After spending a few years as a Dreamcast-unique product, the NFL 2k series erupted onto the scene last year on the PS2 and a viable competitor to Madden finally hit the scene. Sega Sports brings its famed football franchise back for another season on the PS2 and its ready to go head to head for Madden's crown.
I am sorry Sega Sports die-hards, NFL 2k3 doesn't look as good as Madden. But it doesn't mean that the game doesn't look pretty good.
The first thing I always notice when I play a game is the look and fluidness of the players. While the players do have a nice level of detail - helmets have real-time reflections, uniforms are top-notch - they look goofy to me. The players in NFL 2k3 look like a bunch of Frankensteins to me when you see them up close. I played Madden first and maybe my expectations were too high.
However, the models move realistically and smoothly. All the positions, from receivers running a 15-yard "in" route to offensive lineman pancaking a defensive lineman, look really good doing it. All the cuts were nicely done in the game, as the animations weren't too long or short.
The stadiums look very good. The level of detail is very good and the skylines behind the stadiums are very pretty. The crowds are 3-D models and they are pretty impressive from the field.
Sega Sports has a solid reputation in this area. The familiar duo of Dan Stevens and Peter O'Keefe return and they again do a good job. The announcers start hitting you with information as soon as the loading screen for your game hits and it doesn't end until well after the final whistle. I appreciated the depth and analysis that the duo offered. Where Madden and NCAA only offered mentions of stats after 200 passing yards or 100 rushing yards, NFL 2k3 spontaneously blurts out team rushing yards in the middle of quarters. I also liked how the duo would have conversations about the previous play or what strategy a team should take. Unlike Madden, I could actually believe that I was watching a good play-by-play crew on television.
Another audio aspect that I enjoyed was the player speech. One game I turned down everything but the players' speech and they proved to really talk up a storm. One play after I tackled Terrell Davis for a loss, a defensive player yelled, "You better sit down after that one, Davis!"
During games there is some generic stadium music, but it is nothing to brag about. Stevens and O'Keefe are usually talking most of the game, so you don't really notice the lack of other sounds.
Interface/Options : 90
NFL 2k3 does offer a nice selection of game options. There are eight game modes to choose from: Quick Game, Franchise, Season, Playoffs, Tournament, Practice, Situation, and Online.
It was a little disappointing to not see any of the mini-games that Madden offers, but there is still plenty to keep you busy.
The NFL 2k series has long been taking for lumps for having a clunky interface and a shallow Franchise and Sega has vastly improved on both.
The interface is very, very nice. It has a little Tony Hawk in it, as the franchise menu screens are now incorporated within a 3D environment. It's a little tough to describe, but the instruction manual says that real-life NFL coaches spend all their time at their desk and so should you. The team schedule is in a notepad on the desk and the depth charts are accessed through a computer monitor on the desk. I saw the interface as a nice change of pace from all the boring menu interfaces of all the other sports games.
The Franchise mode also is better this year. Sega signed a license with ESPN and there area lot of perks that come with that. For example, you can begin scouting college players during the season and there is a mock draft to help you out before the draft. Similar to Madden's rookie scouting, you go to the NFL Combine and spend a certain number of hours getting detailed reports on potential scouts.
While I welcomed the addition, the size and schools of many of the prospects were very odd. Heading into my first draft, the top prospect was a 6'1 offensive tackle from a no-name junior college and the next best prospect was a 5'9 quarterback from Georgia Southern. While I welcome the occasional guy that beats the odds from either a small school or stature, the entire draft board was littered with runts and players from tiny 1-A schools or one of many 1-AA schools.
The stat engine was also skewed. For some quarterbacks, they would have a QB rating of exactly zero with normal looking stats. At the end of the season, in conjunction with part of the ESPN license, a fake announcer goes over all of the post-season awards. There were some weird selections, such as Peter Warrick winning the special teams player of the year with a total of five kick returns. Kurt Warner had the NFL's best passing efficiency with only 86.0. Last year, Warner led the league with a 101.4 rating and Tommy Maddux, Gus Frerotte, and Brock Huard were all players who had QB ratings of above 86.0. Warner only threw for 16 touchdowns.
I love what ESPN and Sega is doing, but the stat engine needs to be reworked for next year.
There are AI sliders in the game, but unlike in Madden, there isn't any separation between human and computer ones.
Gameplay : 88
I went straight from Madden and NCAA to NFL 2k3 and there was definitely an adjustment period. It was apparent that NFL 2k3 most accurately portrayed real-life football right away. One of my biggest gripes of Madden and NCAA was that there were too many 45-42 games. I didn't like how defense took a secondary role to offense.
My first game with the Chicago Bears was a 14-3 defensive battle against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The whole speed and flow of the game differs from the EA Sports competition.
Everything seems so much slower in NFL 2k3, but it is not a bad thing. In Madden, almost every team plays like the St. Louis Rams (of last year), but each team has more of a unique style in NFL 2k3. The run-pass ratios weren't as distinct as I'd like. My second game was against St. Louis and I didn't see a big difference in the play calling from the Steelers. The Rams should be a pre-dominantly passing team and the Rams should run the ball down my throats.
A feature I long wanted to see in the EA Sports games, the ability to throw the ball wherever I wanted, is available in NFL 2k3. I know Madden has the "route based" passing, but I prefer the Maximum Passing of NFL 2k3. I found it much easier to determine the touch of the pass than in Madden. The thing I liked the most about the passing was the ability to throw the deep ball and have your wide receivers catch it in stride. In Madden and NCAA, my receivers would always want to jump for everything.
Running the ball was a mixed bag. I played a Franchise with the Chicago Bears and some games my running game sucked and others I was unstoppable. I liked the variable success. Running in-between the tackles could be done if you followed your blockers, but the holes weren't as big as those in Madden.
I think having a solid rushing attack would also be easier if the sprint or turbo button wasn't so inconvenient. You have to tap the button repeatedly. This wouldn't be a big problem if you didn't also have to hold X to power up for juke and spin moves. This overuse of the X button usually results in a fast, straight-running player or a slow, juking one. This is one area that Madden kicks NFL 2k3's ass. If you use the special moves at the right time in Madden they can be effective.
Defense is interesting as the variety of tackling animations made me at least once or twice say out loud, "Damn! What a hit!" Defensive backs actually tip or swat the ball away with some realistic sense. Too many times in the EA Sports football games a defensive back would be in perfect position for an interception only to let it deflect off his hip pad or his chest. In NFL 2k3, if your guy has a chance for an interception he is going to get it. The only thing I was disappointed from was the slowness of the reactions of the DB's. This wasn't as apparent in Man defenses as it was in zone. Safeties would literally not take a step until a receiver had almost caught the ball. I think the DB's should be taking off as soon as the ball is released from the quarterback's hand.
The kicking meter hasn't been changed or enhanced, but it's still difficult to pick up.
I have a few small gripes, such as you can't manually put men in motion and the lack of penalties, but it's nothing too big. Although you can rack up big numbers in the scoring column, most games are played with both teams reaching around 20 points each. I appreciated the realism of NFL 2k3. Madden almost felt like an Arena Football League at times, so the slower pace was much appreciated.
Replay Value : 85
I still haven't got my PS2 Network Adaptor, but I'd assume that online play enhances the score here. The franchise mode and the game play are very fun, but the weirdness of the college players' size and school turns me off. You can import classes from NCAA 2k3, which might help, but why should I have to pay $50 for that privilege?
The game does have a fairly steep learning curve. The nuances of the rushing attack and the timing of passing take time to get accustomed to. The new ESPN license only makes playing the game that more enjoyable.
Overall : 89
While there is no doubt in my mind that NFL 2k3 is the most realistic football game on the market, I am not sold that is the most fun. Madden does play at a faster pace, but it is much easier to pick up on and scoring is much easier. There are times when I prefer a slower, methodical style of play, but generally I like to use Steve Spurrier's Run-and-Gun style of offense.
For a die-hard, throwback football fan, NFL 2k3 would be a wiser choice, but for the casual football gamer, Madden would probably be the way to go. NFL 2k3 is getting closer to taking over Madden's crown, but it's still not quite there.