Madden NFL 23 - title

When John Madden was originally approached by EA about consulting with them on a new 7-on-7 football video game, he insisted that the game be "simulation football". He wanted authentic, 11-on-11 gameplay that could potentially be used as a tool for teaching the sport of football. It was the only way that he was willing to put his name on the product, and EA held fairly true to the philosophy of "simulation football" through the 90's and into the 2000's.

I think John Madden's last major contributions to the video game were around 2008, when he provided commentary and narration for the "Madden IQ" Skill Trainer. It wasn't long after this that EA's dedication to "simulation football" began to wane. A few years later, Ultimate Team was added to the game, Franchise Mode was gutted and replaced with a stripped down "My Careers" mode, and Madden himself stopped providing commentary for the game. Franchise Mode and core gameplay have been largely neglected in the years since, in favor of introducing terrible story modes, expanding the arcadey Ultimate Team mode, and adding even more arcadey game modes like SuperStar KO and 5-on-5 The Yard. The Madden video game series has fallen far from the goals and priorities of its namesake -- a fall that is made even more tragic and frustrating by an exclusivity deal with the NFL that bars any other company from producing an NFL-licensed "simulation" football game.

Madden 23 starts off with a tribute to the life of John Madden, who passed away this past December.

It's fitting that, with John Madden himself having passed away this past year, EA Sports and Tiburon seems to be trying to honor him by taking the video game back to basics and finally, after years of neglect, trying to address long-standing issues with the on-field gameplay, physics, and A.I.. Is it enough to satisfy the "simulation" expectations of John Madden, himself? Spoiler alert: NO.

Back to Simulation Football?

Madden 23 starts off well enough. The very first thing that the game asks the user to do is play through a tutorial of the new charge-up passing mechanics (largely ripped-off from Legend Bowl). Madden doesn't simply throw the user into a live game situation and expect new players to just know how to play -- though, expecting users to already know how to play the game from last year was always a sad testament to how little had changed in Madden from year to year.

After finishing the tutorial and deciding how difficult I want the passing mechanic to be, Madden 23 threw me directly into a demo "Legend Game". It's a Pro Bowl of All-Madden players from throughout NFL history, with 2 versions of John Madden coaching each respective team. The entire game is largely an excuse to let the commentary team of Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin give a history lesson about John Madden's career and celebrate his accomplishments. My partner commented that I'd been playing for 15 minutes and she was already sick of listening to the game flagellate John Madden. Personally, I was more annoyed that the game defaulted to Pro difficulty, so scoring was relatively easy for me, and the CPU Tom Brady threw 3 interceptions. Each score and turnover interrupted the commentary about Madden's career, preventing me from hearing the unique dialogue, which the commentary team would not return to if an interruption occurred.

Madden 23 tutorializes its new mechanics before throwing users into a game situation.

Whatever. The game itself is mildly entertaining. It uses clips and graphics from older Madden games as part of its presentation, some NFL Films music, and it includes old commentary clips of Madden himself introducing some of his favorite players, from Brett Favre to Tom Brady to Tony Gonzalez. It's as good and fitting a tribute to the ol' coach and commentator as I would have expected to see in a video game, short of playing through some kind of story mode and re-living moments from his actual career.

But that's just the tutorial and demo game. Is the rest of the actual game as fitting a tribute to the man who demanded "simulation football" from video games bearing his likeness?

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Madden NFL 17 - title

UPDATE OCTOBER 23, 2016: LATEST PATCH AND/OR TUNER HAVE PRACTICALLY RUINED THE GAME FOR ME.

I've been having miserable experiences with Madden 17 since publishing this review. I suspect that either patch #2 or tuner #2 are the culprit. CPU QBs have become robots that have 80% completion percentages every game. Running the ball has become impossible (for both human and CPU teams). Man coverage simply doesn't work at all, making corner routes, in routes, out routes, and slant routes unstoppable. The throw out of sack mechanic has been tuned down to the point of being irrelevant. And the list goes on...

Sliders don't seem to improve the experience at all. In fact, certain sliders (like CPU QB Accuracy and CPU Pass Blocking) don't seem to have any effect at all anymore. I am tempted to rewrite this review with a much lower score (Somewhere in the range of a D or D-), but I'm hoping that EA will fix the problem - or at the very least, that deleting the most recent Tuner data will resolve some of the issues. Sadly, I don't think it's possible for me to re-download the first tuner data. This is a shame, since that one actually did fix some genuine problems the game had at launch.

DO NOT DOWNLOAD PATCH #2 OR TUNER #2!

Electronic Arts has supposedly spent the last three years or so rebuilding Madden from the ground up. Because of that, the past few years' games have felt very incremental, and somewhat incomplete. It was obvious that there were still major holes in many facets of gameplay. Personally, I would have preferred that EA just take a two or three year hiatus in order to hold off on releasing a game until it was actually complete. I'm happy that it seems like we're finally getting a "finished" version of EA's vision of a "next gen" Madden game, and I was curious to see if it would live up to expectations.

By their own admission, EA has finally rebuilt the final few phases of gameplay that still used predominantly legacy code (e.g. special teams and the football itself). For the first time in a long time, it feels like Madden can be approached and reviewed as a complete retail product rather than one step in a long-term incremental beta process. Is it worth the wait?

We'll, first impressions let it down a bit. Much like last year's game, the introduction and tutorial for Madden 17 seemed like a pointless waste of time that misrepresents the actual content of the game with its frequent cutscenes and dialogue from players and coaches. I'm not sure who these scripted gameplay intros are intended for. I would expect that new players would likely be confused and unsure what to do, resulting in failing the intro without any clue what they did wrong or what they were supposed to do. Experienced players, on the other hand, are probably just annoyed with the lack of control in this sequence. The inability to skip the cutscenes only makes repeat playthroughs (if you care enough to try to actually beat the scenario) feel tedious, as you'll have to sit through more cringe-worthy dialogue. EA Sports / Tiburon isn't Naughty Dog, and so writing dialogue and directing voice actors are not the studio's strong suits. About the only thing that this intro sequence does is highlight the new commentary team, which is actually pretty good.

Slowly becoming a complete football game

Despite the blocked field goal in the intro being an un-playable cutscene, special teams was one of the primary areas of focus this year. It's an area that's been mostly neglected since the analog kick meter was introduced back around 2007. And what was the innovation that EA decided was necessary to bring their kicking game into the next generation? Well, actually, they decided to bring back a kicking meter that works almost identically to the older PS1 / PS2 era games. You start the meter charging by pressing X, then press X again to set the kick strength as the meter fills, then press X again to set the kick accuracy as the meter returns to the bottom. Nothing new here.

Madden NFL 17 - kick meter
The "new" kick meter is basically a return to the older kick meter.

However, you now have to hold the analog stick to aim the kick prior to starting the kick meter. If you let go, the kick trajectory will snap back to the default. This does require a bit more dexterity than either of the previous kick meter systems ever needed, but it's still fairly easy once you get used to it. Though, EA could maybe loosen up the accuracy window for online games because any amount of lag makes the kicking game virtually impossible. You also have to be more careful with timing your kicks, as the game and play clocks both continue to tick while the kick meter is charging. Not sure if this is a bug or a feature... So be careful that you don't wait too long and give yourself a delay of game (or let the game clock expire before) you get the kick off.

On the other side of the ball, defenders can now actually block kicks by jumping the snap...

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