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Axis Football 23 - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Much more robust catching and pass defense animations
  • More physical tackle animations
  • A.I. DBs react believably to throws
  • Innovative player-in-motion system
  • Clock run-off on QB Kneel
  • More important to build a team with roster depth
  • Full team-creation and customization
  • Customizable team play-call tendencies
  • Aimed passing with a mouse
  • New soundtrack
  • Price reduced back to $20!

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Other players can't interact with certain tackle animations
  • Line play still stiff and robotic
  • Overtime does not allow ties
  • No stadium or playbook customization
  • Practice squad underdeveloped
  • No practice mode or tutorials
  • No instant replays
  • Keyboard controls when using mouse aiming
  • I miss some of the older songs
  • Ground-level billboards obstructing spectator's views
  • 2023 in the title instead of 2022

Overall Impression : C
Much more polished on-field gameplay!

Axis Football 23 - cover

Developer:
Axis Games

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam),
XBox One | S | X (COMING SOON),
PlayStation 4 | 5 (COMING SOON!).
(< indicates platform(s) I played for review)

MSRP: $20USD

Original release date:
7 September 2022

Genre:
simulation sports, gridiron football

Player(s):
1 or 2 players (local)

Play time:
indefinite hours

ESRB Rating: E (for Everyone) for:

Official site:
axisleague.com/

One of my pet peeves with sports games is that they like to make the game sound newer and more advanced than it actually is by putting next year in the title. The Madden that releases in 2022, and which is based on the 2022 NFL season, isn't called Madden 2022; no, it's called Madden 23! Same goes with other big-budget sports games, with the sole exception possibly being video games based off the Olympics (do those even get made anymore?).

One of the things that I liked about the slate of indie football games (Maximum Football and Axis Football) is that they used the current year in the title. There was no confusion or misunderstanding when saying "the 2021 version of Axis Football" -- it's called Axis Football 2021, and it was released in the fall of 2021. But if I say "the 2021 version of Madden", you might wonder if I mean Madden 22, which released in 2021; or Madden 21, which has "2021" in the title, but which actually released in 2020 and is based off the 2020 NFL season.

Well now Axis Football has adopted the same numbering scheme as its big-budget cousin, and they have skipped Axis Football 2022 in favor of releasing Axis Football 2023 in the 2022 calendar year. Sigh... I'm not sure what Axis Games' reasoning for this is. Maybe they felt pressured to adopt the same numbering convention as the big-budget sports games. Perhaps the more sensical numbering scheme was actually confusing people: "Why is there a Madden 22, but no Axis 22 yet?" Whatever the reason, there is no Axis Football 2022, and we instead are going straight to Axis Football 2023.

The leap I've been waiting for!

But my disappointment with Axis Football 2023 basically starts and ends with its title. This is probably the biggest single-year jump in gameplay quality that I have seen from this series since I started playing Axis Football way back in 2018. Axis Football 2023 looks and feels much more polished than in previous years thanks to the developers finally addressing the lackluster catching and pass defense animations that made throwing the ball in previous years feel like such a crap shoot.

Receivers and DBs play the ball more realistically.

The new animations make pass catching and pass defense so much more readable. I can actually understand why a particular pass is caught, incomplete, or intercepted because the ball doesn't just hit the receiver's body and either stick to it or fall to the ground. I see receivers leaping to catch overthrown passes. I see them reach down to try to catch underthrown passes. I see defenders putting an arm out to swat the pass.

It's much clearer why passes are complete or not.

On top of that, the receivers actually have momentum when they perform their catching animations, and that momentum will affect how quickly they can turn upfield -- if they can turn upfield at all. The momentum on catching animations serves to limit the amount of run-after-catch yards that lead to inflated passing stats and scores in previous versions of Axis Football. Now, if a receiver has to come back towards the line of scrimmage to catch a pass, he won't be able to instantly pivot back upfield for extra yards as soon as he catches the ball. He'll continue to take a couple steps towards the line of scrimmage before being able to plant or turn and head upfield, which gives pursing defenders a chance to converge and tackle him before he gets going.

Similarly, receivers running horizontally across the field will also have to follow-through on their catch animation and preserve their momentum, which prevents them from immediately turning upfield. Receivers running towards or along the sidelines will also often have their momentum carry them out of bounds, which makes throws to the sideline (such as quick outs or hitting a running back in the flats) feel much less exploitative than in previous years because the receiver will likely be forced out of bounds instead of being able to instantly turn upfield for 10 or 15 yards.

Receivers retain their momentum after catching the ball, limiting yards-after-catch.

Put simply, the passing game actually looks and feels more like real football, and it elevates Axis Football tremendously!

Dragged down

Axis Football 23 also sports a completely revamped animation library for tackling. This "upgrade" is a bit more hit-and-miss compared to the catching animations. On the upside, many tackle animations look much more fluid and preserve the momentum of the runner and tackler. There is a noticeable difference between nice wrap tackle square in the runner's chest, versus a touchdown-saving shoe-string tackle.

Runners also fight through tackles now. They don't just crumple to the ground if they graze a defender's leg or outstretched hand. There are quite a few new tackle-breaking animations that make it much clearer how a runner is able to break a tackle. Runners can plow over defenders and fall forward for a few extra yards, or they can completely shove the defender to the ground and keep running. They can also hurdle over potential tackles, or spin out of a tackle, or wriggle out of a loose arm tackle.

Runners fight through tackles.

It looks nice when everything lines up for a one-on-one tackle in the open field. It looks less nice, however, any time there are other players in proximity.

This new tackle animation system introduces one of the problems that has long plagued Madden: the inability of other player to affect the result of the play once a tackle animation begins. A lot of these new tackle animations lock the ball-carrier and tackler into an animation, which, as far as I can tell, cannot be interrupted. Other players are still able to push the tackle animation a little bit, which may affect the final placement of the ball, but that is the extent to which these animations can branch or interrupt. Additional tacklers cannot add onto to a pile or swipe at the ball while the ball-carrier is stood-up by another tackler, nor can offensive players push defenders out of the tackle.

Defenders stand around to watch tackles.

The other players near the tackle will often just stop, stand still, and watch. If the tackle is broken, the runner will often catch those defenders flat-footed and can gain extra yards before the defense wakes up and pursues him again.

The animations also don't always line up perfectly, but this doesn't bother me so much because I'm not seeing any egregious suction or motion-shifting to line things up. It still feels organic enough, even if there's a lot of animation clipping and phasing.

It's also a shame that none of the new break-tackle animations are player-driven at all. There are still no user controls for performing stiff-arms or shoulder charges to try to run through or over tacklers. Whether or not such animations trigger is completely automated and up to the attribute ratings of the runner and tackler. Hopefully next year, Axis is able to expand these animations by adding user inputs to trigger some of these power moves and tackle-breaking animations, which will help give the user even greater sense of agency over the on-field action.

Returners also have new catch animations.

Even special teams received some sorely needed attention in the animation department. To go along with all the new receiver catching animations, kick returners now have an actual animation for catching the kick -- though there is still no "fair catch" command. They also have A.I. for avoiding fielding kicks that go into the endzone, and even have animations for that situation.

I hope line play is overhauled next

There are still lingering legacy problems. Line play is perhaps the most egregiously bad aspect of Axis Football's on-field action. It's still stiff and robotic, and the blocker and defender just kind of lock arms and stand still until the defender suddenly breaks free. There's no real passing pocket, no way to assign double teams against dangerous rushers, and no way to slide protection to deal with an obvious overload blitz. Power running plays also do not follow their real-life blocking designs, as certain defenders are not deliberately left unblocked in order to be "trapped" by a backside pulling lineman.

Special teams is also still poorly-developed. Though there's a few new animations for returning kicks, there's nothing new for any other aspect of kicking or special teams. It's still pretty much impossible to block punts or field goals. There's no Longsnapper, Holder, or Coverage Gunner positions on the depth chart, nor any player attribute ratings that might make someone a better longsnapper or holder. There's no risk of a bad snap leading to a botched kick. There aren't even any fake punt or fake field goal plays in the playbook -- let alone any trick returns.

I would love to see the Longsnapper position have relevance in the game.

If Axis 24 gets an overhaul to line play and special teams on par with what 23 gave to pass catching and pass defense, then we might finally be talking about Axis achieving genuinely robust and well-rounded football gameplay. Fingers crossed.

There are also other small nitpicky lingering issues. Though sideline catches are less exploitable than they were previously, defenses are still horrible at covering drag and crossing routes. Ace Tight End Drag (from almost any formation) feels like a money play whenever I need 10 or 15 yards because either the drag from the tight end will be completely uncovered, or the crossing deep in route will beat the linebacker to the inside and be wide open. Or both.

Player in motion

New catching and tackling animations that bring the on-field action up to a more competitive level are all well-and-good, but perhaps the most innovative and interesting new feature of Axis 23 is the pre-play player-in-motion system. Any eligible receiver or back can now be put in motion prior to the snap, and the user is able to select the exact location that we want the motion player to move to.

Players can be put in motion pre-play to almost any legal position.

This allows for a lot of more advanced play-calling strategies. At its most basic, putting a player in motion can be used to determine if the defense is in man coverage or zone coverage. It can also be used to create better leverage or a numerical advantage in run blocking, to create coverage mis-matches, or to put a receiver in a position to more accurately hit an anticipated gap in the defensive coverage.

This also gives both the human user and the CPU something to do before the snap of the ball, which means offenses spend a bit more time at the line of scrimmage with the clock running. This allows me to leave more time on the accelerated clock in full 15-minute-quarter matches without necessarily creating an unrealistic number of plays, stats, or scores.

This system does have some limitations. It cannot be used to create Jet Sweep, End Around, or Touch Pass plays in which the ball is handed or pitched to a player who is in motion before the snap. It also cannot be used to move players into the backfield. You can't motion a tight end into a fullback position or inside wing position.

There are also some minor issues with how the defense reacts to pre-play motion. The defense will automatically shift to align with the offense's motion, but it's not always optimal. Cornerbacks will not run across the formation to stay with a wide receiver who motions across the formation, if there is a tight end or running back on the corner's original side of the formation. This can be easily exploited to force a linebacker or safety to have to cover an elite wideout, and puts a smaller cornerback up against a bigger, stronger tight end.

Defenses don't always react optimally to pre-play motion.

I also see my outside linebackers often roll back into a safety position in the middle of the field, even if they are supposed to be playing a flat or hook zone. This puts them out of position for their designed coverage assignment and creates opportunities for uncontested out or hitch routes to a tight end or slot receiver who that linebacker is supposed to be covering.

Hopefully these issues with defensive alignments can be ironed out in post-release patches, so that this pre-play motion system doesn't end up completely breaking the game. Either way, the concept is something that I've never seen in a football game before, and is something that could represent genuine innovation for the genre. I wouldn't be surprised to see Legend Bowl, EA or 2k adapt this feature to their games.

Perhaps the most subtle upgrade is a minor change to how QB Kneel plays work. The QB Kneel play (for running out the clock) was added to Axis a year or two ago, so it isn't a new thing in the game. But in previous years, the accelerated clock would automatically be disabled inside of the 2-minute warning, so we had to sit through up to 2 minutes of QB Kneels in real time. It was just a waste of time. Now, when the offense lines up for a QB Kneel, the accelerated clock will keep counting down to 5 seconds on the play clock. This is a nice little feature that helps close out the last few minutes of decided games more quickly.

The accelerated clock keeps running during QB Kneel plays, which gets games over with sooner.

When Axis 23 first launched, the accelerated clock would actually run all the way to 0 seconds, which made it difficult to time the snap to happen with 1 second left without risking a Delay of Game penalty. I hopped onto the Axis Football Discord and suggested that the accelerated clock should stop with a couple second left, and the game was patched within the week to implement my suggestion. That just goes to show how responsive Axis Games is to feedback.

Breakout year

The large focus on gameplay and animation improvements this year unfortunately means that Franchise Mode didn't get any new features, nor can I import last year's Franchise file in order to continue building the same team. However, the Franchise Mode is still fairly robust and engaging for a budget title, and still arguably on par with what Madden is offering.

Franchise mode indirectly benefit from gameplay changes.

But that isn't to say that the new features don't impact Franchise at all. As mentioned before, the new catching and pass defense animations constrains passing yards and scores a little bit, leading to less shootouts, less blowouts, and better statistical performance from defenses in non-simulated games. The new fatigue and auto-substitution mechanic also puts a greater emphasis on building a Franchise team with more roster depth. Backups and reserves will see more playing time in relief of fatigues starters (for both the human team and the CPU teams). Having some C or C+ backups instead of a bunch of D- backups will make a noticeable difference later in the game when fatigue starts to set in. So while there is no new features in Franchise Mode, the way you play the mode might change slightly.

This auto-sub mechanic still needs work. There needs to be an independent slider for when to sub a player back in. Right now, what happens is: a player falls below the threshold for being subbed out, rests for one play, goes barely back above the threshold for subbing back in, plays one play, and needs to get subbed out again. This leads to the same running back or receiver rotating in and out every other play, instead of resting for several plays or a whole drive while the backup takes over. It would also be nice to have auto-sub sliders for position groups, so that my QB or offensive linemen aren't being subbed out. In any case, it's still incremental progress and a net positive for the game.

Backups will see more playing time in relief of fatigued starters, so roster depth is more important in Franchise.

The improvements to core gameplay, animation, and on-field player A.I. logic have been a long time coming, and address many of my core issues and frustrations with the look and feel of gameplay in this series. In fact, the ability to put players in motion pre-snap, and the inclusion of an auto-sub feature are both items that are pulled directly from my wishlist. If you've been skipping Axis Football because you didn't think the new features or improvement were worth another $20 or $30, then I think Axis Football 2023 might finally be the one to buy! It's still rough around the edges, and there's a long way left to go, but Axis 23 is a far more polished and attractive product than its predecessors -- especially considering that it's back at the cheaper $20 price point! The upgrade is well worth it.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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