Reviewed: July 10, 2003
Released: August 13, 2002
The king is back, and better than ever. The fat man has dominated the virtual gridiron for over a decade, and for the most part, he's aged gracefully.
Madden NFL 2003 is the most recent installment in the legendary series, the gold standard by which all other contenders are judged, and is sure to please all but the most discriminating pigskin junkies. The series put EA Sports on the radar, and aside from a few blips, has remained the undisputed heavyweight champ year after year. Despite some minor imperfections the latest version weathers the storm and delivers where it counts most.
So what does EA Sports have to offer to coax you out of yet another $50? Everything but the locker-room sink.
Madden NFL 2003 is bursting at the seams with new features: a highly addictive mini-camp mode, a robust custom playbook feature, ferocious stiff-arms that would bring a tear to the eye of the almighty Jim Brown, run-stuffing gang tackles, a deep franchise mode incorporating preseason play and revamped audio commentary.
If that doesn't spark your heart, you may well need Soviet-era electrotherapy to get your blood pumping.
The main attraction is the stellar franchise mode. Users can guide their favorite team (or teams, for the more ambitious) through a full 30 seasons and micromanage every aspect of play, both on the field and off. As GM, you can release players, extend existing contracts, offer lucrative deals to hot free agents, trade draft picks, and scout future stars for a full seven-round draft. You will have to learn to operate within a defined salary cap, which will increase on a yearly basis, but that's just part of the fun. Overextend your cap for a fat, washed-up free agent and you will pay for the error down the road, literally and figuratively.
Franchise mode now features preseason play, which will allow green rookies and hardened vets alike a chance to cut their teeth and get into playing shape. Given ample opportunity, your new recruits will improve at the end of the preseason, which is vital to the success of your ballclub. There is, however, a brutal twist: just like the regular season, injuries are a factor. Leave your star QB in too long and you could risk losing him to a potential season-ending concussion or torn Achilles. Injuries such as that can derail the train before it's left the station, so tread softly. You will have to strike a proper balance to insure your team is hitting on all cylinders entering the regular season. Following the real-life NFL trend of leaving starters in for one or two series during the preseason is the best course of action.
Mini-camp mode, which sounded decidedly ho-hum in previews, is actually a brilliant little feature. You will take part in eight individual drills across the country; precision passing, pass coverage, ground attack, chase and tackle, pocket presence, trench fight, clutch kicking and coffin corner. The feature serves as both a tutorial for the novice and a tool for the seasoned veteran to sharpen his skills. The pass coverage drill is especially useful. Controlling a DB, you dart back and forth between tackling dummies, learning to jump routes and close angles to deflect or intercept a pass. Pass coverage has long been one of the more strenuous skills to master. By isolating the drill, EA should allay most concerns and complaints. Completing the drills successfully allows you to unlock Madden Cards - in-game collectibles which can be "cashed in" to use as cheats.
Create-a-playbook allows users to mould an offensive or defensive scheme from the ground up. You can create formations, which allow you to place players virtually anywhere you like, so long as you work within the spectrum of NFL rules and maintain seven men on the line of scrimmage. You can select your plays from the default arsenal in the game, edit existing plays, or create them from scratch. The play editor allows you to select pre-made pass routes (posts, ins, outs, streaks, etc.) or "draw" your own.
All told a wonderful addition, although hardcore gamers are bound to be disappointed with this feature. You can "only" assign 82 plays to your playbook. At first glance, 82 does seem to be more than enough -- after all, the revered classic Tecmo Bowl offered only a selection of four plays. Still, the default playbooks in Madden 2003 offer in excess of 200 plays. Anyone who has the energy to build a custom playbook will want to represent the full breadth and scope of a real NFL attack, and 82 plays isn't enough to do that. Once you begin to assign plays to your playbook, you will burn through 82 slots in no time.
Of greater concern, created pass plays do not flip properly. Pass routes become a jumbled, tangled mess when flipped. This is a glaring problem and further inhibits what could have been a more polished feature.
For those who lack the enthusiasm or dedication required to manage a franchise, you can jump in and play immediately. Exhibition games, situation mode (whereby you set all the conditions -- score, quarter, current possession, time remaining -- and go), practice mode and a two minute drill are all in place for those short on time or attention.
Undeniably the backbone of the series, gameplay in Madden 2003 is the most refined of any football sim to date. A handful of tweaks and minor changes have been implemented that immediately set it apart from its clunky 2002 predecessor.
First, gameplay speed has been increased a notch. The result is a more responsive game engine that accurately represents the sheer speed and violence of the pro game. Fortunately, the augmented pace doesn't come at the expense of coherent gameplay. You still have time to see your offensive line blast a hole in the defense, make your cut and explode into the open field.
A string of savage stiff-arm animations have been added this year, allowing more powerful runners to use their ability to the fullest and take the battle to the defense. Power backs like Jerome "The Bus" Bettis and Eddie George brutalize would-be tacklers, able to drive the ball into opposition territory and wreak havoc.
The play-action game has been reworked completely to make it a worthwhile, viable option. Unlike previous versions, linebackers or safeties who bite on the PA will leave wide holes in the defense that you can exploit to great effect. Just like real life, the play-action game will be far more damaging with a dynamic running attack.
For those whose memories have been completely eroded by sniffing glue or noxious greenhouse emissions, Joe Gibbs and his 1991 Redskins thrived on the success of the play-action pass. They would pummel the opposition with the running game until they were fatigued and demoralized, and then open gaping wounds in the secondary with a precise play-action game. It speaks volumes about how far Madden NFL 2003 has come when you can do the same.
The control scheme remains second nature. A defensive strafe option has been added this year, allowing you to move laterally or backpedal without having to turn your head away from the action. It's a clever addition that works wonders in the passing game and will be praised by longtime fans of the series.
The visuals in Madden NFL 2003 are stunning. Fluid animations, dynamic lighting and realistic weather effects all mesh to create a believable experience.
Sun-drenched stadiums hum with energy and excitement, and cast realistic shadows across the field that actually shift and bend as the game goes on. Adjust your weather sliders just right and you can play in a torrential downpour in Miami's Pro Player Stadium, a near blizzard in Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium, or an impenetrable fog in state-of-the-art Seahawks Stadium.
Sorry, Oakland fans: the lunatics in the Black Hole don't actually throw batteries or small children at the opposing team, but there's always next year, eh?
Player models have been tweaked to look more like their real-life counterparts, but there's still room for improvement. By comparison, Sega's NFL2K series has done more to push the boundaries, including more detail and equipment. Things like tattoos, neoprene sleeves, alternate types of gloves and a variety of authentic footwear give NFL2K a slight edge. It would be nice to see EA Sports raise the bar and match the competition. Players are still stuck wearing flat, dull sneakers that look more at home on Charlie Brown than professional athletes.
Animations are seamless and more plentiful than in the past. Gang-tackles look fantastic, and offer a new dimension to the defensive side of the ball. When you see Curtis Martin crumpled like a Coke can by a pair of snarling linebackers and driven into the cold New Jersey turf, you'll clutch your ribs and spit up sod. Sidearm throwing animations have also been added, so Rich Gannon and David Carr will sling it downfield with a smooth motion like skipping a stone on water. It's a nice touch and adds a unique feel to the passing game.
The interface is slick, intuitive and clean. The menu system is readily navigable and allows you to manage every facet of your franchise with ease. So easy, in fact, that you can slice and dice your way through the woeful Cincinnati Bengals roster without breaking a sweat. Happy trails, Akili Smith!
Minor gripes notwithstanding, Madden still boasts the best looking graphics of any sports simulation, period. All that's missing is the taste of sweat and dirt in your mouth -- and the more hardcore among you can approximate the effect by doing twenty jumping jacks and licking a doormat.
Joining John Madden in the booth this year is the Emmy Award-winning Al Michaels, a solid pro who's been a fixture on ABC's Monday Night Football since 1986. Michaels is a welcome change from the near comatose Pat Summerall, who sounded like he was chock-full of horse tranquilizers and on the verge of developing a heart murmur. Not that there's anything wrong with either condition individually, per se - a genuine heart palpitation can enlighten the mind and temper the senses - but the two paired together made for a lethal cocktail that could lull even the most adrenalized gamer into a funk.
Also on board is Monday Night Football's sideline reporter, Melissa Stark. She will chime in from time to time with injury updates, which is a convenient touch and spares you from having to pause the game and check your injury report.
Despite the addition of Michaels and Stark, commentary again remains the weak link in the series. There is little change from the lifeless, monotonous drone of the 2002 edition. The interaction between Madden and Michaels sounds coerced and synthetic, the direct result of not having recorded their dialogue together. As opposed to the free-flowing, natural feel of NFL2K's commentary, Madden 2003 sounds cold and unnatural - you're left with the impression that they were poked and prodded with pointy sticks to induce them to speak. The end result is all the more disappointing given the opportunity EA had to revitalize the commentary with the addition of two new crew members.
The onfield sound is a whole different...uh, ballgame. You'll hear safeties call out motion or order shifts, quarterbacks bark out audibles or hot routes, and a host of guttural grunts and groans that are sure to put you in touch with your neglected inner barbarian. The hollow "pop" of a crushing helmet-to-helmet hit will send a shiver down your spine and make you think twice about running the ball in John Lynch's vicinity again.
A very active, spirited crowd rounds out the audio FX engine. They'll cheer, chant and boo with equal fervor, although they don't quite explode with delight in the same manner as the crowd in NCAA 2003 when you score.
Music is a mixed affair. This collection - dubbed "EA Trax", no doubt after a creative seizure gripped EA's marketing department - could be filed under "complaint rock". You know, the kind of music where angry teenagers with an ill-defined sense of resentment toward their parents shriek about their worthless existence on top 40 radio? I hate you, mom and dad!
Still, the aural options here are sure to please EA's target market, which consists mostly of angry teenagers with an ill-defined sense of resentment...and whoa! Déjà vu. Good Charlotte, Andrew WK, OK GO and Seether form a rock-heavy soundtrack that keeps the tedium of franchise roster management at bay, if only because you can sit back content in the knowledge that whoever's singing that song has a lot more problems than you do.
Flying in the face of reason, EA opted to inflict grievous injury upon all their customers by allowing a Bon Jovi track to seep into the mix. Yes, I know. I'm scared too. Any self-respecting citizen within earshot of Bon Jovi's cock rock wail will instictively duck and cover. EA would have been better served by replacing his hideous contribution with an audio recording of the Chinese National Ping Pong Championship.
I can't help but wonder if EA headquarters is burning up the phone lines in Redwood City, frantic to enlist fellow hair-metal alumni Motley Crue and Poison for next year's soundtrack. Despair.
This is tricky. At the core, you have the best football simulation ever produced, with more depth and intelligence than any sports title yet released. You can play through multiple franchises, watch fledgling players evolve into All-Pros before retiring and engage in some legitimate gridiron bliss.
On the other hand, you have the 14th edition (that's XIV for you Romans keeping score) of a sports title that improves only in midget-sized leaps and dwarf-sized bounds every year; just enough so you'll buy it again, but never enough to give you an excuse to ignore next year's version.
The XBox version is devoid of an online component, so you'll have to exhaust your best trash-talking jabs on your little sister. Or the computer. But then, computers don't cry or slam their controllers on the floor when they lose. Not yet, anyway...so where's the fun in that?
The level of polish in Madden NFL 2003 puts the competition to shame. The few issues that pop up are crushed underfoot by the staggering quality of the game's depth and production values. The most apparent problem - the commentary - can be addressed simply by disabling it.
You won't find a more authentic portrait of the gridiron war waged on Fall Sundays, and that's what counts most. Put your jersey on, lace up your spikes, and get your uniform dirty with Madden NFL 2003.