At this point, it feels like a thankless task for the Madden NFL developers. Again as the gridiron season gets under way, the internet bemoans a lack of progress and “laziness,” pulling down Madden NFL 23’s user score on Metacritic and bemoaning any lack of progress.
This is the fate of pretty much every annual sports game, of course, (though Madden seems particularly prone to fan fury) and in the position of the most prolific producer of sports simulations in the business, you’d hope for their sakes that EA’s developers have thick enough skin to last keep calm and carry on.
But here’s the thing: it’s not true. Not completely anyway. Annual updates are always a mess of compromises, and areas that need improvement are often neglected as focus is placed elsewhere. Think of it as an NFL team rebuild: you can’t trade a star quarterback, keep your big contracts and fix the entire defensive unit all at once … the cap just won’t allow it. Time and resource, always a pain, right?
That does not mean that the annual sports match should be immune to criticism, far from it. And there’s a lot off the field in Madden NFL 23 that has certainly stagnated since last year’s game. The improvement to last year’s Franchise mode has slowed down this time around, with more detail in college scouting and free agency negotiations the notable changes. The single-player career Face of the Franchise has tried to mix things up by making you a released second-year player seeking a contract with a new team to prove yourself in the league. An idea with legs, but the actual ‘story’ and progression is quite shallow.
The often-controversial card-collecting Madden Ultimate Team has attempted to tap into pay-to-win criticism with earned ‘Field Passes’ that bolster your squad. But these modes are inherently microtransaction-driven fare, and while Field Passes are a decent addition, they’re mostly a Band-Aid. And there’s obviously something wrong with the most expensive premium packages, to the point that popular Madden streamers are “on strike” over the thin rewards they get for splashing out. Fast-paced, small-scale arcade mode The Yard returns for its third year. But since few players actually participate, it also runs on empty.
None of this means that these ways of playing are not worthwhile. I feel like you’re either in or out with Ultimate Team (FIFA and NHL included); I don’t like it, but there are reasons why they are EA’s most popular (and lucrative) game modes. And for me, the franchise mode glow-up from last year has a lot of appeal. But the incremental (at best) improvement off the court seems to serve one thing: that this is the best Madden on the court yet.
Yes, this is a statement that is often repeated when the latest edition of a sports game arrives. And let’s face it, something will have gone wrong if the developers try to make an inferior game in even a difficult development cycle. There are, of course, ideas and tweaks that just don’t stick, but Madden NFL 23 is a real and notable gain on what’s gone before.
As usual, EA has covered its improvements under the marketing-friendly “FieldSense”, which is short for “making the game better”. Aside from something to put on the back of the box, I suspect this is because these tweaks sound underwhelming in isolation, but all add up to a solid and satisfying game of football.
Most notable is the new passing system that gives you much more control over your throws. In addition to the modifiers that allow you to launch bombs or throw low ball passes over the intersection, you can now easily fade or swing passes with a tap of the stick. It gives you a much better chance of dropping curved passes into gaps in coverage. Madden is unique in its frisson of nerves and excitement after the snap as you survey your options across the field with 6ft3, 17 stone linebackers charging at you. Seeing a secondary runner break free and dropping it right into his lane with a delicate tap on the stick is incredibly satisfying.
The ground game also sees you have a touch more control, with ball carriers able to cut in more effectively while the plethora of moves available in the rush – such as trucking – are more responsive and efficient. And if this sounds like all the focus is on attacking play, the defense has its own adjustments. Some of the box tackling has been dropped, so there’s a lot more response to what you do. Defensive AI has also been strengthened; the pass rush is far more aggressive and effective, pinning quarterbacks in the pocket and giving them only a few seconds to release the ball. I’ve seen very little of the over-efficient scrambling of recent Maddens. Misplaced or poorly picked passes will also be swallowed up by coverage, meaning turnovers are much more of a risk for careless play.
Overall, it feels like you have more influence on the play after the snap, but that doesn’t mean the play calls are any less. Quite the opposite, as the improved defensive AI makes strategic decisions more crucial than ever on both sides of the line.
That’s good, is what I’m trying to say, even if these improvements are subtle in isolation. And there are still some older issues that are harder to iron out. Although the canned animations have been toned down, you still get the feeling on some plays that some outcomes are decided a split second in advance to get a fancy-looking catch or takedown. Still a few meters to go, but on the field Madden has made some real strides.
Off the field… not so much. It feels like EA Tiburon has a conundrum here as there is both too much and not enough when it comes to Madden’s modes. Sticking with things like The Yard and Face of the Franchise to keep the options wide is all well and good, but when no aspect of the game is given full attention, everything feels undercooked.
The obvious answer, apparently, is a root and branch reboot; strips back and focuses on what’s important – as 23 alludes to with its tributes to the late John Madden and fine pitch tweaks – but if you do, you’re open to criticism for not offering a fuller package. The fight continues, 4th and inches, decisions to be made. But that’s up to EA to deal with. Meanwhile, if you can look past its shortcomings, Madden NFL 23 offers what its famous namesake coach would simply call “good football.”