Replay Value: 10
The team at PSX Extreme has always favored the Madden series over any other long running football series, excluding the likeness of NFL GameDay 97, 98, and 99. No other football has held such prestige among the hearts of sports gamers. It was best known on the Sega Genesis, and was the one series which made Sega's machine stand out as the machine for sports gamers. From what it seemed, Madden was unstoppable, and up until last year it was. Marking it's debut on the PS2 last November, NFL 2K2 stood toe-to-toe with EA's finest and dominating series. Last year, NFL 2K2 won our award for best sports game of the year 2001, and at the time it barely edged Madden. I, along with Anthony and Matthew, found NFL 2K2 the more appealing and all around more refreshing sports title. So now that the competition is stiff, Visual Concepts knows that this time, they aren't just porting a Dreamcast game and refining it's visuals so that is scheduled to release in 6 months. This time, it's different. Upon agreeing that NFL 2K3 was hands-down the best football title at E3, we also agree that NFL 2K3 is easily the best football sim on any console to date.
Visually, NFL 2K3 looks superb; noticeably better than Madden. For one, textures belong to NFL 2K3. The jerseys are higher in resolution quality and the environment looks a bit more defined. NFL 2K3's player models outdo Madden's somewhat stumpy looking models by a fair margin. For one, when the players take off their helmets in Madden 2003, their head shape looks downright terrible and out of proportion, it's not like NFL 2K3 has better head shapes, but the players don't take their helmets off, and that saves me from cringing. To be a bit more serious, the player models in 2K3 are just so exceptionally done, and look so eerily representative of their actual counterparts, that it can be mind boggling at times. They animate so incredibly well, so kudos go to the motion-capture directors of NFL 2K3. The motion capturing downright spectacular, I have yet to see any break up, or anything noticeably wrong with them, and viewing the replays further demonstrates how wonderful the mo-capping in NFL 2K3 is. The frame rate is flawless, and shouldn't even be worried about. NFL 2K3 not only looks incredibly smooth, but it plays like a dream too. The framerate never gets in the way, and always stays at peak position. The facial detail is one of the best things in NFL 2K3. The players never look like lifeless zombies with wide-open eyes. Instead, the facial detail is spectacular, right on par with NFL GameDay 2003's facial detail, which feels so weird saying that, but it's true. Lastly, collision detection in NFL 2K3 has been corrected and obviously improved. While there's still some noticeable tearing, it's far better than Madden 2003's body through body collision detection. All in all, NFL 2K3 displays everything right. I can't find anything to moan, bitch, or nit-pick about. Rest assured, you haven't seen a sim title this clear, polished and accurate yet.
The following is a break up of almost everything NFL 2K3 has to offer, including online. Do enjoy yourselves, and try to keep your hands on the keyboard at all times.
NFL 2K3, by far, has the best presentation of any football game to date. The ESPN influence in this game is apparent everywhere. After a nice (but awkwardly latent) SportsCenter introduction, you are taken to the main menu. The interface is reminiscent of the stats screen shown on the ESPN show, as well. At this screen, you are given six options to choose from: Quick Game, a simple exhibition game; Game Modes, where you can select between several game modes; Options, which, as the title suggests, brings you to a screen where you can edit the options of the games; Load/Save, where you can load and save your data; Roster Manager, where you can create teams, players, and playbooks as well as download additions from Sega; and finally, Sega Sports Challenge, where you can create a profile that will keep track of your win/loss record and other stats, like win streaks and touchdowns.
When entering the options menu you can see that Sega has given players the ability to customize just about anything. You can get the length of each quarter, change how plays are called, by formation or package, game speed, and even the ability to set coach mode. In coach mode, you pick the plays that you want executed and watch the plays unfold. Sega has gone the extra mile when it comes to difficulty settings. Not only can you choose between three sets of pre-loaded difficulties - Rookie, Pro, and All-Pro - but now you can adjust each area of the game using AI sliders, a feature that is long overdue in this series. Is it getting too easy to pass the ball, even on All-Pro? No problem, just increase the coverage AI. Are you sacking or being sacked too often? If so, then simply just raise the blocking AI. It's that simple.
The already stellar presentation can be tweaked as well. You can change how players are indicated - by name, number and position, or no indicator at all. Celebrations, action replays, etc. can all be toggled on and off by the press of a button. You can change the audio settings and even choose which of the nearly 30 tracks that will be played as you navigate the various menus. Other options that can be changed are weather effects, penalties, and a chance to choose between 3 of the controller setups.
The Roster Manager is where users can re-order depth charts, create players, teams, and playbooks. Another available option is called "Online Downloads" where new features can be downloaded from Sega. The create-a-player mode doesn't feature anything special that you would find in many other football games. You can choose position, skin color, apparel, helmet features, and many other features. The create-a-team mode will let you name your team, make their initials, and name their coach. The game has 10 different team logos you can choose from, which is actually quite large considering other games feature only about four or five.
Game Modes is where the meat of the game is, though. You choose between seven modes. Practice mode is where you get a chance to brush up on the controls, especially useful if you're new to the series and is a great chance to see exactly what you have in your playbook. You can choose between three different types of practices. Special Moves mode lets you play around with the control to see exactly what does what. Players should get that part down within only a few minutes. After you get tired of the mode, instead of quitting, there is an option in the menu that let's you switch between the modes. The next practice you should run is offense only. This gives you a chance the run the plays and see exactly how receivers run their routes, the offensive line blocks on runs, and so on and so forth. Another new camera feature added into this game that might throw even veterans off a bit is the Quarterback angle and Running Back's angle. When the QB angle is turned on, the camera tilts a bit to the side that the quarterback is rolling to. This adds an interesting perspective, but odds are that it will catch you off guard. The Running Back angle does just about the same thing. If this new camera feature annoys you, you can simply go to the camera options and turn them off. Also, Madden veterans be warned, you don't have to double tap X to bring up the pass icons, so keep that in mind if you're a Sega Sports newbie. Once you think you are ready to give the game a go you can play a full scrimmage that will let you play against another team. Unfortunately a lot of people don't give the practice mode a chance, but if you're new to the series then it's wise to check it out.
The exhibition is where you can really take all those skills gained in Practice mode and try them out in a "real" game. In this mode, you play a regular game against another team. This is the mode that you want to go to before you venture off to season or franchise mode. There really isn't much to say about this mode other than it's a great place to hone your skills or play a multiplayer game.
Situation mode is kind of an advanced Exhibition mode. Here, players can setup a situation that they either have to get himself or herself out of by scoring or getting on defense and defend a lead. This really is the final step before moving on into the larger modes. You can setup the time left, what quarter it is, what the score is, and any other possible area of the game you can think of. It is smart to practice your red zone defense, two-minute drill, and you're ability to hold the lead with under 2 minutes remaining. It's also fun to setup nearly impossible situations and see if you can get out of them without having a win/loss record on the line.
Tournament mode is sort of a diversion where you can set up a tournament. Up to 16 teams can compete. It's a great party mode where you can setup a little tournament between you and your friends and make fun of them when you win. If you don't feel like drudging through a whole season or even playoff, then you can setup a short tournament against the computer.
Playoff mode is more for the people that want to get straight to the point and compete in the Super Bowl. With this mode in a game, it's great for the more casual gamer who doesn't want to commit him or herself to a whole season, let alone a whole franchise. Basically, you take your team through all the playoffs to reach the big dance. It's quick and you don't have to take a lot of time to finish it. Great for those players who don't want to deal with trades and all of the politics in the other modes.
Season mode is a dumbed down version of the franchise mode. Some gamers don't want to take care of a franchise, mainly because they don't have enough time for it. Season mode gives you all of the options you need to make it through a season. You can customize the teams in the league to your liking and can still make trades as in Franchise mode.
Finally, the grand daddy of them all -- the Franchise mode. No other mode lets you get as close to being a coach/GM as the Franchise Mode. When you first enter Franchise mode, you must select a team to play as, then name and create your coach. One of the cool things about the franchise mode is that you can assign certain duties to the Assistant Coach. Don't want to deal with the combine of the draft? Fine, make the Assistant Coach do it. Players have access to their calendar, a notebook that lists the schedule and lets you advance time. The first part of the season that you engage in, as in real life, is the preseason. This is where you get a chance to check out some of your younger talent that usually doesn't get off the bench during the regular season. The preseason is totally optional and can be turned off in the options menu.
Franchise Mode - Trades:
Trades are handled in two ways in NFL 2K3. Regular trades can take place in the Front Office menu. If a team rejects a trade, they might make a counter offer. Usually those are for some of the more high profile player. If you offer a Jason Sehorn for someone like Ty Law, then don't be surprised if the Patriots want somebody else like Keith Hamilton or Cornelius Griffin as well. A smarter strategy is to trade for a guy that is moving up and you can make him your own and turn him into your franchise player. The other trade method is the trading block. Users can put certain players on the trading block, advance time, and see if anyone has made any offers.
Franchise Mode - Weekly Roundup:
After each week, there's a Weekly Wrap-up. It's possible to skip but is an interesting addition. The Weekly Wrap-up goes over all the scores of the week and shows a play of the week from a random game. The odds of one of your games being the one featured is kind of low, but it is possible. After the play, a screen comes up showing the offensive and defensive player of the week.
Franchise Mode - Post Season:
The post season is unquestionably the best of any football game out there. First, you get to check retired players. After that, it's time to get down and dirty and restructure the contracts of some players. Most of the players don't have much of a problem when it comes to contract talks, but some of them can get stingy and disagree to deals that are more than what they initially wanted. A bar shows their interest in the deal, and if you see it start to rise, stop and make the offer. Odds are that they will take it. The third part of the post-season schedule is the free agent signing process. Don't go too overboard with the free agent pool though, or you'll have a withered salary cap by the time it comes time to sign your draft picks.
Franchise Mode - NFL Combine:
After you search the free agent pool, it's time for the best part of the post-season schedule, the NFL Combine. While you don't get to see the players in action, you setup a 4-day schedule with nine hours a day. You assign a certain amount of hours to a player. One hour gets you a basic report, two hours gets you an in-depth report, and three hours gets you a full report. A good strategy is to run a mock draft and check out some of the reports on the players, get a pen and paper, and write down some of the names of the players with their positions, so they're easier to find in the Combine list that interests you. A basic report gets you three sayings about their play, an in-depth report gets you an additional rating on three key areas, and a full report gives you their ratings in every possible area.
Franchise Mode - Draft:
Once you've scouted all the players you want, it's time for the actual draft. First look to see if your top guy is still left. If he is then he should be a great pick, but you should check if you really need help in that position. One of the downsides of the draft is that you don't see the ratings for that player. Instead, you see his Combine results, which are helpful, but it would be better if you could see his ratings. After you make all of your selections, then you can sign your draft picks. Unfortunately, if you weren't careful in the contract signings of the guys whose contracts were up and the free agent signing, you may have to only sign one or two of your picks -- one of the real problems that NFL teams have to face. The post season is basically over at this point. All that's left is to re-order your depth charts and move on to the new season.
Gameplay - Passing Game:
All of these modes are great, but if the game has no depth in the actual gameplay, then it's all for naught. Thankfully, there's no problem with NFL 2K3 in that area. The gameplay is extremely deep and incredibly engrossing. The passing game can be quite easy, but as the difficulty goes up, it can get frustrating. If you're not careful and make sure to scan all of your options, you can easily find yourself throwing it into the arms of a roaming safety or even a deep linebacker. Some of the best routes to take on second and third down plays are out routes and curl routes. If a player doesn't have enough separation on a defender, the corner back, safety, or linebacker can close in quick and knock the ball out of hands once he gets it. Finding plays that you can use other receivers as blockers are important to big gains. For example, there are certain plays that have the inner receiver running a post pattern and the outside receiver running an out pattern. If you time the throw correctly, you can position the inner receiver to pick up your guy and throw to the outer receiver. This should give you one guy to beat. Make a well-timed juke and you can have six points, or at least a huge gain.
Gameplay - Running Game:
The running game is also astonishingly deep. If you don't follow your blocking perfectly and use special moves correctly, you can see yourself with a loss instead of a gain. It is extremely important to follow blocking. If you separate from a lead blocker because you think you see an opening on the other side, you probably won't see the linebacker hiding behind the offensive and defensive lineman and get dropped for a big loss. Once the lead blocker has a man, look at the receiver's blocking position. Go around his back, whether it be toward the sideline or down the middle, for the quick pickup. Strong backs can use stiff arms well, while speedier backs should stick to jukes and spins. The running game has to be the hardest part of the game to get down and establish, but once you've got it going it really opens up the passing attack.
Gameplay - Defense:
Defense can get frustrating at times. When facing running backs like Marshall Faulk and Eddy George, you can easily want to break your controller because of their superior tackle breaking ability. Never believe that you have one of these guys done for, even if you hit them square. They can spin and keep their balance extremely well, picking up another 10 yards on you before you finally take them down. Make sure that if you believe that the opposition is going to run, you pick a play that will stick them, otherwise their run can be just as effective as a big pass play against a running defensive play. When playing the pass, blitzes can be a hit-and-miss type of thing, just as it really is. If you blitz on a pass, you have the chance to make the quarterback make an early throw, or you could get burned on a huge pass. Sacks are hard to come by, but interceptions are a bit more frequent. Usually a tipped pass can still result in an interception, as corner backs tend to stick with the ball as long as it's in the air. This adds a lot of depth to the defense and can make the game an enjoyable experience.
Playing NFL 2K3 online is an incredibly refreshing experience, and brought back memories of playing NFL 2K1 online via SegaNet. The whole process of playing NFL 2K3 is so painfully easy, especially if you're on a cable modem. For cable modem users it's pretty much a 1-2-3 step. The software is within and enabled in NFL 2K3, so if you have a USB Network Adapter peripheral for your PC, or you bought one to use with Tony Hawk for the PS2, try and get it to work with NFL 2K3. We know one thing's for sure, Belkin adapters are incompatible with all online titles, but the LynkSys Etherfast 10/100 USB adapter works wonderfully. That LynkSys hardware is gray, and has a red tip around it at the end, so if you want to purchase one, that's what you should go for. But be warned of one thing, the Sony adapter is the only one that is guaranteed to work on every PS2 online compatible title. Having said that, the online experience was lag free. We tried our cable first and then stepped down to our backup DSL connection. Both worked marvelous. (Note: Unlike EA's stingy ways of getting people to purchase their next Madden title, NFL 2K3 servers will not be cut off next year, as Madden's will be. So you'll be able to play the game for as long as you wish.)
The sound in NFL 2K3 is just as good as everything else is in the game. You can forget about tedious and lame banter that the Madden franchise has become so infamous for now. The commentators in NFL 2K3 are brilliant, in a videogame sense. They reflect upon previous plays in the game. After recalling them, they use them to compare to a current or more recent play and that adds a magnitude of extra depth. NFL 2K3's commentary is also done by two fictional commentators; and yet they somehow manage to outdo the real thing by a mile. Their commentary is witty, insightful, and well coordinated. Kudos to the commentators that make NFL 2K3 that much more enjoyable. The ambience effects are also phenomenal. The stadium will cheer, boo, chant, scream and what have you, all depending on the situation on field. It's truly great stuff.
The controls, for the most part have been left the alone, and that's good. Veterans of 2K2 will quickly get adjusted to 2K3. The precision and everything else remains in tact. To do what I commonly do, instead of just repeating myself, I'll pull out the controls breakdown from the NFL 2K2 review and slap it here, with the necessary adjustments made, of course. "The gamer can either double tap the speed burst button (and hold it on the second tap) for a rushing hit against a lineman, or the athlete will automatically stiff arm to open up a gap and scurry through. But that also requires precise timing, as there may be a lineman on the floor who can shoelace-tackle you. If you time your speed burst hits right, you can break through a string of tackles, as I once did. Double-taping a pass button will make the QB fake the pass, where in some cases the AI could jump for it, you side-step to the side, and as the defender ends up behind you, you tuck the ball for a running play. Everything about NFL 2K3's controls is superb. I could find few, if any gripes with them."
In the end, it's quite obvious that NFL 2K3 is marvelous all around game. Visually it has no peer, and gameplay wise Madden doesn't quite stand up. And while the Franchise mode isn't quite as deep as Madden's (but almost as), everything else completely rocks. NFL 2K3 is the football game you've been dreaming of since the technology of uber three-dimensional visuals have been created. The game has everything you've ever wanted from a pigskin sim, and perhaps more. The online mode is not time limited, so servers will not be shut down when NFL 2K4 hits shelves next summer. The commentary annihilates whatever Madden 2003 does, the controls are just spot on and present the ideal feel for the entire game. As a whole package, NFL 2K3 can't really get too much better. Perhaps, somewhere there is some room for improvement, but apparently, that space is too thin to slip a knife though.