Madden NFL 21 - title

In the past 2 years, EA has added 2 new arcade modes (Superstar KO, and now The Yard), on top of the existing [pay-to-win] arcade mode that has been in the game for a decade (Ultimate Team), and they've experimented with 2 new single-player career modes, but they refuse to make any substantial upgrades or improvements to the core Franchise mode. And they have the nerve to call this a "simulation" football game? And no, I do not consider Face of the Franchise to be a "Franchise Mode", no matter how EA may want to brand it.

Look, if Madden already had a deep, robust, and engaging Franchise Mode on par with the breadth and quality of the mode from 10-20 years ago, then I'd be perfectly fine with the team branching out and experimenting with new game modes. If the Franchise Mode were already so complete and robust that both EA's devs and the fan community were struggling to think of things to add or change, then all these other modes would feel more warranted. But that isn't the case. Franchise mode has been a half-baked, bug-riddled, experience since at least Madden 13. And the wishlists from consumers have plenty of ideas for EA to implement, ranging from hiring coordinators and assistant coaches, to off-season training camps, to position battles, to contract restructuring, to a more meaningful preseason and in-season scouting, and even relatively mundane and simple things like a weather forecast or a U.I. that shows us our player and team goals when we're actually in a match. Year after year, EA and Tiburon tell us that they "hear us" and are committed to improving Franchise Mode. But year after year, we get a "new feature" list that reads like an October patch log for last year's game.

Tiburon did not add anything to Franchise mode, but we got a whole other arcade mode.

In this regard, Madden 21 is the worst offender yet, because there is absolutely nothing new in the Franchise mode at the game's launch. We had to wait until October before EA even acknowledged that Franchise Mode exists in Madden 21, and for them to promise updates.

To be fair, The Yard isn't all that bad

Even though I'm frustrated to see yet another arcade mode that feels nothing like actual football (to the total exclusion of any Franchise mode updates), I have to admit that I'm more likely to play (and maybe even enjoy) The Yard more than Ultimate Team. The Yard is basically a modernized, but less-developed, version of EA's old NFL Street games. Despite still being a micro-transaction-fueled online-multiplayer-focused arcade mode, the fact that it is not built on a pay-to-win gambling architecture makes The Yard feel less cynically manipulative. It feels less like a brazen, anti-consumer scam, and more like a genuine attempt to make a fun game first, then stick an optional micro-transaction economy on top of it. It's still bad, and cynical, and exploitative (especially in the wake of Star Wars Squadrons, which was also published by EA, but had no micro-transactions at all), but it's less bad, less cynical, and less exploitative than the efforts EA has made in the past.

Can someone please double-check my math? Does this one uniform really cost $20?!

That being said, the cost of these purely cosmetic accessories is downright absurd. EA seems to think that a virtual helmet is somehow worth twenty dollars! Did somebody on the U.I. team fuck up and accidentally shift a decimal two places for these micro-transaction costs? 20 cents? Maybe. But 20 dollars? Are you fucking kidding me, EA?! $20 is what I expect to pay for an entire expansion pack, not for a single cosmetic novelty item.

The cynic in me believes that this exorbitant cost is a deliberate attempt by EA at sabotaging their own micro-transaction store. Maybe they think that if they jack up the prices ridiculously high for these cosmetics, nobody will be willing to pay for them. They could then go back to focusing on gambling and pay-to-win loot boxes and blame the consumers, "well we offered cosmetic-only micro-transactions, but you didn't want to buy them. Clearly the market prefers randomized 'surprise mechanics'."

I lost a game by 1 point because the scoreboard became unreadable,
and I didn't know if I should go for 1, 2, or 3 pt conversion.

My first impressions of The Yard were further hampered by several significant bugs. The most egregious was several instances in which the scoreboard overlay graphics became corrupted, and I couldn't read the score. With the weird scoring rules of The Yard, it's much harder to remember and track the current score in my head. In one of these occurrences, I scored a touchdown in my final drive, but was unsure of whether to go for 1, 2, or 3 because I couldn't remember exactly how far I was down. I went for 3 and failed to convert, only to lose by 1.

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Axis Football 20- title

Compared to messy launch of Maximum Football 2020, the release of Axis Football 2020 went pretty smoothly. Maximum launched with some signs of regression from its 2019 iteration. Canuck Play has since patched out most of those bugs and issues, but those weeks spent fixing bugs that shouldn't have been in the game to begin with, are weeks that weren't spent improving the game in other areas. Axis 2020, on the other hand, is a small, but noticeable, upgrade to its 2019 counterpart.

This tweet may have oversold 2020 a bit.

Not the overhaul I expected

I may have set my expectations a little high with Axis 2020. Axis Games had posted to Twitter that they planned to completely redesign their locomotion and tackling system. I got my hopes up for something more robust and realistic. The end result still shows some steady progress, but it isn't the complete overhaul that I was expecting and hoping for.

I don't want to discourage Axis from tweeting promises of gameplay improvements. I really like having the transparency of knowing what the developers are working on, and I also understand that it can be easy to over-promise sometimes. I work as a software engineer. I know how it goes. That being said, I really don't feel like 2020 constitutes a "complete rebuild from the ground up", and the tweet in question definitely oversold 2020 by a lot, in my opinion. I don't know what was done under the hood. Maybe they did make extensive changes. It just doesn't feel all that different.

Movement hasn't been completely overhauled,
but there are some new animations.

There was some noticeable work done to animations and player movement. Tackles do look a lot cleaner most of the time. There are also a few new animations, such as animations of players bending over to pick the ball up off the ground on fumbles or un-fielded kicks. But that's about it. I would have liked to see more animations of players falling on a lose ball, especially the less athletic linemen. Other than that, most of the player movement, ball-carrier evasive moves, catching animations, blocking animations, and so forth look pretty much identical to last year (and the year before).

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Star Wars Squadrons - title

I don't think it will be controversial to say that the best part of EA's 2017 Star Wars Battlefront II was the multiplayer space dogfighting. It made me yearn for a good Star Wars flight sim in the vein of the old X-Wing and TIE Fighter PC classics. But in this age of big-budget, micro-transaction-fueled, multiplayer-focused, spectacle shooters, I wasn't going to hold my breath for EA (the exclusive rights-holder to Star Wars games) to deliver any time soon, especially after a planned remake from LucasArts was canceled back in 2009.

So it came as a surprise to see Star Wars: Squadrons. Yes, it's an online game with a competitive multiplayer focus, so no divergence from modern norms there. But it's also a $40, "middle-shelf" game built on a lower budget than the usual AAA blockbuster that EA produces. That lower budget and pricetag seems to have liberated developer Motive from much of the corporate burden of expectations associated with a larger-scale, more expensive product. Squadrons takes a few risks by raising the expectations and barrier of entry for players, and it doesn't stoop to offsetting its lower pricetag by incorporating a micro-transaction economy (at least not yet).

A flight-sim light

Much like the Ace Combat series, Star Wars: Squadrons hits a good, comfortable middle-ground between an arcade dogfighter and a flight-sim. Squadrons even errs a bit closer to sim in some regards via its power-allocation and sub-system-management mechanics. It is also much more restrictive about the use of special weapons. While Ace Combat allows players to coast along by shooting down almost every enemy plane with your stockpile of 60 or 70 missiles (despite flying a plane that only has between 2 and 6 missles strapped to its undercarriage), Squadrons focuses much more heavily on the use of the fighters' primary laser cannons.

Squadrons locks the player into a cockpit view.

Players are even locked into a cockpit view with limited HUD elements, forcing players to rely on the cockpit instruments. This game makes me wish I had a good PS4-compatible flight stick. The only flight stick I own is an old PC one, which I had to jury-rig to work with Ace Combat 7 on Steam.

No, it isn't as as involved as the classic X-Wing and TIE Fighter PC flight sims, but it's a significant step up from the N64 Rogue Squadron game and its sequel.

Motive has redeemed itself from the awful
single-player campaign of Battlefront II.

A more serious effort

Squadrons shows a lot of signs of learning from the failures of Battlefront II. In fact, I was surprised to find out that Motive was not the studio that developed Battlefront II's space dogfighting. That duty was handled by Criterion Studios. Motive was, in fact, the studio behind Battlefront II awful single-player campaign.

This time, Motive seems to have put some actual thought and effort behind Squadrons' campaign, its story, and its characters. Almost as if this is a project that the studio actually wanted to do, rather than being a project that was imposed upon them by a greedy publisher who just wants a token single-player mode in a game that is actually designed to scam money out of people with pay-to-win online multiplayer.

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Doug Flutie's Maximum Football 2020 - title

I bought Maximum Football 2020 for PS4 on launch day and found that the PS4 version launched with a set of bugs that made the game almost unplayable. In those first couple hours, I noticed some benign bugs. Every team in the game was duplicated in the team select and customization screens, and Canadian rules showed the wrong button icon for the sixth receiver. The more game-breaking bug, however was that running plays were completely absent from the user playbook, and the on-field action was very unstable.

The PS4 version was riddled with bugs at launch and practically unplayable.

After resigning myself to wait for a patch before bothering to play any further matches (let alone starting a Dynasty), I tried playing around with the logo creator, play designer, and other customization features to pass the time. The logo creator seems to be pretty much identical to last year. You have a handful of basic shapes, letters, and numbers that you place in layers on a canvas. If you ever created a logo with the Rock Band 3 logo creator, then you have a pretty good idea of how Maximum Football's logo editor works. Except that Rock Band 3 had a tremendous amount of shapes -- and even pre-made art -- that you could add to your canvas. Maximum Football has way less to work with here. The thing that stops me from even bothering with the logo creator is that I can't use an existing team's logo as a baseline.

I'd love to be able to take one of the cowboy logos from Columbia or another school to use for my Las Vegas Pioneers in Dynasty mode. Change the colors up a bit, maybe add the words "Las Vegas" (or at least the letters "LV"), and so forth. Just take the existing logo and give it a more personal touch. Nope. Can't. I either have to use the existing logo as is, or make a new one from scratch out of layers of basic geometric shapes. I'm not necessarily expecting to be able to disassemble each existing logo into their constituent parts, but at the very least it would be nice to insert the existing logo as part of a new logo, and maybe change the colors.

The logo editor has rudimentary shapes, and does not allow you to import or edit an existing logo.

These limitations don't mean that you can't make a good logo. Plenty of people with a lot more time and patience have certainly made some good stuff. I just don't care enough to put that much effort into it. Especially if I can't even share it online or expect to be able to export the logo into next year's game.

So I moved on to the play designer, and was almost immediately roadblocked by bugs. I was excited to try out the play designer in this game, but I went in with measured expectations. I was expecting to find a token play editor that was limited to basic football concepts. I didn't even get that far because the damn thing didn't work. I couldn't select different formations for new offensive plays. I couldn't test defensive plays. And I soft-locked the game by trying to back out of a certain menu, then hard-locked the game by trying to change the ruleset and re-enter the play designer.

The Play Designer didn't work as intended at launch, but I committed myself to coming back to it later.

Booting up the game to find nothing but bugs and lackluster new features in every corner that I looked was absolutely not the first impression that I was hoping to get from Maximum Football 2020. Sadly, this was the condition of the PS4 launch. How this got past Sony's approval process, but Axis Football got held up or blocked for both 2018 and 2019 is beyond me. At least Axis worked!

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Ghost of Tsushima - title

I don't recall the last time I played an open world sandbox game through to the end credits prior to writing a review for it. Usually, I've made my decision about the game long before credits roll. If I like the game, I usually stop before it becomes too tedious, finish up my review, move on to something else, and I rarely ever go back to finish these games. That was the case with Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, Shadow of Mordor, and others. Ghost of Tsushima is a rare instance of me actually liking an open world sandbox game enough that I couldn't stop playing.

One of the sad ironies for me, as an amateur critic, is that I usually play a game longer if I don't like it -- sometimes all the way to end credits. As was the case with Assassin's Creed III and Shadow of War. This is because I want to find out if there's anything late in the game that might redeem it -- even if in some small way.

In this regard, Ghost of Tsushima is a rare exception. I was enjoying the heck out of the game and wanted to see how it ends before I commit to a review. It wasn't even a case of me rushing through the main story just to get it over with (as is the case with many bad open world games). In fact, I completed all the side missions (including the mythic missions), liberated a majority of the occupied towns, and found a majority of all collectibles. I might even play some of the epilogue. So I can say without reservation that I like this game! And it all begins with the presentation.

This is not a promotional still! Nor was it taken with the included "photo mode".
This is just what the game looks like!

You have to see it to believe it

Ghost of Tsushima is not necessarily the most technically impressive game that I've played. Games like Red Dead Redemption II and The Last of Us Part II have had better facial animation, lighting, textures, and/or draw distance. But where Tsushima lacks in technical capabilities, it more than makes up for in aesthetics and artistry. The environments are beautiful, and the weather effects (especially wind effects) are second to none. Whether it's fields of vividly-colored flowers swaying in the wind, or ocean waves crashing on a sandy beach, or the plum trees on a rocky mountain dropping their blossoms into the breeze, or a thunderstorm threatening over the horizon, or a shinto temple towering over a forest of golden trees, there is something pretty to look at no matter where you go.

Screenshots do not do the game justice. You have to see it in HD motion to appreciate it.

I'm not normally one to gush over a game's graphics, but Ghost of Tsushima really stands out for its environmental design. Over the crest of every hill, it seemed a majestic screenshot opportunity awaited me. Picking just one or two to highlight in this review was a real challenge. Even the best screenshots that I could capture do not do the game justice. You really have to see it in high-definition motion (without the compression of an internet stream) to truly appreciate it.

I haven't seen weather effects this good since [maybe] The Witcher III.

This game is perfect as a virtual vacation during the travel-restricted social-distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or at least, it would be, if not for the densely-packed sandbox content making it so that I can't take 10 steps without running into an ambient encounter of some kind. I could be trotting along on my horse through a forest lit with the golden glow of a sunset beaming through the canopy, with the serene ambiance of the wind harmonizing with the background music of Japanese flutes. But I can't enjoy this serenity for more than 5 seconds before a pack of Mongols shows up, the flutes give way to battle drums, and it's back to the swinging of swords and showers of blood.

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