Madden 23 hands-on preview: certainly progressive, but is it truly new?

EA is no stranger to gaming announcements being met with divisive reactions. The community blowback to Madden 23’s reveal, however, has been particularly fierce. Its big ‘new’ feature, as discussed with senior producer Mike Mahar in our Madden 23 preview, is something called FieldSense – and some long-standing fans argue this is merely a collection of mechanics removed in years past, and now repackaged for new-gen. Featuring Coach himself on the cover following his death late last year has only exacerbated the ‘don’t-make-it-like-they-used-to’ vibes.

Having spent the last week hammering the Madden 23 beta on PS5, there is some substance to the gripes. After interviewing Mahar, I was expecting this to feel like an entirely different game to Madden 22. Plainly, it doesn’t. FieldSense neither evokes memories of the series’ halcyon days on Mega Drive or PS2, nor feels like a truly fresh start. Many animations, commentary lines, and other minor shortcomings return from last year. 

And yes, some of those ‘new’ additions are indeed things we’ve seen before. For example, one of the best elements of defense is having team-mates wade in to help you halt an on-rushing opponent, or finish a tackle once you’ve buffeted a runner off-balance. It’s massively helpful in short yardage situations or a goal-line stand. It wasn’t in Madden 22, and in that sense offers an upgrade. But physics-based gang tackles were in the series, and functioned similarly effectively, back in Madden 16. So you do understand that collective eye-rolling, to an extent. 

Press or no?

Madden 23

(Image credit: EA)

Wide receiver and defensive-back tussles are specified as another new wrinkle. It’s true that there is more sense of a press taking place when the ball is snapped, with the DB either slowing the WR down a step or two, or said receiver evading his man to escape into space. Yet Madden 18 tried a similar thing. Receivers had four different types of release mechanics, while cornerbacks could funnel opponents at the line by pushing a direction on the right stick. So while it feels ‘new’ it technically isn’t, in the context of the entire series.

All power to the community, then, for wanting transparency in the game’s marketing. But the issue, as with most social media discussions, is that there is depressingly scant middle ground. On this evidence, Madden 23 is going to be hard pressed to score 9s and 10s. But it’s also far better than the 1s and 2s that will be banded around on Metacritic in protest. Madden 23 won’t compete with classic series entries like Madden 2005, with its gripping franchise mode and still-revered Tony Bruno radio show. Yet it still plays solid football, with small yet noticeable upgrades.

Madden 23

(Image credit: EA)

For instance, the running game offers a substantial upgrade over Madden 22. It finally feels subtle and intricate, and about much more than sheer speed or power. Mahar made a big deal of talking up 360-degree cuts and immediate transference of weight, and the difference is tangible. You can slow your run, Le’Veon Bell style, then shoot through a gap as it opens up. You can sprint to the right on a toss route, spot a pulling lineman pancaking his defender, and cut back into the surprise space. You can patiently wait for blocking to develop on a punt return, then zig-zag between two coverage players and hit the open field. At last.

The flip side is that defending the run is tougher than it was a year ago. I actually welcome that. Too often in Madden 22 you could shut down an opponent’s rushing game by loading the line, or blitzing a safety or CB. Now it’s all-too-easy to overcommit to one side of the field, or over-pursue with an individual player. It tones down your aggressiveness and forces you into thinking a bit more when selecting plays.

Throwing up-Hill

Madden 23

(Image credit: EA)

Quarterback play is tweaked, too. However, the new aiming reticule and ability to lead receivers aren’t as pronounced as the FieldSense reveal made them appear. This area feels like Madden 22 Enhanced. Where it’s really noticeable is in leading a possession receiver on an out route for a tip-toe sideline catch, or a speedster downfield for a deep heave. Great if you’re controlling the Rams, with Cooper Kupp, or the Miami Dolphins and Tyreek Hill. (Tua Tagovailoa may not have the biggest arm, but Hill remains a cheat player when left in single coverage.) For average QB-WR tandems, this feels much like it did a year ago.

Also familiar are special teams shortcomings. Aside from the improvements to kick and punt returns, brought about by the subtleties of foot planting and better blocking, these are largely a non-event. There’s no sense of peril that you’ll have a punt blocked, or miss a field goal inside 45 yards. Similarly, there’s zero point calling punt or field goal blocks, as AI team-mates never get close. As ever you can try to jump the snap yourself, and perhaps in online matches this is the only way to keep things skill-based. But offline, your AI gunners should be capable of sticking an arm out to tip the ball occasionally.

Presentation is an area that remains good, when it really could be great. I love the new close-in cameras celebrating a touchdown, and coaches and un-helmeted players look brilliantly realistic. But the stats overlays and other broadcast elements still fall short of watching a Sunday night tilt on CBS or Fox. EA’s deal with the Premier League in FIFA shows how a video game can achieve authenticity on this front. It’s, well, maddening that Tiburon hasn’t considered a crossover like 2K’s mid-2000s tie-in with ESPN, with realistic branding, half-time shows and so on.

Constructive criticisms aside, I’m having fun with Madden 23, particularly its refreshed ground game. Franchise has stagnated in recent times in the wake of Ultimate Team’s rise, and I’d love something to truly get stuck into on that front – but at present the Madden 23 PS5 beta only offers exhibition matches. We’ll take a look at those modes closer to the Madden 23 release date of August 19. As for FieldSense: for now mark it down as ‘transitional’, rather than ‘transformational’.

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