Madden NFL 2003 Review
Developer: EA Sports
Platforms: PC, Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube
Reviewed on PlayStation 2
Madden NFL 2003 aims to treat both the Jerry Jones-style gamer ("This is my team, all virtual decisions go through me!") and the gamer who favors the Keyshawn Johnson approach ("Just throw me the damn joystick!"). EA has ramped up the defense, called in newcomers Al Michaels and Melissa Stark to join John Madden with commentary, thrown in a tutorial mode, and put together a series of minigames for those moments when your attention span is faltering. Are you ready for some football?
Electronic Arts' latest installment of Madden NFL is their best to date. The game is loaded with features, including the most advanced play editor yet to appear on a console system and Franchise mode, in which you take command of an NFL coach and team and guide them for 30 successive seasons. A few frustrating flaws do detract from the gaming experience, though they are not enough to sabotage it, overall.
The gameplay is straightforward, with the largest change being a smarter, quicker, more advanced defensive AI. In previous versions, such journeyman quarterbacks as Danny Wuerffel and Bobby Hoying had little difficulty picking apart defenses, which seemed to lose themselves in loose coverages whether they were in a man-to-man or a zone. You'll find completing passes more difficult in this year's rendition, adding to the realism. Rather than running around in the pocket, waiting for your favorite wideout to break free (as inevitably would happen in previous versions), you'll have to play the game long enough to get at least a general sense of the timing of pass patterns so you can hit your receiver in stride. Now, you don't want to learn that through trial and error, racking up incompletions, interceptions, and frustrations as you go along. Luckily, the folks at EA have thought of that, and introduced a helpful new gameplay mode that they call "Football 101," a tutorial that lets you practice running different plays. Once you've got the hang of that, you should move on to one of this year's other new features: Minicamp.
Minicamp mode is essentially a series of mini-games which you can play to earn tokens and bonus Madden cards. This mode is absolutely perfect if you don't have time to play an entire game, but need your Madden fix. When you select Minicamp mode, you'll be presented with a map of the United States, with icons on a number of NFL cities. You're represented by the Madden Cruiser, which is the giant bus in which John Madden travels from game to game throughout the season. You place the Madden Cruiser on your city of choice, and are presented with the drill associated with that city. In Kansas City, for example, you have to complete passes to your receivers, and time them correctly, such that the passes travel through rings hovering above the field. In each drill you accumulate points, earning either a bronze, silver, or gold trophy. Earn a trophy and you'll unlock a game situation, where you'll be presented with the challenge of being, for example, down two points with two minutes left, and you'll have to march your team downfield in the hurry-up offense to victory. Other drills include throwing passes to dummies while staying in a zoned "pocket" and avoiding machine-propelled tennis balls shot at you, and a drill in which you must punt the ball out of bounds near the endzone to pin your opponent deep.
The customizable playbook feature is brilliant, in theory. You have the ability to select up to 81 plays distributed over up to eleven offensive formations and import them into your offensive playbook. There are two chief problems with this aspect of the playbook feature, and they seem so easy to fix that their existence is doubly frustrating. You can fully customize your playbook, but having done so, all of your audibles are preset to the one offensive formation which is predetermined by the game: special teams. Upon seeing the horror that is lining up to punt on your opponent's 20-yard line, simply because you wanted to audible, you would probably decide to go under the settings menu from the main screen, and change your offensive audibles. However, you cannot select your playbook from the list of playbooks presented to you under this setting. This means that you are also unable to customize substitutions for the formations in your playbook in a logical way. Such changes can be made, but the only way to do so is to go to either a game or the practice field, pause the game, and make the changes from there. Luckily, once you do this, the game will save your playbook for all future use, so the problem is fixable, but the solution is so counter-intuitive that the frustration you feel over trying to figure out how to make these changes detracts from your enjoyment of the game until you stumble across it.
The second major problem with the customizable playbook is that there is no way to select your created playbook as your default playbook. You can't associate it with your user profile, and you can't import it into your Franchise mode and use it with your selected squad. In fact, the only place you can select your playbook is at the controller select screen, right before starting a game. This means that you have to select it every time you play a game, and if you forget, you have to restart the game if you want to play with the playbook you've created. Most frustrating about this is the fact that it seems so simple a request that you have the option of choosing a default playbook to associate with your user profile. All that notwithstanding, the playbook editor is a great feature, thanks in large part to the freedom it gives you, as it allows you to select sets, select individual plays, and, for the true control freak, design your own plays.
The Create-a-Play mode in Madden NFL 2003 is easily the most advanced ever seen on a console system. Indeed, its capabilities are rivaled only by the old Sierra franchise, Front Page Sports: Football Pro for the PC. You can create both offensive and defensive plays from any formation in the game, including those formations you create. Creating defensive plays is fair enough, but your options are somewhat limited, simply by the nature of the defensive mindset. Offensively, though, you have near complete control. Not only can you customize your receiver's routes, within reasonable limits, you can even create your own formations. Within the limits of football rules, you can even make some bizarre looking arrangements of your players, such as lining up three running backs, or splitting four wide receivers to one side of the line of scrimmage. You can then immediately test the play out on the practice field without having to save it and switch over to practice mode, and make any necessary alterations to your routes/blocking scheme. You can name the play, and when you save your playbook, your new play will be ready for game use. This feature alone puts Madden NFL 2003 in a class by itself.
The commentary has changed slightly this year, with Al Michaels providing the play-by-play and Madden the color commentary. Michaels and Madden do a reasonable job, better, perhaps, than in previous versions, but it is not up to the level of EA's college football game, NCAA Football 2003. At times, Michaels sounds akin to a vaguely disinterested William Shatner, drawling in a staccato, "And at halftime (pause) the score is (pause) Chicago (pause) 14 (pause) New York (pause) 7." Melissa Stark (ABC's sideline reporter for Monday Night Football) provides brief tidbits from the sidelines, and EA has wisely used her to cover game updates regarding any injuries which happen during a game, which sounds realistic and adds something more than just "I've just spoken with the head coach, and he's extremely confident heading into this game." The mixed and matched sound bytes do not run as smoothly as you'd like, but the commentary is certainly passable. Ambient audio sounds, however, are fantastic. For example, as a receiver goes in motion, you can faintly hear the defenders barking out things like, "Motion, motion! Get over here!", lending to the game's realism. A word of advice: pay close attention to what the PA announcer is saying in the background. Some of the announcements are hilarious, and make you believe the EA must have employed a very creative, fun-loving sound engineer.
If you own EA's NCAA Football 2003, one feature you'll like is the ability to import your draft class from that game's dynasty mode into Madden NFL 2003, to use as your draft class in your franchise mode. You'll then encounter a new feature in this year's game – scouting reports. You'll be able to scout up to 15 players at the NFL's pre-draft combine. You highlight the players that interest you, and your scouts will report back to you with notes on every player you've selected. There are three rounds of scouting, and you'll get more notes the more times you scout a player. The scouts will report back to you with lines like, "He's really improved his strength numbers," or "His speed wasn't as high as we'd hoped." These can help you make your draft picks in the seven-round NFL draft. It's really a nice little feature, simple to use, but it does convey a greater sense of control over your team's future.
Finally, a further word about the gameplay: this incarnation of Madden can be (sorry, I can't resist) Maddeningly frustrating. You'll notice running backs breaking tackle after tackle after tackle, and the old "dive at their legs" approach rarely brings them down. Your quality defensive lineman will have a very tough time fighting through even a mediocre offensive line to put pressure on the quarterback, and it's near-impossible to hold a computer-controlled team, even on the default difficulty setting, to a three-and-out. Also, it seems like there's a facemask on maybe one out of every four or five tackles, which is absolutely ridiculous. If you've had a rough day, this game could cause you to inflict some serious damage on your controller, and if you've had a good day, this game could sour it.
Ultimately, the frustrating issues really are just frustrating, rather than damning. Simply put, Madden NFL 2003 is the most complete professional football gaming experience to date. The major upsides, like Franchise and Mini-camp modes, playbook customization, and the improved realism on the defensive side of the ball, far outweigh the modest breakdowns in realism and the occasionally counter-intuitive interface. So go ahead Bengals fans – a Madden win may be your only hope for some time to come.