Shameful as it is to admit, I didn’t notice until Aaron McHardy pointed it out to me. In all my glamour shots of my created Madden NFL running back, only one player is tackling him. All the others are, conspicuously, pulling up and staying out of the play.
That changes in Madden NFL 23, said McHardy, a senior producer over the core gameplay team. EA Sports’ football flagship is selling a raft of gameplay revisions — passing, running, and defending the ball — that McHardy says will pry Madden’s gameplay from its current moorings, where players feel stuck in animations served up by a dice roll.
“It allows players to really drive to the end of the whistle,” McHardy said, in a conference room at Electronic Arts’ new Orlando studio last week.
“We got a lot of comments from our players that they felt our game was too animation-based,” McHardy told the group, which comprised social media and YouTube influencers as well as games writers and critics. “I’m sure a lot of you in the room have used [that term]. The outcome of the play feels like it’s almost predetermined. That’s something we wanted to invest in changing this year.”
Even a decade after Madden NFL designers introduced real-time physics to the game, and two years after they implemented the real-life player tracking data that the NFL has been gathering and analyzing since 2015, Madden NFL 22 still served up a frustrating game of down-at-first-contact. To be fair, run-blocking improvements starting in Madden NFL 21 greatly helped players avoid the premature end to a well-called, well-designed play. But a linebacker’s forearm shiver would still take the controller out of your hands, as surely as a wrap-up tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
Counterintuitively, EA Tiburon’s solution to all these animation-locked outcomes is, well, more animations, a stock claim that sports video games make every year. But more importantly, these will be served with a new, branching logic that can interrupt and change the encounters more naturally. As much as that sounds like it favors the offense, it also beefs up the defense by allowing more than one defender to join the play. It’s best illustrated when a lineman stands up a running back at the line of scrimmage and slows him long enough for a defensive back to swoop in finish him off from the side. In a one-on-one stand-up tackle, players will see an A/X button-mash prompt to either fend off the tackle or finish it, somewhat like in Tecmo Super Bowl. Madden NFL 23’s stand-up tackle breakout is more contextualized and dependent on player attribute ratings, but it fulfills the designers’ goal of giving players greater agency over a play’s outcome.
And, as I saw in a hands-on demonstration, sometimes the AI cornerback hits a grappled runner from behind and pushes him forward for an extra yard. EA is, as EA typically does, marketing this enhanced gameplay as a buzzy back-of-the-box package called FieldSense. But after playing Madden 23 for an hour, it feels less like an all-or-nothing game where my play either rips off a huge gain against a flat-footed defense or is stretched out behind the line of scrimmage and blown up for a loss.
FieldSense, a feature exclusive to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions of Madden NFL 23, involves well more than just running the ball. Quarterbacks also get a new targeting system, which looked very granular and intimidating at first. Then I realized it was just giving a visual representation to something I was already doing — leading my receiver, throwing the ball ahead of or above him. When passers key in a throw in Madden NFL 23, they’ll see an ellipse on the field, representing the area in which the receiver can make a successful catch. Players may then steer a reticle around or even outside that ellipse (depending on a gameplay toggle) to keep it away from defenders or set up a spectacular, how-did-he-do-that grab. Should players want it, there’s an additional menu toggle that adds a release meter over the receiver’s head. It has a blue area — meaning completion — that widens or narrows based on the quarterback’s attributes as well as the context of the play (rolling out, throwing across his body, etc.). It sounds like a lot to process, but for most passes from the pocket I didn’t have to mind the meter; still, with a scrambling thrower extending a broken play, the option is there to bullseye any receiver if you’re good (or lucky) enough.
In single-player games, Madden NFL 23 can give users a bullet-time slowdown to help them pinpoint passes and get comfortable with the system. But after a few throws, I didn’t really need it. The most beautiful example of this new pass-targeting visual aid came in a game where I took the Los Angeles Chargers against their stadium landlords, the Los Angeles Rams. Justin Herbert lofted a 12-yard square out to Keenan Allan that I deliberately threw long and high. It just escaped Jalen Ramsey’s outstretched right hand. Ramsey is probably the best cornerback in the NFL, and in nine out of 10 Maddens before this, it would have been an interception.
The new targeting is only part of the reason that play ended well. Again, liberating receivers and defensive backs from canned animations means Madden NFL 23’s AI pass defense will play more for deflections and pass breakups rather than interceptions.
“In Madden 22, when a player goes up for the catch, a lot of times the defender would just mush through them, and nothing would really happen because we couldn’t break out of the catching animation,” McHardy admitted. “In Madden 23, we can. And the result is that you get some showstopping midair hits. It gives our defenders another way to think about stopping the offense and breaking up a pass, and not being so reliant on interceptions as a means to get off the field.”
It should also eliminate the frustrating “volleyball incompletion,” where a receiver goes up, places both hands on the ball midair, yet somehow drops it as soon as they land. That is probably the best example of the immersion-breaking, preordained dice-roll outcome that FieldSense is meant to erase. Now that one or two defensive backs can blow up a receiver at the point of the catch, Madden NFL 23 can balance its passing game without forcing unbelievable drops on its players.
Still, the branching animation gameplay serving all modes will be felt most in ballcarriers, whether running backs or receivers after the catch. The finesse move — implemented with the left trigger — is back in the game after a two-year hiatus, but in a critically different way: It can be used to make more precise cuts in ordinary player movement, rather than modifying a juke, spin, or other special move. I’ve usually gotten my best runs out of Madden games simply by being patient and steering my halfback to the correct hole that blockers have opened. But those windows are necessarily short, and cutback moves to an alternate route rarely paid off. Madden NFL 23’s plant-and-pivot running helped me hit gaps that I couldn’t find in past years.
As a single-player experience, Madden NFL 23 felt like a breath of fresh air, liberating my players from background calculations and other thumb-on-the-scale gimmicks. In the series’ anything-goes multiplayer, only time will tell whether these enhancements truly deliver a balanced and believable game, or favor offense over defense. Madden NFL 23 launches Aug. 19 for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. The game will also be available that same day for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.
[Disclosure: EA Sports invited Polygon and paid for its flight and accommodations at the one-day preview event at EA Tiburon’s studio.]