For long-time fans of American Football, Madden NFL 23 comes with a side order of sadness as it commemorates the passing of its namesake, the iconic NFL coach and announcer, John Madden. The intro alone does a nice job of memorialising John, from his instantly recognisable voice taking “it’s in the game” duties to clips taken from throughout his career, as well as a blink and you’ll miss it appearance of the very first John Madden Football. It’s a reminder of just how far the series has come, what it’s meant for NFL fans, and of its impact in the annals of gaming. Madden 23 isn’t quite as groundbreaking as either its original outing, or its namesake, settling for merely being… respectable.
The biggest thing about Madden 23 is it’s not all that different to Madden 22, but where EA Tiburon has made changes it’s tightened and improved the most fundamental part of the game – its gameplay. One of the key new features is skill-based passing, and the developer has clearly spent time trying to make passing more intuitive than just a regular old button press. There’s now the option to alter the power and accuracy of your throw, with gauges determining the strength of a throw, and the ability to lead your receiver, or try to slot the ball between defenders, something that you can now take some personal credit for.
There’s certainly a much higher skill ceiling to be found with these, and for those willing to put the time in you can target your receivers with a level of pinpoint accuracy that would make Tom Brady blush Buccaneers red. These new options don’t alter the mechanics wholesale, and if you’re a casual Madden player checking in for your arcade football fix there’s not going to be enough reward for making the jump. You can absolutely stick with what you know, and many will, but it’s a pleasing upgrade for those looking for a more sim-based experience.
Madden 23 starts in much the way as they always do. You can opt for different experience levels, and decide whether you’re going for the fun and frantic action of Arcade mode – nobody gets worn out here – the more staid and subdued Simulation mode, or go Competitive, the place where all ranked online matches are played and where your stick skills matter far more than those pesky player ratings. The newer generation consoles also benefit from being able to opt for different performance modes, letting players pick between image quality or framerate. If you want the slickest Madden experience you’re going to want performance.
You’re then dropped into the John Madden Legacy Game, and this is one opening drive that’s well worth settling in for. It’s a little bit odd – both the AFC coach and the NFC coach are John Madden at different points in his career – but there’s a batch of genuinely lovely legacy voiceovers from the great man himself, while the teams are stacked with some of Madden’s all-time favourite players such as Brett Favre, Randy Moss and, of course, Tom Brady.
The commentary team use this time to wax lyrical about John Madden’s achievements, and if you’re not up on your facts and stats at the start, you will be by the end of the game. It’s still missing a trick, though. There’s lots of slow-motion video, but little substance to a hyped-up half-time tribute where there should have been a documentary, an interview, and more footage of the man that immortalised the digital recreation of the NFL. Much like Madden 23 as a whole, there’s not enough significance given to a commemorative feature that could have been truly memorable.
You can use the Legacy Game as a place to start tinkering with some of Madden 23’s other fresh additions, including the new cut manoeuvres that make the run game finally feel more realistic, and the updated pass rush mechanics that give you more options on your way to the Quarterback. Madden 23 is undoubtedly a better-feeling outing than last year, tightening things up, and making each position on both sides of the ball more involving to play.
One of the most maddening (sorry) issues with Madden 23 is the fact that the PC version is still stuck matching for the last-gen console outings on PS4 and Xbox One rather than the fully-featured PS5 and Xbox Series X versions. Quite why that’s the case is anyone’s guess, and you have to hope that PC Madden fans get the version they deserve next year. Current generation owners get the full effects of FieldSENSE, which amongst other thing offers a physics-based approach to collisions and interactions, helping the game to lose some of the repetition caused by canned animations. It’s certainly the most realistic outing yet from EA Tiburon.
Elsewhere, the modes you’re getting this year offer few surprises for existing Madden fans. Besides the half-forgotten Superstar KO and The Yard, and the perfectly satisfactory Franchise mode, Face of the Franchise is back, and you can take your created character on a journey to stardom with its light storytelling and steady feed of challenges. This is where I would normally wax lyrical about the lost Longshot narrative of Madden 18/19, but I’ll just state that once again, Face of the Franchise is a long way from replicating that same level of narrative drive.
Like many Madden fans, there’s a good possibility that Ultimate Team is where you’ll spend a good chunk of your time. The pull of EA’s card collecting mode remains as tight and tawdry as ever, and while it is possible to have fun with it without putting down any extra cash – especially with the Field Pass that’s designed to reward you for your grinding – you’re likely to find yourself sneaking in the odd real-world money purchase to support your habit. It’s not going away any time soon – barring some serious legislative changes around the world – but you should remain aware that one of the game’s highlights will almost certainly cost you more money.