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Axis Football 21 - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Onfield interactions not dictated by prefab animations
  • Tighter zone coverage of underneath routes
  • New throw-on-run and throw-out-of-sack animations
  • Functional overtime rules
  • Full team-creation and customization
  • Customizable team play-call tendencies
  • Aimed passing with a mouse

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Catching and pass defense still a crap shoot
  • Line play still stiff and robotic
  • Too many interceptions
  • Overtime does not allow ties
  • CPU clock-management
  • No stadium or playbook customization
  • Practice squad underdeveloped
  • No practice mode or tutorials
  • No instant replays

Overall Impression : D+ / C-
New customization features are paired with
subtle improvements to passing and pass defense

Axis Football 21 - cover

Developer:
Axis Games

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam),
XBox One (COMING SOON),
PlayStation 4 (COMING SOON!).
(< indicates platform(s) I played for review)

MSRP: $30 USD

Original release date:
26 August 2021

Genre:
simulation sports, gridiron football

Player(s):
1 or 2 players (local)

Play time:
indefinite hours

ESRB Rating: E (for Everyone) for:

Official site:
axisleague.com/

Axis Football is still a tough game to review. It's a very playable game that I support and recommend, but without Maximum Football to make Axis look better by comparison, it's a lot harder to overlook Axis' flaws, limitations, and lack of large-scale improvement. There's forward progress and noticeable changes, but still so many long-standing issues. The slow rate of progress is much more forgiveable than Madden, however, because the developers at Axis Games do not have access to hundreds of programmers and animators, or billions of dollars in cash. Progress is slow and steady, and that's pretty much all we can ask for given the company's limited resources.

If you're looking for a remarkably different game, then you'll be disappointed. Axis 21 feels largely identical to Axis 20, which felt largely identical to Axis 19 If you like Axis Football and are OK spending $30 to play more of it, then you'll get your money's worth.

Axis Football 2021 still looks and feels very similar to previous years.

Customization is the focus in 2021

The primary focus of development for Axis 21 seems to have been in its customization options. Previous iterations offered only limited options for customizing teams and uniforms, but Axis 21 has a much more extensive customization suite. Team uniforms and logos can be edited, and whole new uniforms can be created. Team playbooks and play-calling tendencies can be edited. Even the field is customizable.

About the only things that are missing from this customization suite are the ability to create or modify stadiums, and a playbook editor. Maybe we'll see those next year.

The customization suite is much more extensive this year.

This more advanced customization suite should hopefully draw in some of the crowd that got left in the dust when Maximum Football was canceled. If you're a fan of customizing teams and uniforms, and you haven't played Axis Football before, then 2021 might be the year to hop on the Axis Football bandwagon.

Another nice inclusion in this year's customization suite is the ability to update team rosters, which means I could modify my roster to match my roster from several seasons into Axis 20's Franchise Mode, instead of having to start over with the same initial roster that I've been using since 2018. It's a lot of work though to modify every player on my team (let alone the entire league), and I opted instead to just randomize my roster and go from there. Randomizing the roster is, I think, also a new feature in this year's game. I wish Axis would include the ability to import last year's Franchise rosters so that I can have a sense of continuity and progress between releases, without all the tedious busy-work on my end. Being able to import team customizations from year-to-year would also help reduce the prep work required by the user, and allow us to get right into enjoying the game.

Using the roster editor, I can re-create my team from last year, but it's a lot of busy-work.

Minor, but noticeable, improvements

Even though customization seems to have received the brunt of Axis' developers' attention, gameplay isn't completely without improvement. In fact, there's a lot of subtle improvements to animation and A.I. logic that makes the gameplay more smooth and dynamic for those with a keen eye for detail.

The most noticeable change this year is that QBs now have animations for throwing-on-the-run and for throwing out of sacks. This really helps make mobile quarterbacks feel more fluid and dynamic, without necessarily being overpowered. Passes thrown out of sacks will be very inaccurate, but they aren't all getting popped up into the air to be intercepted by defensive linemen and run in for scores, like in Madden 17.

QBs now have animations for throwing out of sacks.

There's also functional overtime rules now. It's about time! Axis 21 uses NFL-style hybrid sudden-death overtime rules. If the opening drive of overtime is a field goal, then the other team will have an opportunity to receive a kickoff and drive a single possession to score. Otherwise, the first score of overtime wins the game.

One thing that is different from the NFL, however, is that Axis 21's overtime rules do not allow for tied games -- not even in the regular season. An extra period will be added indefinitely until somebody scores. This is necessary for playoff games, which must have a winner, but it can drag out regular season games for too long, can inflate stats and scores, and can dramatically increase the odds of injury to exhausted players. I've already seen several exhibition and regular season games go into double overtime, and it really feels unnecessary. I'm a firm believer that a tied game is a perfectly valid result for a hard-fought defensive struggle in which neither team seemed to have an edge. This is especially true in an NFL-style Franchise that has 16 games, as opposed to the 11 or 12 of a college season, in which each game is that much more precious.

There's actual functional overtime rules now!

There's also been some improvements to defensive zone coverage A.I. that prevents certain route concepts and combinations from being open every single time. Instead of 2 defenders in overlapping zones both covering the same receiver and letting the other go free, they will more likely split up and each take a different receiver based on priorities. It's still entirely possible to confuse the CPU defense, but you'll have to do it with hot routes instead of out-of-the-box plays. It's a subtle change. You might not notice exactly why there aren't as many large gaps in zones, but you will probably notice that zone coverage is much tighter, and the throwing windows are much narrower.

Armchair quarterbacks will have a new tool for hitting the narrower gaps in zone coverages, since Axis 21 now allows QBs to anticipate where the receiver's route will take him, and throw prior to making the cut. In previous years, if the user presses the throw button before a receiver makes a cut on, say a curl route or out route, the QB will chuck the ball up in the direction the receiver is running, as if that receiver was running a streak or fly route. This would wreak havoc on the short and intermediate passing game because throws that were supposed to go to an underneath route would often get thrown up directly to the bailing corner or safety that the whole route is designed to beat.

QBs can now anticipate cuts in the receiver's routes when throwing timing routes.

Now, if I press the throw button just before the receiver makes his cut, the QB will correctly lead the pass in the direction that the receiver is supposed to go. This makes curls, outs, ins, and other timing-based routes much more viable, and it represents one of the biggest gameplay improvements that this series has made so far.

It seems a bit finicky. I still have times where the QB throws the ball over the top of a curl route. I'm not sure if my timing is off, or if maybe my QB's accuracy or intelligence rating influences whether he throws the correct route or not. Curl routes in particular are still dangerous throws in Axis 21, since DBs are a bit too good at jumping the routes and intercepting the passes, even if they're giving the receiver a few yards of cushion. This route anticipation is a valuable new tool, but I still have to be careful with it, as it will still occasionally behave in unpredictable ways. Hopefully, this is stuff that can be ironed out in patches.

The outside run is still overpowered
in favor of the human user.

Issues old and new

Even with those animation and logic improvements, a lot of frustrating exploits and A.I. limitations remain. The outside running game is still ridiculously overpowered with a speedy back (A- speed or faster), and the A.I. is completely unable to make any meaningful adjustments to try to stop it. They won't adjust their play-calling, or shift their linebackers or safeties to wider alignments to play the run -- let alone pull a safety out of his zone assignment to play contain (which is what I do to shut down the CPU's outside running game). This has been a long-standing issue with Axis.

The CPU is also still not great at clock-management. I think the developers have said that they've made improvements to the clock-management logic, but I haven't noticed much of an improvement. The CPU will still call a timeout late in a tied game after failing to convert a third down, even if they intend to punt on 4th anyway. This only serves to prevent me from having to use my own timeout, and burns that CPU timeout so that it isn't available if they get the ball back later.

I also noticed that the CPU does not take timeouts at all as overtime expires. I guess this isn't that important, since the game won't end in a tie, an extra period will just be appended, and play will resume as if it were a regular quarter break.

There's also a few new bugs that I hope the developers will fix in patches. The biggest new problem (that wasn't present in previous years) is that my CPU-controlled DBs have this frustrating habit of attempting diving tackles as the CPU receivers catch deep passes. The diving tackles frequently whif, and my DB gives up an easy walk-in TD to the receiver. This is a problem that is, effectively, just as bad as the safeties letting themselves get burnt deep, which was a major problem in the game a couple years ago.

My safeties have a frustrating habit of missing dive tackles and giving up walk-in TDs.

Axis did add the CPU offense's personnel package back to the play-call U.I. (it was missing in last year's game), but there is now a bug that prevents the on-field defensive play art from moving to line up with the defenders as I make defensive shifts. I shift my linebackers and safeties almost every play, so the on-field play art can get very confusing if I'm switching control to another player and don't recall what his specific assignment was supposed to be.

And despite the addition of depth chart positions for kick returners, there is still no button to call a fair catch or kneel in the endzone for a touchback. There's also still annoying A.I. issues with loose ball situations, especially with regard to un-fielded punts. Players on both the return team and the punting team will try to pick up the ball, but they never seem to be able to get a hold of it, and they just kick it around. Thankfully, the play is blown dead as soon as the first player (from either team) touches the ball, so I'm not throwing my controller in frustration because my return team is fumbling punts and giving away free turnovers or safeties. Still, I'd like to see this aspect of special teams improved.

There is now a depth chart position for kick and punt returners, as well as stat tracking.

Still waiting for Axis to take that big leap forward

There's also not a whole lot new in Franchise mode. Again, the big focus here is customization.

The game now allows the user to select an NFL-style conference and division alignment, complete with playoff and championship. Users can also swap out which teams are in which divisions, and we can do the same thing with the initial tiers of the tiered league.

Franchise can now be structured with an NFL-style division format.

Personally, I'm still playing the tiered league for my Franchise. I think it gives Axis Football a unique feel and identity. But I also bought a used copy of Madden 22 to try out the new Franchise features, so I'm already getting my NFL fix from that game. If you're skipping Madden, yet want an NFL experience, then this option is here for you in Axis Football 2021.

The Franchise mode will even let you customize teams during a Franchise in progress. You don't have to do all the busy-work of customizing all the teams or rosters up front, before starting to play the game. You can customize relevant stuff piecemeal as you play.

Other than that, I haven't really noticed much new in Franchise mode this year. Kick and punt returners can be assigned in the depth chart, and the game now tracks return stats for those players. Still no depth chart positions or meaningful mechanics for longsnappers, holders, return gunners, or other specialists though.

Still waiting for this promised overhaul.

Prior to the release of Axis 2020, the developers had promised on Twitter that they would be rebuilding player movement and animation from the ground up. So far, we haven't seen the promised overhaul. Maybe it's taking them multiple years to fully implement it, and Axis 2022 will be the breakout game that we've been waiting for. In the meantime, Axis Football 2021 is just another incrementally upgraded version of the same game we've been playing since Axis Football 2019.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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