Finally after a long, slow summer fraught with talks of baseball strikes, boring tennis matches where we already know the Williams sisters will win before the first serve, and a downward NASCAR season where Jeff Gordon finally won his first race of the year at Bristol, the return of football is upon us.
Unlike last year when I had the heavily underrated XFL to hold me over, this year was a longer cross to bear. Don’t even mention Arena football to me, as I do not believe a real football game can be played in only 50 yards. A couple weeks ago I wrote a commentary mentioning about how EA Sports helped cure my football deficiency with NCAA Football 2003, they recently added more to the mix when Madden 2003 was released.
Not to be left out into the mix, Sega Sports, now retrofitted with their lucrative ESPN license, have also released NFL 2K3 to the public. After the disappointment that was NFL 2K2, I had a lot of expectations for this year and wasn’t sure if the new ESPN deal would be worth it. Only several weeks of non-stop play on all three titles would render a decision.
As mentioned before, Sega Sports acquired the ESPN license in an attempt to capture the hearts of football players that were recently converted over to EA (myself included). As a result, the presentation is identical to a typical SportsCenter broadcast (in fact, the opening FMV this year is of a virtual SportsCenter broadcast hosted by Dan Patrick). Weekly reports have now been added to the broadcasts, which include actual in-game highlights, something that has not been seen since the Genesis days!
The presentation isn’t the only thing that has changed, as the Franchise mode has been given a much needed overhaul. In addition to the usual draft and resigning of players, rookies can now be scouted via the NFL Combine prior to the draft. Visual Concepts obviously took a close look at EA’s NCAA franchise mode (at its time the deepest in the business) and applied their own knowledge to make a more enjoyable franchise mode.
Online play is also added this year, and is available to all platforms. (Since XBox Live isn’t in operation until November, I was unable to get hands-on experience with the online play, but if NFL 2K1 on the Dreamcast was any indication, XBox fans are in for a treat.)
NCAA 2003 follows up on a successful freshmen next-gen year by adding new modes such as Rivalry games which award special trophies similar to those used in the real collegiate rivalries, as well as the ability to play with a team comprised of your team’s mascots. Also to add to the college feel, the game’s front end presentation can be set to your favorite college team.
NCAA even added to its already deep Dynasty mode by allowing customized schedules against non-conference opponents, as well as keep track of all the bowl trophies you have won (including the Heisman and Sears trophies).
But this year, Madden has added the most to the already successful franchise. In addition to the Exhibition, Season, Franchise, Situation, and 2-Minute drill that made Madden the deepest game in the lot, a new Mini-Camp mode has been added. Similar to Virtua Tennis, Mini Camp sends players via the Madden Cruiser to all the different NFL towns to practice on skills such as accurate field goal kicking, coffin corner punts, pass coverage, tackling, pocket pressure, and breaking through the O-line.
The mini-camp in itself is a blast, and can also be used to win new Madden Cards to be used later in the game. Even if this mode wasn’t added, Madden would still be the deepest.
And speaking of deep, that is what the new Franchise mode is. Like NFL 2K3, the NFL Combine has been added to track players prior to the NFL Draft. As the players are scouted more and more, vital information is displayed that will ease your decision whether to add him to the draft pool. In the end, Madden definitely wins out as far as additions are concerned.
NCAA appears to be running on an enhanced Madden 2002 engine, which of course, is not a bad thing. Unfortunately there are some minor cases of slowdown when tons of players are close to the screen (even on the XBox). Nonetheless, the game is still as impressive as before.
Madden 2003 is running on a new engine, and it can easily be seen, especially as far as the coaches are concerned. Last year I made jokes about how Tom Coughlin (Jacksonville) looked like a 100-year-old zombie, and Marty Schottenheimer looked as if he had something stuck up his nose. Not this year. Schottenheimer and Coughlin look like their real-life counterparts, as well as Steve Mariucci (who is dead-on to the real thing) and Mike Holmgren. I haven’t found one coach who does not look at all like the real thing.
The player faces are looking better every year, but they still have a while to go to match up with the real deal. In addition, I wish that every detail of the player’s uniforms (lettering included) would be made more like the real NFL jerseys.
Still, not a bad effort.
NFL 2K3, however, keeps its title as the best looking football title available. The player faces are unbelievable, but I wish I could say the same about some of the coaches (Steve Mariucci has a block head). I can understand since this is the first year that the 2K series used coaches, but hopefully it will be improved on next year. NFL 2K3 also shows off some of the best player animations of the lot, particularly in the area of tackling, although at times they do go a little over the top, which will be explained later.
Madden was always weak when it came to audio presentation, but EA has taken strides to improve. Gone are the Fox team of Pat Summerall and Lesley Visser and replaced by Madden’s new Monday Night Football team of Al Michaels and Melissa Stark. Now granted they are almost using the same lines in previous games, and my personal dislike for Al Michaels, the new play-by-play team does sound improved. Everything flows smoother (well most of the time; the end of the quarter scores are choppy), and Al Michaels obviously sounds more vibrant that the archaic Summerall. Melissa Stark actually sounds more involved as well compared to the dull and robotic Lesley Visser.
On-field trash talk has finally been added to Madden. Once a 2K exclusive, Madden’s trash talk sounds great, although it still has yet to use player-specific trash talk. Lastly, what I hated the most in 2002 (the menu soundtrack) receives a much needed change from rap to rock. Everyone from Andrew WK (whose Party Hard is the first track you hear when the game is turned on) all the way to Bon Jovi (who actually has a good song for a change) has been added, and in my opinion, is definitely worth it.
NCAA already had a strong 3-man commentary team, and it is back and better than ever. From the Behind the Scenes video in the game, over 8,000 new lines of dialogue have been added to prevent repetition, though I still caught some lines that Lee Corso says twice in one game.
Crowd noise is now a major factor as well, and it can be heard right from the opening roar when the home team takes the field or the dead silence that fills the air when the home team is being slaughtered and the seats are empty. The presentation audio can also be dependent on your teams television status. If they are a Top 25 team, you will get the full ABC Sports treatment with the 3-man commentary, but if you’re in the bottom of the barrel (such as Duke or UL Monroe), the only commentary you will hear will come from the PA announcer. Lastly, over 200 new fight songs have been added and it makes the college experience more realistic.
Finally, 2K3 remains as the best in the audio business. Adding the ESPN license offers all their classic theme songs for SportsCenter, NFL Primetime, and Sunday Night NFL, but fortunately they did not change the most important element: the commentary team. Once again, our favorite 2-man commentary team has returned, and the quality has not deteriorated over the years (although I am glad to see the overused line of "You can’t coach that" has been toned down). I knew that switching to ESPN’s NFL broadcast team would mar the strong track record that Visual Concepts had with commentary, so kudos to them for not fixing what wasn’t broke.
On field sound is as good as ever, and the trash talking sounds as sweet as always. I still wish that they would work on the referee calls because they are still as slow as they were back in the Dreamcast days.
As far as gameplay is concerned, I will combine both NCAA and Madden since they both have the same control schemes and response. First off I would like to know how everyone says that Madden overdoes the momentum, because I don’t see it at all. I also feel that EA’s football titles have the tighter control, particularly in the running game. However there was one thing I was glad to see improved, particularly in Madden, and it involves the passing game. The receivers had a nasty habit of catching the ball, and a second later, end up dropping it, DESPITE having both their feet on the turf. Normally that counts as a fumble, but Madden has reduced the number of times this has happened. NCAA does it at times but it can be altered in the options menu.
In addition, another hate I had in the series is when I’m playing defense, and I have up to 4 backs covering a receiver on 3rd and long, the computer ALWAYS makes the perfect completion for the 1st down. To me, that is very unrealistic, and although it still happens at times, on Madden the defense is tightened up.
Tackling also seems more realistic, but the gang tackles that are mentioned on the back of the Madden case are rarely seen.
As far as 2K3 is concerned, it seems as though Visual Concepts have taken a great deal of my criticisms seriously. My biggest concern was with the difficulty setting. Just offering choices of Rookie, Pro, and All-Star is not enough these days, so VC has now added AI sliders for computer players. It helps out a bit, but it’s nowhere near as deep and varied as EA’s. In addition, at Pro difficulty, running backs still have that ability to fend off 4 tacklers and get big gains. Turning down the AI sliders did help out with this problem though.
Running works out better this year, but at times I feel as if my running back does like to vacuum towards tacklers, and they are able to take me down without trouble most of the time, and some of the lateral movements (especially during a down) seem a little too much. Not many running backs in the NFL fly to the side like they do in 2K3, so this will need to be addressed, but it is an improvement.
In addition, the passing game is much easier to get into thanks to the AI sliders, but there are still times that I have a completed pass with BOTH my feet on the turf, only to have it fly out of my hands. Once again this doesn’t happen as much, but it still needs to be address. My advice to Visual Concepts is this: You have added CPU team AI sliders, and that is a step in the right direction. Now add them for human controlled teams as well, and you might be able to run neck and neck with EA.
WINNERS: Madden and NCAA
Online gameplay I will admit I was not able to take part in since all three games I have played were tested out on the XBox, and with XBox Live unavailable until November, it is impossible for me to judge. However, on the PS2, both Madden and 2K3 will be playable online (Madden is exclusive to the PS2), but on the XBox, NFL 2K3 is ready to be played on XBox Live. We’ll have to see how that turns out come November.
WINNER: Too soon to tell
Unlike last year, the virtual gridiron war is much closer. 2K3 is definitely taking strides in the right direction with the ESPN license, configurable AI levels, and online play to boot. However, it is not enough to match up with Madden’s realistic gameplay, unbelievable customization, enjoyable Mini-Camp mode, and insanely deep Franchise Mode. Kudos also goes out to NCAA 2003 for continuing its dominance in the college football market, something I know will be continuing for a long time.