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Review

AFL 23 Review

One patch at a time

AFL is a complex and ever-evolving sport, but the passion of its loyal fans is undeniable, and whenever there’s a new AFL game on the horizon, there’s a finals-like atmosphere surrounding the release. Every AFL game release is like the beginning of a new season, bringing renewed hope that it will be better than the last. Wicked Witch’s efforts with AFL Evolution were admirable, but modern AFL games have always had a certain stigma associated with them. However, like Chris Judd’s arrival at Carlton in 2008, Big Ant Studios’ return to the developer’s hot seat for the first time since 2011 was seen by some as the saviour of the sport’s digital future. Unfortunately, the game’s launch has resembled the green shoots era of Brendan Bolton’s Blues – flashes of brilliance and brimming with potential, but undone by a severe lack of execution.

The fundamentals of Aussie Rules have always been hard to translate to a video game, especially given the limited budget in comparison to sports games such as FIFA. That challenge is evident in AFL 23’s gameplay, with numerous issues hampering the on-field experience. Big Ant deserves some credit though, as the game has improved a decent amount since launch and is on the way up, but there are still plenty of fixes that need to happen.

AFL 23 looks the part for sure

Let’s start with the simple things: team and player ratings. I know Big Ant has worked with Champion Data but I cannot make sense of the ratings. Geelong, the team that won last year’s premiership is rated 89 while teams that lingered down the bottom of the table such as North Melbourne, Hawthorn and West Coast come in at 87. When it comes to players, Jack Silvagni’s rating of 86 is the same as Patrick Dangerfield and Nat Fyfe, and higher than Ben Brown (85) and Jack Ziebell (84). I mean, I love JSOS as much as any Carlton supporter, but even I can’t say that he’s as on par with two Brownlow medallists. It means that the best players don’t stand out as much and it doesn’t feel like you’re playing as Dusty, Bontempelli or Petracca as every player feels fairly similar.

In football, the most important thing is what happens on the field, and while there are some promising signs, it’s where the majority of AFL 23’s frustrations lie. Kicking or handballing to a teammate often feels like a chook raffle, with the game frequently ignoring who you’re aiming for or whether you’ve held or tapped the button. I’ve had what I thought were short kicks go almost 50 metres and handballs go to players (or to no one) in the opposite direction to where I was aiming. Trying to execute overlapping handballs can be infuriating when some players have the turning speed of a dump truck and are wrapped up instantly. The kicking mechanics have been tightened up in recent days while I’ve been writing my review, but I’m still finding more kicks than I’d like going to areas I didn’t aim for.

When you do kick the ball to a matching guernsey, marking feels way too easy. Danny Frawley would be turning in his grave at how ineffectual spoiling is – I’ve had Jesse Motlop outmark Dylan Grimes and Noah Balta in a two-on-one and I’ve been outmarked several times despite having the much taller player. Right now it doesn’t feel like there are many genuine contests, it just seems that more often than not when the ball gets kicked into the 50 it gets marked by either a forward or a defender.

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The umpire has put the whistle away

When it works and you transition from the backline to the forward 50 with free-flowing football it really is the best football gameplay experience we’ve had yet

Tactics are another thing that seem to be non-existent. Opposition players are constantly in space, but whenever I get the footy I’m under immediate pressure and will frequently get tackled and even pinged for holding the ball despite having enough space to dispose of the ball. I swear opposition players spray themselves in Teflon pre-game because very few of my tackles seem to stick, and even when they do, I can’t buy a holding the ball free kick. It doesn’t help that the game’s difficulty still feels unbalanced. I managed to jag a win after the siren on the hardest difficulty, but was getting beaten with ease on medium before it crashed. I tried a game on easy and it was far from the walk in the park I hoped it would be.

I will admit that when it works and you transition from the backline to the forward 50 with free-flowing football it really is the best football gameplay experience we’ve had yet, and it does feel realistic at times. But sadly too often those moments are broken down by the mechanics working against the player.

Set shot goalkicking is far too easy, with players required to input power and then time their kicks. The problem is that there is no challenge, even players whose goalkicking in real life is questionable at best can kick it between the sticks with ease (there’s no kicking it like a ruckman here). I’d love to see them implement some form of harder controls (FIFA penalties for example), just to add a bit of difficulty. Another grievance is that the AI seems incapable of missing set shots. I mean if I could swap real life Harry McKay for AFL 23’s Harry McKay it would make supporting Carlton a lot easier at the moment. It just breaks the immersion when players are kicking snags from anywhere.

One of the biggest challenges for me has been mastering the controls, especially ruck contests and tackling. AFL 23 is certainly a game that would benefit from having a dedicated training mode, where players could learn how to do the basics. There is a guide on the main menu that does explain the controls, but there’s no interactivity – not even short videos that people can watch to get a visual understanding of what the guide is saying.

Not even digital Harry can shank this

Currently, outside of playing an exhibition match, players can play partake in Season mode, where you can play a single season with a team of your choice. There is also Management Career, which allows you to control your club from top to bottom, handling things like contracts, drafting and on-field performance. It’s solid but it lacks many features that hardcore fans of these modes would like. You can also try your skills online against other players, and while I’ve had a handful of starts, I still haven’t managed to complete a match, with the game either crashing or my opponent leaving early. Thankfully, you’re now able to verse your friends online, a feature that wasn’t available at launch.

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Customisation is one area that Big Ant has nailed in previous games and The Academy, which is a robust creation tool that lets players create their own players, stadiums and clubs gets a big tick here. Even better, players can upload their creations for the community to download and enjoy.

One of the biggest disappointments though is the amount of missing content. Currently, only AFL and AFLW teams are available, with various state leagues, such as the VFL still to come. The omission of the much vaunted Pro Team mode (AFL 23’s version of Ultimate Team) is a sucker punch for those keen to dive in and build their team and compete against others online, especially given it was billed as a launch mode.

Carn the Turbochooks

On the presentation side of things, AFL 23 is easily the best looking footy game we’ve had to date. It’s clear that a lot of work has been put into making the players look as lifelike as possible (even if they can look a little uncanny valley at times), stadiums have been recreated with incredible detail, there’s an excellent range of guernseys to pick from and the match day festivities such as the coin toss, the coach addressing the players, and the players singing the song after a win is a nice touch. Unsurprisingly, the commentary once again doesn’t sound natural, instead sounding like a bunch of lines slapped together, and it doesn’t take long for it to become rather grating.

Sadly there are still technical issues plaguing the experience. I’ve had multiple games freeze after losing audio (as recent as today), players are sometimes frozen on the spot until there’s a break in play, I’ve had players standing outside the field of play for ball ups close to the boundary line, and frequently standing directly in front of the attacking player after a mark without giving away a 50. These are just some of the recent bugs that I’ve come across after a couple patches, so there’s still some work to do on the technical front.

Final Thoughts

While Big Ant has worked hard to fix many of the AFL 23’s issues, there’s no denying that the game’s launch has been a total disaster. Rather than celebrating a new AFL video game, players have been left frustrated and confused as to how it could launch in such a poor state. I do hope that Big Ant can find the right balance because there is a good game buried somewhere in AFL 23. When you do experience what Big Ant was going for it’s easily the best an AFL game has played, but right now it feels like it could have used an extended pre-season to get cherry ripe for release.

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Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by developer

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AFL 23 Review
Dropping The Ball
When AFL 23 delivers on its on-field vision it’s the best Aussie Rules video game out there, but the lack of execution and content means that it's not quite the contender it could have been.
The Good
When the gameplay delivers it's the best AFL experience we've had
Visuals are seriously impressive
The Academy is a great addition
Big improvement since launch with more to come
The Bad
Gameplay mechanics still need a bit of work
Lack of content that was advertised
Commentary is bad
Team and player ratings need reworking
Still a little buggy
5
Glass Half Full
  • Big Ant Studios
  • Nacon
  • PS5 / PS4 / PC
  • May 4, 2023

AFL 23 Review
Dropping The Ball
When AFL 23 delivers on its on-field vision it’s the best Aussie Rules video game out there, but the lack of execution and content means that it’s not quite the contender it could have been.
The Good
When the gameplay delivers it’s the best AFL experience we’ve had
Visuals are seriously impressive
The Academy is a great addition
Big improvement since launch with more to come
The Bad
Gameplay mechanics still need a bit of work
Lack of content that was advertised
Commentary is bad
Team and player ratings need reworking
Still a little buggy
5
Glass Half Full
Written By Zach Jackson

Despite a childhood playing survival horrors, point and clicks and beat ’em ups, these days Zach tries to convince people that Homefront: The Revolution is a good game while pining for a sequel to The Order: 1886 and a live-action Treasure Planet film. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan. Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts

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