It's the time of year again where the leaves fall from the tree, pumpkins start to get harvested, and 300-pound linemen sit their smelly butts on quarterbacks. Ah yes, football is back.
Being a Houston resident, I've got reason to follow the NFL more closely this year than in previous years. The Texans are now a real team, both in the real and virtual NFL. So why not bring the team up from the bottom with a much improved NFL 2K3 on the Xbox?
The latest version of the 2K franchise brings a new license along for the ride as ESPN bailed from its Konami deal and has hooked up with Sega. The ESPN license means you get some recognized music to go along with the always strong NFL 2K commentary. The franchise mode has been updated and provides direct competition to the king of the franchise, Madden. Most importantly, the gameplay has been tweaked for the better to make this game Madden's most feared competitor ever.
The graphics of the 2K franchise have always been pretty good and this year it looks even better. The ESPN license has brought some additional flair to the table, which makes the overall football experience more authentic. This is seen mostly on replays, where plays are diagnosed and shown in slow motion. For some pass plays, the replay is shown in split screen, with one camera focused on the receiver and the other on the QB. During the replays and after plays, the camera zooms in for a better view. When it does, you'll be able to easily recognize players through their helmets. The polygon count and texturing is top notch in this respect.
The distant camera still provides a good view of players and it shows off the game's exceptional models. Uniforms have clearly labeled names and numbers, helmets have their logos emblazoned on them, and the animations are smooth. This year it looks like even more animations have been added to the mix. The only disappointment about the animations is that you sometimes have to wait out an animation to continue moving up field. For example, a receiver may run a hook pattern, and as he catches the ball he may get bumped from behind. This causes him to stumble, during which time you have zero control of him. A second or two later you finally can push him up the field. Similarly, the momentum of out patterns pushes receivers dangerously close to out of bounds. The ball animations can also cause concern. The ball seemingly jumps off the QB's hand. If you watch a replay in slow motion, there's a huge jump in the frame animation between just before and after the throwing release.
An area that is hit or miss, is the detail of the stadiums. I'll give you the good part first. The physical structures of the stadium look spectacular, as do the fans in the seats. The fans are dynamic and you can see them cheers after plays. Unfortunately, the detail isn't too good, so the crowd is somewhat of a colored blob. The most disappointing thing about the stadiums is the grass. The natural grass surfaces look completely unnatural.
I've always preferred the commentary from the Sega Sports games. Whether it is basketball or football, Sega and Visual Concepts have delivered a consistently good audio package. This year is the same.
The audio interjects timely commentary and the play-by-play is superb. Before the game, a quick breakdown of the teams' abilities is given, and some short halftime comments are also provided. On the field, you hear the mix of fan noise and player chatter. All in all, the audio package of NFL 2K3 is still among the best in the business.
Interface/Options : 80
NFL 2K3 delivers a variety of game modes. Besides the usual single player games, you can take your favorite team through a season or a multi-season franchise mode. Other modes include playoffs and tournament selection, as well as a practice mode. Once Xbox Live (Microsoft's online network) gets up and running, online action will be available.
The gut of the game is with the franchise mode and it seems to be a bit improved over last year's version of the game. You can make the usual assortment of roster moves that includes the signing or releasing of players and setting depth charts. This has been a lifesaver for me as I try to take the upstart Texans out of the basement. I've put my general manager duties on alert as I shake up the roster and improve the team. You can also import plays from other teams' playbooks into your own team's strategy. Unfortunately, there is no create-a-play mode. This is terrible since there is one huge oversight in the game; I have yet to find a QB sneak in any playbook in the game.
The stat tracking is done well. Playing with 5-minute quarters, my team and player stats are a tad on the low side. Bumping up the quarter length to 7 minutes makes for stats that are comparable to the other teams in the league.
The number of stats available is unbelievable. Whether you want to find the league leader in interceptions or yards after catch, it's a breeze to find.
There are options aplenty in NFL 2K3. This year gameplay sliders have been added like those in seen in Madden. You can adjust things like secondary coverage and tackling ability, but manual does not adequately explain the system. You'll have to experiment with the sliders to get the right mix for you, but at least this level of customization has been added.
There are also sliders for penalties. The default sliders usually end with games that have little or no penalties. I had to turn up each infraction to the max just to get the ref to make some calls and even with that, the number of calls is still unrealistically low. Miraculously there have been very few, if any, holding calls in my games. This comes as a surprise because it happens so often in real-life.
The manual comes in at a thick 52 pages. Just about every conceivable option is discussed save for a few critical aspects of the game. For example, there are advanced defensive line moves such as spins or swim moves, yet the manual does not say how to execute a particular move. Instead, it says to hold the L button and then press either the A, B, X, or Y button to execute a special move. The manual doesn't say which button corresponds to which move. This lack of detail means also means that only NFL 2K veterans will pull off successful fair catches, as the manual doesn't state how to call for a fair catch (it's the Y button).
Gameplay : 83
Comparing NFL 2K3 to 2K2, you can feel both similarities and differences in the gameplay. A positive note, the running game was tightened up a bit, but the passing game is still relatively simple. For a game to be successful, it needs to have balanced AI on all sides and it is here that NFL 2K3 misses the boat.
In 2K2, I had the ability to gain some good yardage on the ground. If we look at the history of the 2K franchise, we can come to the conclusion that the game is in a state of perpetual tweaking. NFL 2K was very difficult to run on and 2K1 and 2K2 went overboard and made the running game too easy. In 2K3, the running game has been toned back to somewhere between 2K and 2K1. The running game now seems to be better tied to the abilities of the running backs and offensive line.
Starting out the season with the Texans, the offensive line just wasn't creating holes. I picked up a few stud free agents and even picked Jamal Anderson up off the free agent list. The combination of moves changed my running game completely around. I no longer have the frustration I felt with NFL 2K, but at the same time I didn't feel like the AI is giving me too much. The feel of the running game seems just right.
On defense, stopping some of the better backs in the league can be tough. It may take several hits before bringing a good back down. With some guys you can only hope the first hit or two will slow him down enough to gang tackle him.
The passing game is relatively unchanged compared to last year. One change I did notice was better passing by the QB. I haven't had one completely errant throw yet. In 2K2, my QB would often throw to the wrong part of the field. Instead, throws are to the right spots, and the success depends on the pattern your receivers run and the type of pass coverage. Man coverage for both your team and the CPU defense is effective as long as players have comparable speed. In zone coverage, the AI defenders (yours and the CPUs) lose their minds. They'll run to their cover area and often just stop until a receiver catches the ball. The secondary awareness is pathetic! I expect defenders to close on the ball as soon as the ball is in the air.
Another aspect of the passing game that needs some attention is the pass rush, or lack thereof. Busting through the line for a sack is next to impossible.
The AI team effectively mixes up the play calling. There is a way to expect whether the CPU team will run or pass the ball, but even if you know what's coming, stopping the CPU can be tough. I've only experienced one poor call by the CPU in the dozens of games I've played.
Overall, the play selection by the CPU has been improved since last year's version. Also improved is the clock management of the AI. The CPU uses timeouts effectively, and they know when to slow down the game to its advantage.
Replay Value : 90
Despite some obvious flaws, I'm having a blast playing NFL 2K3. It's better than NFL 2K2 on the Xbox, but I still think NFL 2K1 on the Sega Dreamcast is the best showing of the franchise. This one, however, offers more in terms of atmosphere. The addition of the ESPN license along with improved play over last year means it's the best 2K on the Xbox. The franchise mode is even better this time around, and the game plays more realistically this year.
Overall : 87
I got the feeling Sega saw what attracts so many gamers to Madden. For football sim fans, we want to be able to customize just about every aspect of the AI. 2K3 attempts this to a certain extent, but it still has a ways to go. The running game is just about right, though some backs require too many players to bring down.
For next year, the area that needs the most attention is the passing game specifically in the secondary awareness. Doing so would make the 2K franchise a more complete football game. As it is, NFL 2K3 is still one entertaining football game.