FIFA 23 hands-on: Big improvements but lack of game-changing features

Nathan Warby
Van Dijk in FIFA 23

FIFA 23 will be last the game in the iconic football series before the EA SPORTS FC rebrand takes place, but, even though the gameplay has never felt so slick, the developers haven’t ripped up the rulebook for the final runout.

After almost 30 years of partnership, EA SPORTS and FIFA are going their separate ways, making FIFA 23 the last outing for the pair before they become free agents. It’s no surprise, then, that many are hoping for a fitting testimonial for a series that has entertained football fans for nearly three decades.

We’ve had our first sneak peek at the changes coming off the pitch in the likes of Career Mode and Pro Clubs, and Ultimate Team is surely set to dominate once again, but it’s on the pitch where die-hard football ultras want to see progress.

I got the opportunity to lace up my boots and go hands-on with FIFA 23, and while the beautiful game has never looked, sounded, and felt more beautiful, fans shouldn’t expect a major evolution in the series’ farewell match.

It’s worth noting that we were only able to sit down for a handful of Kick-Off matches, so this preview won’t cover the new FUT, Career Mode, or Pro Clubs features.

Shoot for the stars…or the stands

Arguably the biggest gameplay innovation in FIFA 23 is Power Shots, a brand-new risk-reward shot-type that lets players unleash devastating swirling strikes by holding both bumpers down. This new technique is perfect for both long-range shots and one v one scenarios.

The tradeoff is that Power Shots have much longer animations than regular shots as the striker winds up to smash the ball past an unsuspecting goalkeeper, leaving them wide open for a defender to track back and get a foot in. They also turn off any assistance to aiming so the shots must be directed manually, causing more than a few of my efforts to sail off towards the corner flag.

There was no greater thrill in our time with FIFA 23 than seeing one of these nestle in the top corner, but it’s a feature that will take time to master. Sadly, in its current state, it’s hard to see Power Shots affecting the meta too much, as there are simply too few situations where you can find the time and space to execute them properly.

Meanwhile, shooting, in general, has been revamped to put more different types of shots at players’ disposal, and the ball moves much more realistically. Shots fizz, dip and swerve like never before, and it will definitely lead to some of the dramatic moments that the franchise is known for.

Set piece specialist

FIFA 23 set pieces
FIFA 23’s set pieces are a huge step up.

While Power Shots may not be a gamechanger, FIFA 23’s overhauled set pieces are a thing of beauty. Gone are the days of aggressively wiggling your right thumb to try and pull off a knuckleball free-kick, thanks to a new trajectory line that is far more intuitive.

Winning a foul on the edge of the box feels like a real opportunity this time round, as you carefully direct your shot into the top corner with the left stick, and apply spin with the right stick before you power up the strike.

Useful overlays also let you know exactly which type of free-kick you’re lining up, getting rid of that ‘hit and hope’ feeling of the last few years. Don’t be surprised to free-kicks, and corners, which work in exactly the same way, fly into the net on the regular once skilled players get a feel for the new setup.

Penalties have also been altered to recreate the real pressure that comes from a last-minute spot-kick. The reticle has been scrapped in favor of a timing minigame where you have to hit shoot when a shrinking composure ring is right around the ball; get it right and you’ll most likely ripple the side-netting, get it wrong and you’ll have a David Beckham vs. Turkey situation on your hands.

The lack of a reticle does make aiming feel unforgiving, and it led to some incredibly sweaty palms when stepping up for the deciding penalty in a shootout, but it does a great job of translating the stress that every player must feel from 12 yards out into FIFA 23.

World in HyperMotion

All the talk about HyperMotion 2 and machine learning technology may feel like developer jargon, but you can feel the difference the moment you pick up FIFA 23, particularly when it comes to dribbling. FIFA 22’s dribbling felt floaty, as if you were handling a professional ice skater rather than a Premier League winger.

This time around, players have a real weight to them and moving with the game’s best dribblers feels nimble and precise. Playmakers like Kevin De Bruyne or Thiago Alcantara can turn on a dime thanks to new animations, opening up spaces to play that killer pass.

The same can be said across the pitch, where HyperMotion 2 has made every touch, pass, and shot feel smoother and more fluid. All in all, it gives you more control over every minute movement your players make, so it’s all the sweeter when you go on a marauding run from the midfield and glide past defenders.

Defense is the best form of attack

FIFA 23 palyer tackling
Defending is no longer a slog in FIFA 23.

We’ve talked a lot about the attacking options in FIFA 23, but don’t worry, defenders have a few tricks up their sleeve. By holding down the slide tackle button, towering center backs can put in some truly crunching tackles straight out of the 1970s, and they feel almost as good as a goal at the other end.

These hard slides send the ball out of play or straight back up the pitch for a counterattack, adding an interesting attacking wrinkle to defending. The best defenders are also armed with new animations, letting them get a crucial toe on the ball in scenarios that would have seen them hung out to dry last year.

All things considered, defending is more rewarding in FIFA 23 than it has been before, and protecting your own goal no longer feels like a chore.

The 12th man

EA SPORTS have talked up the new presentation features quite significantly in the run-up to FIFA 23, and while this year’s game is almost definitely the most immersive football game I’ve ever played, there are some familiar issues with the game’s presentation.

Crowds have been given more variety, both in their character models and their animations as they belt out chants, but they still look like mindless zombies if you look into the stands for too long. There’s also something unsettling about seeing 60,000 football fans stand up at exactly the same like some kind of droid army in replica football kits.

On the pitch, the visuals are much more impressive. Pitches look lush and the new 3D nets make every goal seem like a Match of the Day highlight. Players have also been brought to life with excruciating detail, but it’s noticeable that the biggest names, such as Kylian Mbappe or Kai Havertz, look drastically better thanks to custom animations.

Final thoughts

If you’re going in expecting to see a drastically different game to FIFA 22, then you might be disappointed. After a handful of matches, I felt as though I’d seen every major addition that FIFA 23 had to offer, and although I’ll spend almost definitely spend hours trying to master its new Power Shots and defending mechanics, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the series is signing off with a small step forward instead of a leap.

That being said, when all is said and done, it’s hard to argue that FIFA 23 is the best depiction of the beautiful game that EA has ever put to disc. HyperMotion 2 has brought a fantastic fluidity to matches, and the new setpieces are exactly what was needed to make free kicks and corners feel vital again.

It may not be the reinvention that some fans wanted, but FIFA 23 is a solid foundation for the new era of EA SPORTS FC. Hopefully, the rest of the game delivers when it emerges from the tunnel this September.