At this point, it feels like a thankless task for the Madden NFL developers. Once again, as gridiron season kicks into action, the internet laments the lack of progress and ‘laziness’, dragging down Madden NFL 23’s Metacritic user score and lamenting the lack of progress.
This is the fate of nearly every annual sports game, of course (although Madden seems especially susceptible to fan anger), and as the most prolific producer of sports simulations in the industry, I’d hope for their own good that the developers of EA have skin thick enough to keep calm and carry on.
But here’s the thing: it’s not true. Not quite anyway. Annual updates are always a mess of compromises and areas that need improvement are often neglected and the focus placed elsewhere. Think of it like a rebuild of the NFL team: You can’t trade a star quarterback, keep his big contracts and fix the entire defensive unit in one fell swoop … the cap just won’t allow it. Time and resources, always a pain, huh?
That doesn’t mean the annual sports game should be immune from criticism, far from it. And there are a lot of things off the field in Madden NFL 23 that have certainly stalled since last year’s game. The Franchise mode buff from last year has slowed down this time around, with more details on college scouting and free agency trading being notable changes. The Face of the Franchise single-player career has tried to mix things up by making you a second-year released player looking for a contract on a new team to prove yourself in the league. An idea with legs, but the actual ‘story’ and progression is pretty sketchy.
The often-controversial, card-collecting Madden Ultimate Team has sought to address pay-to-win criticism with earned ‘Field Passes’ boosting its squad. But these modes are inherently microtransaction-driven fees, and while Field Passes turn out to be a decent addition, they’re mostly just plaster. And there’s obviously something wrong with their more expensive premium packages, to the point that popular Madden streamers are on ‘strike’ for the small reward they get for spending. The small-scale, fast-paced arcade mode The Yard returns for its third year. But, since few players actually participate, it’s also running empty.
None of this means that these ways of playing aren’t worth your time. I feel like you’re in or out of 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 brilliance of last year’s Franchise mode is still very appealing. But the incremental (at best) improvement off the field seems to be in the service of one thing: that this is the best Madden on the field 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 manage to make a worse game even in a reduced development cycle. It happens, of course, ideas and tweaks that just don’t stick, but Madden NFL 23 is a genuine and remarkable improvement on what’s been done before.
As usual, EA has covered its improvements under the ‘FieldSense’, which is short for ‘improve the game’, which is marketing friendly. Aside from something to put in the back of the box, I suspect this is because these settings sound disappointing on their own, but they all add up to a solid and satisfying game of football.
Most notable is the new passing system that allows you to have much more control over your shots. In addition to modifiers that allow you to throw bombs or throw low passes through the line of scrimmage, you can now fade or curve passes slightly with a push of the stick. It gives you a much better chance of dropping arcing passes into the gaps in coverage. Madden is unique in its shiver of nerves and post-snap excitement as you sift through your options all over the field with 6-foot-3, 17 stone linebackers attacking you. Spotting a free secondary runner and dropping it right into your path with a delicate push of the stick is immensely satisfying.
The ground game also allows you to have a bit more control, with ball carriers able to intervene more effectively, while the plethora of moves available on the run, for example, are more responsive and effective. And if this sounds like all the focus is on the attacking game, the defense has its own adjustments. Some of the canned tackles have been removed, so there’s a lot more responsiveness to what you’re doing. Defensive AI has also been improved; pass rush is much more aggressive and effective, trapping quarterbacks in the pocket and giving them only seconds to throw the ball. I’ve seen very little of the overly efficient coding of recent Maddens. Misplaced or poorly chosen passes will also be eaten up by coverage, meaning turnovers are much more risky from sloppy play.
In general, it feels like you have more influence on the play after the snap, but that doesn’t mean the plays are down. Quite the contrary, as improved defensive AI makes strategic decisions more crucial than ever on both sides of the line.
It’s good, is what I’m trying to say, even if those improvements are subtle on their own. And there are still some legacy issues that are harder to fix. While those canned animations have been reduced, you still get the feeling on some plays that some outcomes are decided a fraction of a second too early for a fancy looking catch or takedown. There are still a few yards to go, but Madden on the field has made some big strides.
Off the field… not so much. It seems that EA Tiburon has a dilemma here as there is too much and not enough when it comes to Madden modes. Sticking with things like The Yard and Face of the Franchise to keep the options wide is fine, but when no one aspect of the game is given full attention, all feels undercooked.
The obvious answer, apparently, is a root and branch reset; stripping back and concentrating on what’s important – as 23 alludes to with its homages to the late John Madden and its fine touches on the pitch – but if it does that, it’s open to criticism for not offering a more complete package. The fight continues, 4th and inches, decisions to be made. But that’s for EA to address. In the meantime, if you can look past his shortcomings, Madden NFL 23 offers what his famous coach of the same name would simply call “good football.”