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The story goes that John Madden refused to sign off on EA Sports’ original football sim until it put 22 players on the field. The rest, of course, is history – and the Madden NFL franchise has been striving for realism ever since. That ambition comes in the form of a few buzzwords this year, including the distinctly marketing-led FIELDSense and precision passing – but does it make a difference?

Well, yes – there’s no doubt that the ground game takes another Jonathan Taylor-sized stride forward, and to be fair it was already starting from a pretty good place. The ability to more precisely hit the hole means nimbly navigating between blockers feels more gratifying than ever, and we love how the thunderous thud of your running back’s cleats reverberate through the DualSense as you sprint towards the endzone.

The precision passing – which is introduced immediately upon starting the game – also makes sense. Ball placement is not just a co-commentator’s catchphrase, but a real phenomenon in the NFL: the best quarterbacks not only find their receivers, but also place the ball in positions only their teammates can catch it. This, naturally, reduces the probability of the ball being batted away – or, worse, an INT.

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Unfortunately, the visual representation of this feature can get a bit messy. Effectively, you need to move the analogue stick to orchestrate the throw as your QB animates, but an untidy splurge of on-screen meters and crosshairs can overwhelm – especially when you’ve got a kaiju-sized pass rusher up in your grill. Still, the ability to throw to a receiver’s back shoulder or chest plate is rewarding, and it makes those tough two-minute drills all the more rewarding to round out.

FIELDSense has less of an impact, however. EA Sports claims that branching animations make the game less predictable overall, and you can now hammer certain buttons to break through tackles or drag DTs a few extra yards. But there are still occasions where you can see the game awkwardly transitioning between motions as it calculates the outcome, and some sequences feel robotic as a result. Is it better? Yes, especially when you’re able to knock the ball out of a receiver’s hands with a last-ditch hit – but there’s still room for improvement here.

The same is true of Face of the Franchise, even though it has made an Odell Beckham Jr-esque leap from last year’s dismal attempt. EA Sports has cut out a lot of the crap here, allowing you to pick up the plot of a fifth year free agent looking to get their career off the ground. You can now play as a cornerback, which we selected, and “enjoy” the unenviable responsibility of covering some of the world’s best receivers. We speak from experience when we say it’s all fun and games until you take one wrong step and get smoked by Tyreek Hill.

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Rather than pepper you with poorly acted cutscenes, the gameplay loop focuses on the field. You get to select your weekly preparation, which includes training drills and rest days for statistical boosts, as well as your overall goals. For the most part, though, you’re simply playing football and earning XP, which you can then spend on increasing your statistics and becoming a better player. We did find that some of the individual drive objectives didn’t always feel achievable from our position, but this is a minor gripe.

Taken individually, we enjoyed Face of the Franchise this year – but it fumbles the ball when compared to established alternatives like MLB The Show 22’s Road to the Show or NBA 2K22’s MyCareer. And the same is true of Franchise, which is unquestionably getting better; the addition of new Free Agency logic which takes into account player motivation undoubtedly adds depth and variety to the team-building aspect, but some of the peripheral features like coordinators still feel undercooked.

And to be honest, we’re not sure about some of the changes to Madden Ultimate Team either. EA Sports claims it’s cleaned up the overall progression and interface, utilising a Battle Pass-style system to issue rewards and more closely associating Sets to your binder. But frankly, we found this completely overwhelming: it’s more unclear than ever what to do with your unused cards, and we found getting our New York Giants theme team started took a lot more time than in past years. It doesn’t help that the menus, in our experience, are extremely sluggish to boot.

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Of course, long-time fans would argue that an unclear interface and slow loading is the least of Madden Ultimate Team’s issues – and the emphasis on expensive microtransactions is present as ever. Compared to game modes like FIFA Ultimate Team, we’d still argue it’s easier to assemble a competent team without spending money here, and there’s more than enough single player content to keep you occupied, meaning you don’t necessarily need to keep up with the grind if you don’t mind playing against the AI.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Madden NFL 23 is that, frankly, that’s all there is to it. When you consider just how much is being packed into NBA 2K23 this year – including a full-length Michael Jordan campaign on top of the industry-leading Franchise mode and gigantic MyCareer suite – EA Sports’ football sim feels inescapably light. Sure, the street football Yard mode returns – but it’s buried deep into the menus, giving us the impression that the developer’s interest has waned.

It should also be noted that, following the unexpected passing of John Madden last year, there was an opportunity to do more to celebrate his legacy here. The presentation is filled with nods and winks to past Madden NFL games, but it perhaps would have been nice to see an homage to that classic 16-bit style of gameplay acknowledged outside of the opening cutscene. There is a special match you can play featuring the coach-turned-broadcaster’s favourite players, but a lot of the content honouring Madden is reserved to Madden Ultimate Team, which seems a little icky to us.

Conclusion

Madden NFL 23 is the best gridiron game on PS5 to date, but the series is taking toe-taps forward rather than big, confident strides. There’s no doubt that both Franchise and Face of the Franchise are better this year, and we like the improvements to the run game and the addition of precision passing. But is this enough for a series that’s been accused of stagnation over the past decade? It feels like EA Sports is settling for the easy five-yard gains, rather than the deep ball down the field.