At this point it feels like a thankless task for the Madden NFL developers. Again as the gridiron season swings into action, the internet laments a lack of progress and ‘laziness’, dragging 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, (although Madden seems especially susceptible to fan fury) and in the position of most prolific producer of sporting simulations in the industry, you would hope for their sake that EA’s developers have thick enough skin to keep calm and carry on.
But here’s the thing: it isn’t true. Not entirely anyway. Annual updates are always a mess of compromises and areas that are in need of improvement are often neglected as focus is placed elsewhere. Think of it as an NFL squad rebuild: you can’t trade in a star quarterback, retain your big contracts and fix the entire defensive unit in one go… the cap just won’t allow it. Time and resource, always a pain, eh?
That doesn’t mean that annual sports game should be immune from criticism, far from it. And there is a lot of off-field stuff in Madden NFL 23 that has certainly stagnated since last year’s game. The improvement to last year’s Franchise mode has slowed this time around, with more detail in college scouting and free agency negotiation 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 at a new team to prove yourself in the league. An idea with legs, but the actual ‘story’ and progression is rather cursory.
The oft-controversial, card-collecting Madden Ultimate Team has looked to address pay-to-win criticism with earned ‘Field Passes’ boosting your squad. But these modes are inherently microtransaction-driven fare and, while Field Passes prove a decent addition, are mostly a sticking plaster. And there is obviously something wrong with its most expensive premium packs, to the point that popular Madden streamers are going on 'strike' over the thin reward they get for splashing out. The quick-paced, small-scale arcade mode The Yard returns for the third year. But, as few players actually partake, is also running on empty.
None of this means that these ways to play are not worthwhile. I do feel you are either in or out with Ultimate Team (FIFA and NHL included); I don’t like it, but there are reasons they are EA’s most popular (and lucrative) game modes. And for me, the glow-up for Franchise mode from last year retains plenty of appeal. But the incremental (at best) improvement off the pitch all seems in service to one thing: that this is the best Madden on the field yet.
Yes, this is a statement that is oft-repeated when the latest edition of a sports game arrives. And, let’s face it, something will have gone wrong if the developers contrive to make a worse game in even a crunched development cycle. It happens, of course, ideas and tweaks that just don’t stick, but Madden NFL 23 is a genuine and notable gain on what has gone before.
As usual, EA have blanketed its improvements under the marketing-friendly ‘FieldSense’, which is its shorthand for ‘make 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 which allows you much more control over your throws. In addition to the modifiers that allow you to launch bombs or throw low bullet passes across the line of scrimmage, you can now lightly fade or curve passes with a push of the stick. It gives you a much better chance of dropping arced 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. Spotting a secondary runner free and dropping it right into his path with a delicate push of the stick is immensely satisfying.
The ground game also sees you having a touch more control, with ball carriers able to cut in more effectively while the plethora of moves available on the rush –trucking, for example– are more responsive and effective. And if this sounds like all the focus is on attacking play, the defense has its own tweaks. Some of the canned tackling has been ditched, so there is a lot more response to what you are doing. Defensive AI has also been boosted; the pass rush is far more aggressive and effective, pinning quarterbacks in the pocket and giving them just a few seconds to release the ball. I’ve seen very little of the over-effective scrambling of recent Maddens. Misplaced or poorly chosen passes will also be gobbled up by coverage, meaning turnovers are much more of a risk for careless play.
As a whole, it feels that you have a greater influence on the play after the snap, but that doesn’t mean that play calls are diminished. Quite the opposite, as the 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 in isolation. And there are still some legacy problems that are harder to iron out. While those canned animations have been pared back, you still get the feeling on some plays that some outcomes are decided a split-second ahead of time to get in a fancy-looking catch or takedown. Still some yards to go, but on-field Madden has taken some real strides.
Off-field… not so much. It feels that EA Tiburon have a conundrum here as there is both too much and not enough when it comes to Madden’s modes. Persevering with stuff like The Yard and Face of the Franchise to keep the options broad is all very well, but when no aspect of the game is given full attention, everything feels undercooked.
The obvious answer, seemingly, is a root and branch reboot; stripping back and focussing on what’s important –as 23 alludes to with its tributes to the late John Madden and fine on-field tweaks– but if you do that, you are open to criticism of not offering a fuller package. The struggle continues, 4th and inches, decisions to be made. But that’s for EA to tackle. In the meantime, if you can look past its shortcomings, Madden NFL 23 offers what its famous namesake coach would simply call 'good football'.