drive.

While these alternative rules are fun, there’s very little flexibility for you to decide how you want to play, and the progression amounts to little more than grinding out points in each area in order to unlock the cosmetics associated with them. You'll also earn points based on the Prototype you pick, which allows you to level up key attributes, like your ability to catch the ball under pressure.

All that said, we like the addition, and we’re looking forward to seeing how it evolves. Although based on the rest of the release, we may be waiting a while, because this is an extremely stagnant football simulation. Minor changes have been made to the way pass rushers attack the offensive line, with moves now paired to the right analogue stick as opposed to the face buttons, which feels a little more fluid we suppose.

Blitzing in general has been nerfed compared to last year’s game, so you’ll need to regularly change up your moves or the offensive line will read what’s coming and learn how to deal with it. Similar control changes have been added to the running game as well, and it does feel more natural to be able to combo jukes, hurdles, and spin moves – especially when you’re playing as an elite back like Saquon Barkley or Ezekiel Elliott.

But that’s more or less it. There are minor changes like the fact that you can make coaching adjustments to set the positions of your zone coverage, and there are new plays that better bring running backs into the passing game, but outside of the teensiest balance changes this is more or less last year’s game. The celebration system has been upgraded, and it’s now easier to showboat as you sprint into the Endzone.

Franchise mode, as has already been widely reported, has received even less attention. Outside of the inclusion of new X-Factor abilities and an extended Wildcard round, as well as some minor adjustments to the way rookie contracts are handled, this has been left entirely untouched. There’s still obviously fun to be had building your own roster and taking it to the Super Bowl, but if you’ve already got a league running on Madden NFL 20 then there’s virtually no reason to upgrade.

Ultimate Team is EA Sports’ big money-spinner these days, and it still relies on obscene grinding throughout the season. We’ve taken issue with how complicated these card collecting modes have become in recent years, and while the on-boarding is much better this time, we still reckon it’s way too complicated for its own good.

The most meaningful adjustment compared to the previous game is the way in which abilities work, as you’ll now be capped to a certain number of Ability Points across both sides of the ball, and you’ll need to pick and choose which of your roster deserve them. You could, for example, completely spec out your quarterback and transform him into a beast – or you could share the love across your entire offense.

Microtransactions are, unsurprisingly, available to help you to purchase the best card packs – but they’re also used to kit out your Yard avatar, with the game featuring a rotating library of kits, cleats, and costumes. Fortunately, a generous Daily Missions tab means you’ll be earning tons of credits every day by simply playing matches, so you never really need to cough up for these.

The final talking point pertains to the Face of the Franchise mode, which sounds excellent on paper but somehow manages to regress from last year’s attempt. You’ll pull your avatar into a high school environment, and work your way into college through one of America’s prestigious football programs. Along the way, you’ll have to deal with various ups-and-downs, almost all of which revolve around your rival-cum-bestie Tommy Matthews.

While we’ve genuinely enjoyed some of Madden’s more recent narratives, like the Longshot storyline, this is an embarrassing attempt, with nonsensical twists and even worse voice acting. The real problem, though, is that you have no real agency over it; even if you throw four touchdowns in the final of the College Football Playoffs, you’ll still end up being forced into a position change. The storyline does continue once you make it to the NFL, which at least adds some longevity, but with the whole build-up being so clumsily executed, we can't imagine many will stick with it.

Conclusion

Madden NFL 21 is stagnant, and while football fans will find things to enjoy, it’s not like there’s an alternative option available. The Yard is a genuinely promising addition, and we’re looking forward to seeing how it evolves over the course of this season – and future games. But an embarrassing story and an untouched Franchise mode mean that it’s the only reason to upgrade. And while Madden Ultimate Team continues to be a time sink, the stale state of the on-field simulation means that this year’s game fails to find its intended receiver.