Delving into the newest iteration of one of EA or 2K’s sports series, whether it’s the ever-popular FIFA or, in this case, Madden, is always an interesting proposition. After all, with the presence of recent material for direct comparison guaranteed in the form of last year’s edition, judging how much things have evolved and whether this is enough to justify paying the price of a whole new title is always a cause for debate.
Madden 23, to its credit, kicks things off in a manner that’s about as unique as it gets for a US sports game. Rather than being thrust straight into a rematch of last year’s championship game or series, as is tradition, this time you’re starting out with the John Madden Legacy Game, an NFC-AFC all-star encounter featuring the favourite players of the coach who serves as the series’ namesake.
With Madden, an ex-player, coach and broadcaster, having passed away in December last year, the tribute offered by the game’s unique commentary and presentation feels very genuine and gives an interesting account of Madden’s life in football. Underneath this layer of presentation is your first experience of Madden 23’s gameplay, which immediately felt a lot like Madden 22’s to me.
Playing as a running back while Madden’s gameplay runs it back
One game mode that’ll give you a great chance to take to the field and try out this on-field gameplay for yourself is Face of the Franchise: The League, the obligatory be-a-pro style mode that allows you to follow the path to individual stardom using a created player. Deciding to honour my simplistic and hard-hitting Madden playstyle by choosing to become a running back, I was sort of taken aback by how quickly I ended up performing that role as an NFL starter. You see, rather than going through last year’s progression of a couple of college games and then the draft, this year's Face of the Franchise mode cuts things back significantly and casts you as a four-year league veteran signing with a new team right off the bat.
In some ways, this is pretty refreshing, allowing for a minimalistic approach that’s a little different to what you might be used to. Dispensing with a lot of the bland cutscenes that can flood these modes in favour of an emphasis on organising a training schedule and actually playing top-level football is an intriguing change, if nothing else, though, it probably would have been more effective had the gameplay being prioritised offered me anything I hadn’t seen before.
You see, I was playing the game on PC, a platform that only offers an iteration of Madden 23 without the new FieldSENSE gameplay system included in the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S versions of the game. Not including these mechanics in the PC version of the game, either via Origin or Steam, seems a particularly puzzling thing to do given the prevalence of the platform in the modern gaming landscape, with both Microsoft and Sony moving resources towards it, but, in the words of many a Love Island contestant, it is what it is.
In truth, I had a good bit of fun running through Madden 22-esque defences and gradually upgrading my player into more of a tank as I racked up yardage and bagged a fair few touchdowns. That said, I did feel a bit like my player was becoming a little too powerful too quickly, obliterating their initial yardage goal for the season in just three games, one of which was a straight-up demolition of a pretty strong San Francisco 49ers team.
All hail NFL MVP Daniel Jones
One mode which does mercifully include some fresh changes on all platforms is Franchise mode, in which you take on the role of a coach, owner, or player and attempt to convince the world and yourself that you’d do a better job of getting your team of choice to the promised land than their current management. Thankfully, you’ll find the mode to still be ideally suited to crafting bizarre alternate timelines in which you’re living your best life and yelling at multi-millionaires, with the blend of realistic moves and unexpected twists still hovering around the 50/50 mark.
For example, having last year’s runner-up in the Cincinnati Bengals end up as 2022 super bowl champions was something I might have predicted going into my first season. However, current New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, whom many analysts think might be done as a starter before the upcoming season even starts, instead jumping to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 2023 and winning the league’s MVP award, despite only possessing a 74 overall rating, wasn’t something I had on the cards.
Jones wasn’t the only one making big moves either, as the major change to this year’s Franchise mode is a complete overhaul of free agency, with players now having unique motivations that drive where they’d prefer to sign. This generally seems to have made a positive impact. Moves like Aaron Donald choosing to leave a Rams squad coming off of an underachieving season for a Colts team recently crowned champions in order to fulfil his desire to chase more Super Bowl titles make plenty of sense.
However, I did catch a couple of instances of the random team switching that defines older Madden games, with Quenton Nelson missing out on being a part of that same Colts championship run by signing with a mediocre Jets team, despite allegedly being just as ring-driven as Donald. Then again, this kind of move was more the exception than the rule, with all of the players whose services I secured having their motivations mesh with the current state of my Seahawks, as well as being happy with the monetary offer I submitted via the mode’s Improved Offers system.
The newly added evaluation periods also make the end-of-year signing craze more user friendly, giving you more of a chance to make offers to players you want before they end up elsewhere. Sadly, the promised changes to prospect scouting had relatively little impact on my experience, with drafts still requiring little homework provided you’ve identified the trend between good combine ratings and desirable development traits.
Taking the offensive line online
When you’ve had enough of messing around with rosters on your own or in a shared league, Madden 23 still offers a bunch of slightly different ways for you and your friends to settle your differences. Top of the list for many will be Ultimate Team, the player-collecting affair that’s become a must have for any modern sports series, no matter the publisher. Though I’ve never really been a UT convert, Madden 23’s version of the concept seems like a perfectly serviceable rendition of it, offering a few different ways to build your collection without having to splash any real world cash.
For those who’d prefer to get straight into challenging other players, there’s the choice of traditional online head-to-head, pitting two current teams against each other, or the slightly more off-the-wall options of The Yard and Superstar KO. The Yard is my favourite of these two, pitting two six-a-side teams against each other in an informal setting resembling NBA 2K’s blacktop mode or the old FIFA Street games. The rules are a little different, with the same players playing offence and defence, while each team gets three possessions with which to try and outscore their opponents. The combination of fewer players on the field and simpler play calling mechanics means that you can have some fun trying some new things, especially on offence, but interceptions reward points, so make sure not to get too crazy.
Superstar KO, on the other hand, confuses me on a molecular level. Taking place in a Fortnite or Fall Guys-esque arena filled with bright colours and flashing lights, this mode has you pick three or four star players to make up your team before jumping into gameplay. That first part’s simple enough, but once you’re in, things quickly get complicated. The ruleset seemingly revolves around a field that keeps getting smaller at random intervals, moving the endzone around and meaning you can find yourself losing pretty quickly if your opponent knows what they’re doing. Also, the mode’s obnoxious announcer openly dumping on your ability whenever you make a mistake doesn’t really help matters.
Here’s your two-minute warning!
Overall, I had a lot of fun with Madden 23 and will likely get close to the hundred hour mark in it over the course of the next year via Franchise Mode alone, much like I have with previous entries in the series. That said, aside from the welcome overhauls to aspects of that mode, I struggled to find many truly noticeable changes that would single this game out to be one which takes the annual series to a new level.
Perhaps console players will have a different experience with their revitalised gameplay system, but for those of us on PC, comparisons between Madden 23 and its predecessor aren’t going to provoke as much debate as they probably should.