afl 23 review

AFL 23 Review – Like Dancing With Your Sister

A fair old clanger!

Allan Jeans once famously compared a drawn footy game to “dancing with your sister”. You can put on your best shirt, cut up shapes on the dance floor, but at the end of the night, there’ll be no result. It’s a quote that feels analogous for the latest iteration in the rather niche AFL video game series, which Big Ant Studios returns to after a decade-long absence. It’s flashier than before, it pulls a few more tricks out of the bag, but ultimately feels as hollow as gazing up at a tied-up scoreboard after a two-hour slogfest. 

There’s no denying that AFL, as a sport, is extremely complex. The real players and officials can barely keep up with the ever-expanding laundry list of rule changes year-to-year, so to expect a game developer—on a wafer-thin budget—to realise it 1:1 is pie in the sky stuff. Big Ant Studios developed the first modern AFL game, AFL Live, about a decade ago only for Wicked Witch to take over as custodians from then on.

Although they’ve cut their teeth developing other sporting titles, Big Ant’s return to AFL felt like a coming home story bigger to rival Jason Horne-Francis. Unfortunately, several of the persistent issues to plague these footy games remain, leaving us with yet another product befitting the sport’s niche status.

As Big Ant are still aggressively patching the game to mend its launch issues, I expect that in time many of my gripes will be fixed. Things like errant handballing, missed tackles, and frequent failure to actually deliver on the rules of the sport can all be tweaked and improved as time goes on. I do think there are some fundamental issues with momentum in the game when you turn the ball over against even the weakest of sides, as they seamlessly move the ball coast-to-coast like an unstoppable wave. The skill ceiling and learning curve for AFL 23 are both astronomical for a sports game, but when I look at the opposition move the ball in a way that would otherwise be impossible for the player, it becomes frustrating. 

It also doesn’t appear as though you’re able to implement much strategy to curtail ball movement like this. You can’t control eighteen players at once and there’s no meaningful way to tighten up formations, or instruct players to man-up in dying stages. It’s small omissions like this that makes this game in particular feel a little feature incomplete.

When it’s on your terms, however, the game can feel very satisfying. I think shorter field kicking is the best it has ever been and A.I. teammates always lead into space to make each kick look like a million bucks. Similarly, goalkicking takes on its best form and it’s the one facet of this game that players should immediately be able to pick up and play. The pendulum-style power and accuracy meter is instantly readable in a way many of the sport’s other systems are not, and it’s not like the game has a great tutorial to begin with. 

The entire suite of modes in AFL 23 is rather limited, in all honesty. There’s the bog standard season mode that sees you make your way through the fixture in pursuit of the Holy Grail. The game’s attempt at a management sim is much the same, except you’re charged with list, contract, and recruit management. For those that really like things like SuperCoach and other fantasy leagues, it might scratch an itch, but it’s largely bare bones. While the big leagues are certainly involved, it would appear that state and grassroots teams have been left on the bench this time around, which feels like a sad back step.

In the past, the online modes in AFL games have at least had some form of ladder or ranking system to tie it all together. Not only is that absent here, leaving the multiplayer side of things feeling rather pointless, with only a quick match option on offer, it’s impossible to find a match against.

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This is a huge shame as, of the games I’ve played against randoms online, the game feels far more tense and balanced. It might expose shortcomings in the way ruck contests are handled because Max Gawn is effectively cheat codes, but I’ll admit happily I had the most fun with the game when not getting exposed and split open by improbable A.I. Despite its hang-ups elsewhere, latency surprisingly wasn’t a huge drama when it came to online play. 

In terms of presentation, it’s the best a footy game has looked. Of course, the bar has never been that high, but perusing the academy within the game’s menu and admiring the player’s models shows that a level of care has been put in here. A lot of effort has been put in to emulate the broadcast aspects of the game, from pre-game warm ups, the coin toss and the celebratory team song in the rooms after the final siren—they pulled real-life audio to make these as authentic as possible. It’s a shame there’s just no way around the same old stilted, robotic commentary we’ve always been treated to.

I wish more effort was put into bringing the crowd to life, nothing about it feels real. The polygonal cost might exceed a few hundred while the chants and cheers are piped in. To see the top deck of the Melbourne Cricket Ground vacant during the pointy end of September is baffling. 

There also seems to be less avenues for the sharing of user-generated content, most of which would already be the pits. It’s an area that Wicked Witch excelled at nearer the end of their tenure, but it has clearly not been a focus of Big Ant’s. Within the academy you’re able to knock up players, entire clubs, logos and stadiums, but the systems to do so are undercooked and the communal search functions to find something you actually like aren’t great. It might have been a glitch, but there’s no function to preview a piece of content before downloading it—a bare minimum in what is effectively a hub free of quality control. 

It’s probably never a promising sign when the minor, somewhat forgivable bugs become almost an unintended marketing beat for the game at launch. Things like the model for the head coach appearing as the goal umpire and the physics-defying “90m handball” have been everywhere, and it just speaks to a product that needed a little more time. Of course, releasing a game like this is never easy, especially in conjunction with the actual ongoing footy season, but you’d hope future patches to not only sharpen up this particular title but firm up the foundation for next year’s—if it happens.

With things like the Legends roster and Pro Teams to come, time is fortunately on Big Ant’s side to keep refining the experience for players. What’s there is good, but it’s light on many features that make it a fuller product. It’s a long season though and premierships aren’t won in May.

afl 23 review
Conclusion
AFL 23 is inconsistent in its attempts to emulate the most complicated sport on the planet. It jags six points by delivering arguably the best gameplay we’ve had, but doesn’t make the distance in serving up a complete, robust package.
Positives
Fairly accurate emulation of a truly confusing sport
A fair bit of care has gone into player likenesses
Negatives
Still buggy even after a few significant patches
Bare bones in terms of modes and features
No ability to play against friends online
Commentary is still woeful
5