The return to the basics of the game results in a nice first-down conversion for the popular football franchise, which is a great homage to its late football legend. Madden NFL 23 is the first game released after John Madden's death, and it feels like a great send-off to the coach beyond the menu screens and the voice clips. It's clear that the developers wanted to pay tribute to Madden with the inclusion of the Legacy game, with two versions of the coach walking the sidelines as he coaches his favorite AFC and NFC players. The inserted clips from his broadcasts, as well as the halftime tribute to his legacy, are a subtle tribute to the man that refined football broadcasts and launched this series to new heights. It could've gone further, with segments of classic Madden games, clips or playable scenarios from his career, or other moments highlighting his impact, but it's a decent addition. What stands out further is something that Madden would have approved of, which is the FieldSense system. Passing is always one of those items that gets boosted in Madden, and the ability to direct a throw to a specific part of the field, along with how hard it's thrown, means that you can really drop in a ball over a receiver's shoulder into their waiting hands, or toss a low ball that is grabbed by the shoestrings as a receiver goes out of bounds for a first down. It can take some getting used to, but it makes your passes incredibly accurate and effective. More important is the inclusion of hard cuts for directional movement for ball carriers. In previous games, if you wanted to turn upfield, especially after the catch, you'd have a rounded path, and your players might be trapped in a juke or spin move before they could pick up speed. This year, you can plant your foot and explode past the line, or fake out a defender and take off for extra yards. It's great, and gives you the sense that just about every play could be broken open for a big gain. The lone downside is that it does make gameplay a bit too easy for the offensive side of the ball. Sure, defensive backs can disrupt timing by jamming receivers at the line, and the tackle assists are good to help bring down hard-to-tackle runners, but it's a bit too easy to hit a stutter step and gain far too much separation on defenders.
Aside from some glitches in animation and the preference toward offense, the field game is pretty strong, which is a good thing, because the other modes aren't as solid as they could be. Face of the Franchise starts out with an intriguing premise by focusing on a vet who hasn't been a superstar and is looking to catch on at a new team at the end of his rookie contract. But while this one could've explored a player trying to come back from an injury or gone through the ups and downs of vets trying to prove they belong on a roster over rookies, the limited story takes a bland safe route in play. The cutscenes, as few and far between as they are, don't really drive anything forward and are mainly skippable. At least the gameplay isn't as focused on Nike as last year's version. Franchise mode has been boosted mainly in the trade and scouting departments, which adds a wrinkle to the acquisition of new talent and evaluation of upcoming players. It's a good addition, and it provides a little more of a chess match when it comes to figuring out who might be the best fit for your organization. Beyond that, though, this is largely the same mode as last year's. Adding roll over cap space and draft logic helps, but this mode still feels shallow in some of its depiction of front office and on-field dynamics. Finally, the other mode of note is the popular Ultimate Team mode. It's nice to see that the collections in the game that allowed players to build and design their squads have been adjusted so that it's easier to collect top-tier players and build the teams you're looking for. Of course, aside from paying for the chance to get superstar athletes, you'll need to put in the work to create the best team. But it feels like the minor issues from previous years' installments with the Ultimate Team have been smoothed out, so there are more ways for players to hop in and experience success here. Overall, Madden NFL 23 feels like a strong return to the fundamentals that the coach knew and loved. On-field play is better than before, and while it may be tipped in the offense's favor this year, it feels like a fitting send-off. Thanks indeed, coach.