EA's annual American football series is back, and this instalment is a major step up over last year's iteration.
The last few years of Madden games have been a disaster. Last year I wanted to throw the controller out the window constantly because Madden NFL 22 was so extremely frustrating. There were so many issues and it felt like EA Sports really didn't care. So, I was worried that this year's version, Madden NFL 23, which is a tribute to the recently deceased John Madden, would be just as bad. But luckily, this is the best version we've had in the series in years. Not perfect of course, but far from the fumbles that came out over the last few years.
It is on the 100 yard long (plus endzones) field that the biggest difference is noticeable. Completely gone are situations where opponents can make interceptions without even looking at the ball. Something that bothered me a lot last year was when players just put their hands up without even knowing the ball was coming and caught it. During my playing time, I have not come across a single such example. And only once have I witnessed a player's hands go through another player to catch the ball, something that happened constantly last year. It's things like these that make it more fun to play, when the frustration goes away. Sure, there are still clunky animations where the ball can bounce between three players who can't catch it and handle the ball like a hot potato. Fortunately, receivers no longer have soap on their hands and most of the times they drop the ball are when they are challenged by opponents. A few times they have dropped the ball completely undisturbed, but this also happens in reality.
It seems that this year EA Sports has chosen to focus more on the perhaps unsexy simulation part instead of the arcade style, which after the last few years was a good choice. The player animations are better and the defenders feel smarter than before. One of the biggest visible improvements on the field is the passing from your QB. There is a meter now for accuracy and you get feedback after each throw if it was well timed or not. It feels much better than before. And that's exactly where it is this year, it feels different even though it might not look different. The graphics, which are still good, are basically the same with a few new additions here and there. For example, the colours are better. As previously mentioned, defenders are smarter and trying to find that perfect pass feels challenging. Hold the ball a second too long and a sack on your QB is guaranteed. The only thing I can really complain about when it comes to matches is that some animations in the presentation between downs are repetitive, the crowd clips are not great and the commentators repeat things too often.
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In terms of game modes, not much has happened. There is exactly what you expect. Ultimate Team, of course, is the big draw and EA Sports is pulling out all the stops to try and get you into the game mode. Unfortunately, the Madden series is light years behind FIFA, NBA 2K and MLB The Show when it comes to this game mode. It's not the same quality, even though they tried to squeeze things in to make all types of players happy. There are online modes to compete against others, but also challenges (which can unlock new players) and the FIFA equivalent of Squad Battles where you can play against other teams, and where they are controlled by the computer. After each match, you are awarded a point total based on difficulty, results and your performance on the pitch, leading to a final weekly ranking. The biggest difference this year is a new season system. Instead of just getting points and levelling up from 1-100 throughout the year, there are basically several mini-seasons. There's the usual level 1-100 where points are earned for milestones and whatnot, but now there's also a competitive season where points are earned for online matches. Finally, there are also program-specific seasons. From time to time, new programs come with new card packs. The first is called Headliners and that program will be present for two months. Presumably something new will appear in the meantime or afterwards. For all three programs, you get something at each new level. It can be currency, card packs or players.
Franchise Mode is back. And by back, I really mean back like it was last year. Because just like in almost all sports games, this is the game mode that gets absolutely the least love. There's a new scouting system and that's basically it. I would say that every other major sports game has better Franchise modes than Madden. As for the career mode, Face of the Franchise, EA has chosen to bet on something a little more stripped down. Gone is the big story with lots of cutscenes. The usual narrative of a young talent aiming for the top has been replaced with playing as a player (QB, RB, WR or on defence) hoping for another chance in the NFL. We get to directly choose which team we want to play for, but where some are better suited than others for our type of player. There are some small cutscenes, but largely it's all built on a week-by-week basis where we train, maybe talk to someone in the organisation and then play games. Whether it is an improvement or not is entirely up to what you want to get out of the game mode. If you want a long, big movie-like experience, this is a big step back. If you want to focus on playing matches with occasional interruptions, this is absolutely right.
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Remember The Yard? Not many do. It was a game mode that was supposed to correspond to street football, think Volta but American football. At first I thought the game mode was gone as it is no longer on the main menu. But it is now tucked away in only the career mode. Another sign of the change in tone in this year's version.
There's a good base for EA to build on here. They were absolutely right to bet on more of a simulation experience, something that John Madden himself thought the series should be. And in a game that largely focuses on paying homage to Madden, graphics and otherwise, it's nice that the series seems to be heading in the right direction. The problem is that a game like this comes out every few years. Something to build on, which is then never built on. The fact is, though, that this is the best game in the series in many, many years and that the experience on the field feels much better than before. Most of the game modes are still quite a bit behind other sports games, but overall this is a big step in the right direction. A first down so to speak, next year I hope they go all the way to for a touchdown.
7 / 10
Overall good improvements from last year's disaster. Great feel on the field. Smarter defenders, better AI. Close to no bugs.
No love for Franchise Mode. Repetitive animations. Less game modes than NHL or FIFA.