It feels like now or never for one of video gaming's biggest properties as EA Sports rolls out Madden NFL 23.
The legendary, late John Madden is on the cover. The last release, while showing promise in some areas, wasn't exactly well-received (Metacritic rating of 68). The league's website is writing about the game winning approval. It's now the third entry in the series on next-generation consoles.
To its credit, it's a no-stone-unturned approach in Madden 23, where significant upgrades to tackling, passing and defense lead the charge alongside big additions to Franchise and other modes.
By now, most players have heard this type of hype in the past and know to let the final product do the talking—and Madden 23 does quite a bit of it.
Let's not pull any punches right out of the gate. Madden's new FieldSENSE feature makes it the best-feeling game in the series by a rather notable margin.
There are a lot of little things baked into the new system, but the hit stick getting an upgrade is one of the biggest. It permits players to throw hits mid-air and better emulates the real-life game by throwing weight into a pile to assist in bringing down a ball-carrier.
Battles on the boundary feel refreshed, too, with clear work done to give players more options when it comes to cutting. Players can now use specific button prompts to release off the snap with hops or footfire cuts, while control of defensive backs now includes which direction they press. All defenders now have an interesting ability to evade blocks with the sticks or even try to blow them up.
Of course, it wouldn't make sense for Madden to not keep fine-tuning the passing attack in today's NFL. Players have more specific control over ball placement than ever as they can now enable a target reticle that displays where a pass will go, plus the addition of power and accuracy matters.
That's a great thing especially this year too—because the upgrades to defenses have made things suffocatingly difficult at times. Madden 23 promises better A.I. adaption of pass coverages which is true and realistic for the most part (It seems the series will never fully escape spotty interception-attempt logic or humanity-defying displays of athleticism on some picks.). This will eventually make the player base adapt and improve as a whole, though its effectiveness upon the game's launch might cause some negative reactions.
These major new additions don't overshadow some typical Madden problems that pop up from time to time. There are still instances of offensive linemen just deciding not to block and weird angles taken by A.I. defenders.
Overall, veteran players have a pretty big adjustment period to tackle here, especially if they choose to enable the new passing mechanics. That's heavily encouraged given how well they improve the experience. Paired with the other upgrades, this year's gameplay is the first to really feel next generational and more like the real thing than a robotic video game with pre-canned animations.
Graphics and Presentation
First of all, the opening sequence to Madden this year is a tribute to the late, great John Madden, a stunningly great affair blending real and graphical moments for a highlight onlookers won't soon forget.
There has clearly been a push to add even more fresh camera angles and broadcast approaches to pre and postgame activities a year removed from implementing Gameday Atmosphere that made each stadium experience unique.
Besides more variety in the broadcast experience, solid commentary and a soundtrack that seems to offer up less annoyance than the last few games, Madden continues to keep taking impressive visual steps. There are new sets of body types on the field, hair looks fantastic, towels sway naturally, and little details like untucked shirts do the same. Even story-based cutscenes look less robotic along the lines of visuals and mo-cap seemingly reserved only for sports video games.
One of the underrated things that falls into both gameplay and presentation departments is the presence of new player-lock camera angles in modes like Face of the Franchise. These new angles, paired with the gameplay, improve the solo experience when locking into a single participant on a field.
One could argue Madden didn't need to do much in this area. The stadiums are already faithfully recreated and things looked solid last year. But varying up the experience and pushing the boundaries of what works within the game's engines only improves the immersion this year.
Kudos goes to the user experience when it comes to menus this year too. There are notably fewer of them across all modes, which means less time spent trying to remember what is where and why.
Face of the Franchise, Ultimate Team and More
Face of the Franchise: The League is Madden's latest attempt at a single-player experience. A year ago the same mode allowed players to undergo the draft process, though the actual journey was a little corny at times, and the experience beyond it felt like little more than a slightly altered franchise mode.
This year the mode throws out the draft process and permits players, acting as a free agent a handful of years into his career, to immediately ink a one-year deal with a squad. Chad Ochocinco is there to help guide players along in a mode very much focused more on on-field progression than the prior cinematic experiences. There are still cutscenes, but this is more menu management and RPG-styled progression with some interesting side activities to do such as charity work and extra workouts.
Truth be told...this is actually really refreshing for the Madden series. The game can only take players through the draft process—be it a player's created character or fictional guys played by actors—so many times before we just throw up our hands and skip the mode entirely. This gives players the other half of the pro experience, realistically gunning for improvement, awards, big contracts and perhaps a 99 rating. Past story modes made it easy to drop it completely after a rookie season or a bit more, whereas this might leave players yearning to see an entire career through to its end.
This is also just a savvy narrative decision. With a draft-based story mode, it wasn't uncommon to find out players were resetting their progress or gaming the system to get drafted to the team they desired. While playing a character who has his pick of teams for the right price, players can go where they want and it makes sense narratively.
After fan-backed campaigns for Madden to improve the franchise mode, this year's game makes strides in several oft-requested areas that make the experience as a whole deeper and more enjoyable.
Player motivations, one of the biggest talking points surrounding the upgrades to franchise mode this year, won't stun players who are experienced in sports games. Some free agents want to sign with contenders, others want to play in a big market, etc. It's still nice to see this properly implemented, though, adding to the RPG-ish feel players desire from the mode. This is actually deeper than expected, too, with some players heavily weighting head coach record or even whether there's a mentor at the same position on the roster.
The introduction of Player Tags is an interesting extension of realistic player motivations. A high-profile rookie could have a Day 1 Starter tag that reshuffles the whole depth chart. An obvious Franchise QB tag will influence those free agents who want to play with one. This also, although quietly, should help A.I. teams in the mode avoid doing things like say, bidding on free agency's highest-rated quarterback when they already have a perfectly capable franchise guy on the roster. At times though, motivations and tags seem to have the opposite effect, with names that should never hit the open market doing just that, undoubtedly prompting a post-launch patch.
Free agency gets another layer of intrigue now that it spans three stages. And in a welcome change, teams can only offer on five players, which means one team with the most cap space can no longer just swoop in and gobble up all of the best players on the market.
Like with modern positional classifications, Franchise mode was also missing modern cap activities that fans track. Some of that is new this year, such as the ability to roll over cap to the next season.
Madden 23 also promises better trade, free agent and draft logic. While some viral social media posts will inevitably poke holes in this idea by showing an egregious example or two, as a whole, things feel more realistic than ever in these areas compared to prior games.
As a whole, Franchise does swing in the other direction a bit by simplifying menus, which was much-needed. In the past, the barrage of information on each screen was hard to track as was general navigation.
For years, Madden has strived for accessibility and simplicity to Ultimate Team, which is nearly impossible—the depth of the mode and number of game modes within the mode that could honestly be its own separate release make that difficult.
Madden's latest attempt comes in the form of a Field Pass idea. On paper, it's a season pass like in other live-service games. This is split into three: one tailored toward the season, another for the competitive side of the mode and yet another for a specific running program. The latter two help progress the first. Sounds complicated, but it really boils down to just clicking through extra reward tiers, and should players want to get more specific in chasing rewards, they're free to do so.
MUT Champions, formerly Weekend League, is the other big mixup. Players can now take part in the competitive mode all week, with 25 playable matches possible before a weekly reset.
Maybe the biggest welcome change was the raising of each player's overall rating in the starting base sets upon beginning the mode. It's a little thing, but not having to drudge through terrible gameplay because a starter pack contained players hovering in the 60 overall range is nice. So too is the lessening of Power Ups to get competitive.
Outside of the major modes, Madden again offers some new, smaller things (like the really fun Madden Legacy Game), online games and arcade-based offerings like The Yard (the flashy mode that was a major focus but already relegated to a sub-menu). The laundry list of ways to play again encompasses any many types of players possible, again complemented nicely by different levels of difficulty, styles of game and sliders baked into the menu systems.
"Hit Everything" is one of the taglines of Madden 23, and it does that to varying degrees of success. "Back to Basics" might have made more sense—and that's not a bad thing.
The actual hitting on the field feels much better and realistic in a meaningful way, and the new passing mechanics and newfound skill displayed by A.I. teammates and opponents raise the skill gap. But the upgrades to game modes are incremental at best as the series once again stretches itself a bit thin trying to please everyone at all times. But at the same time, that feels a lot better than the entire game's developmental time feeling like it went to an arcade mode most didn't seem to want in the first place.
It feels a little similar to a defensive back giving up a TD but still getting strong overall grades in coverage. This is the best edition of Madden to date and a no-brainer for newcomers. Veteran players will find enough tweaked on the field and in beloved game modes to upgrade, too. In that sense, Madden 23 is a resounding success and one that makes it exciting to think about how the next edition might improve upon it.