Of all sports games, Madden is the one that, year after year, labors under the guise of a bulleted feature list. Is this year’s version more approachable? Has it evolved the franchise at all, or merely refined the previous year’s pain points? These are the questions looming over every new entry in sports video games’ long-running staple.
GameFlow (2010). The Ignite engine (2013). This year’s calling card is “FieldSense,” another way of saying that everyone on the field pays attention and gets involved in the play — no small task in a video game re-creating a full-contact sport with 22 players. They could call this new technology anything, but it still wouldn’t capture the feeling that comes from a stumble extending a running play, between the tackles, that you just know would have been dead at the line of scrimmage a year before. And “FieldSense” hardly describes the Why did I do that? regret of subverting your own play, trying to bounce the run outside and getting hauled down in the backfield by an AI defensive end.
Madden NFL 23, like its forebears, shines brightest in the running game. Yes, there’s a new passing system allowing for more pinpoint control, whether it’s a five-yard tight-end drag or an all-out flanker streak. It’s what happens when the receiver turns into a ball carrier that really counts, though. Finesse running moves, keyed with the left trigger, are back in the game. But rather than producing a showier animation of a standard juke or spin move on the right thumbstick, the runner simply executes a hard cut to leave a defensive back or linebacker grabbing at the air.
The hard-cut mechanism rewards well-chosen plays, purposeful changes made at the line of scrimmage, and players who commit to their plan. The benefit isn’t just for dedicated runners, or receivers after the catch; mobile quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson can create more luck if a passing play breaks down and they have to get out of the pocket.
The refined gameplay of Madden NFL 23 is most apparent in the single-player Face of the Franchise career mode, which gets a badly needed narrative reboot. No longer is the player dithering with idealized college matchups and hackneyed locker-room drama. Instead, they’re dropped into a football player’s prime — an underused, underestimated free agent who can pick any club for a one-year contract, and write his own ticket if he performs well enough. Playing time will depend on the team you join and how deep it is at your position. If you’re a running back, it might not be such a good idea to choose the lowly New York Giants, who start the 86-rated Saquon Barkley. But he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2023, and after a breakout season with the 49ers, the Giants happily let him go and signed me instead.
Face of the Franchise still isn’t on par with NBA 2K’s MyCareer, or MLB The Show’s Road to the Show, but it at least gives me those modes’ baseline promise: a star I can be proud of and want to see on my TV. The game’s bread-and-butter Connected Franchise mode, the finer points of which usually come to light in menus or the NFL’s offseason, is less compelling. Connected Franchise is best played among friends, where you have two, three, or more pals supporting your emergent narrative with trash-talking emails or chat messages. On your own the mode lingers on outside-the-lines details like player scouting and the NFL draft, delivering little payoff for the regular season and postseason games you do win.
This is partly because Madden NFL 23’s presentation is still strictly limited to the game in hand. The rest of the season is served by the same bogus social media feed that was campy good fun in 2012 but well past its expiration date today. In real life, the NFL is a year-round sport — it leads practically every ESPN SportsCenter broadcast, even in March — but you still get none of that sense from Madden. As earnest as it is, the commentary from booth partners Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis becomes very redundant the more your season diverges from real life. Madden NFL 23 again does a great job of remembering who did what in the real-life season before — but it struggles to recall anything you did in the past week.
Madden NFL 23’s context-free commentary, then, is best served up in the anything-goes grind of the Ultimate Team mode. Yes, there are microtransactions galore here, but there are also a lot of cards and other content — not just in-game currency — that players can unlock after just an hour in Ultimate Team’s challenges. These are usually one-quarter affairs, at most, typically focused on offensive plays and razzle-dazzle. It took maybe an hour for me to collect skill-position players (quarterback, receiver, running back) that were all rated 80 or better. For all of Ultimate Team’s bothersome calls to action (whoever thought up these loading screens, with a button prompt to dismiss them, see me in my office), Madden NFL 23’s Ultimate Team still does a better job than NBA 2K, FIFA, or MLB The Show at keeping additional spending an option rather than a necessity.
It’s still Madden, for better or for worse. A brilliant stretch of gameplay can still be followed by a glitch in something optional and extraneous, like the photos that the career mode automatically captures. But that gameplay is indeed brilliant. It is nothing short of remarkable to go into Madden’s practice mode (or Face of the Franchise minigames) and not only see correct blocking that actually picks up and cleans out an opposing linebacker during a outside power run, but also to see the same play fail and understand that it did so because I ran it to the wrong side.
Big plays in past Maddens often felt like a lucky (or unlucky) dice roll. If you focus on the 10 yards in front of you, Madden NFL 23 plays almost flawlessly. It’s, again, the bigger picture where the game most often stumbles.
Madden NFL 23 launched Aug. 19 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, with versions on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One having fewer features. This game was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a pre-release download code provided by Electronic Arts. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.