He's baaaaaaaaack! John Madden's pigskin franchise is back for another season, but this time around, he's brought some new enhancements along with him. Check out the full review!
Whenever we talk about sports games, the name Madden Football inevitably springs to mind. An almost perfect blending of simulation with accessible game play and full stat tracking for die-hard sports enthusiasts, Madden has been and still is the ideal game for both armchair quarterback enthusiasts and casual players who can easily get into the classic EA control scheme.
Now that Sega has emerged as a viable opponent in the NFL video game sweepstakes, EA has clearly picked up on the competition's footsteps and enhanced this year's Madden rendition with all-new features, a small but not insignificant graphical upgrade, and improved commentary.
The most satisfying and significant new element of 2003 is the Madden Mini-Camp mode, which is basically a collection of objective-based mini-games. Unlike some mini-games treated as throwaways in other games, however, these are actually incredibly addictive and fun. You're given a collection of drills on three different skill levels to complete, varying from, for example, scoring as many TDs as possible with an RB, or nailing as many FGs as accurately as possible within a minute. If you accumulate enough points, you'll eventually unlock a related game situation you'll have to complete, leading to – you guessed it – those all-important Madden Cards.
As someone who has played every Madden since the very first SNES offering back in '93 (was it that long ago?), I have to say this is one of the coolest new features EA has introduced into the series.
For starters, the mode serves as a game within itself – you can easily replay the drills to top your high scores or simply as a particularly useful practice mode. As the intricacies of kicking seems to change slightly each year in EA football titles, I found myself replaying the FG accuracy drill over and over just to fine-tune my own kicking game. The "Coffin Punt" drill is also a lot of fun, as you control a Houston Texans punter trying to nail as many kicks inside the 20 yard line as possible (something he'll no doubt be doing quite a lot of in the expansion team's first season!)
I enjoyed playing through the Mini-Camp drills so much that I nearly overlooked yet another terrific new addition in Madden 2003: Football 101. If you're not a pigskin academic and have often wondered what the meaning of all the offensive and defensive schemes in the game is, this new feature not only explains them all, when to run them and when not to run them, but also allows you to try them out and accumulate tokens if you complete them successfully. Yes, believe it or not, even John Madden himself is on-hand to explain the various formations and point of these plays, which is something I've hoped EA would include in the series for quite some time. It's educational and incredibly helpful if you're looking to add a new play to your arsenal, or finally understand just what the heck the point of that misdirection play is.
These fun new modes are the most significant additions in Madden 2003, which otherwise boasts smaller improvements in terms of graphics and sound, and minor tweaks to the time-tested Madden game play.
Thankfully, the commentary is one of those upgrades.
Since John Madden is jumping ship this season from his former Fox TV confines to the big Monday Night Football booth with Al Michaels, EA has finally dropped Pat Summerall from the commentary and replaced his play-by-play with the sleek, velvet tones of Michaels. Make no mistake: Michaels, one of the greatest sports broadcasters of all-time, is much easier on the ears than Summerall, whose dry and dull delivery has long been a hang-up for many players. Certainly Al dominates the tandem with Madden, whose comments are surprisingly limited in comparison to past entries in the series. Another Fox colleague of Madden's -- Lesley Visser -- has also been dropped from 2003 and replaced with MNF's Melissa Stark, who steps in with the requisite chirpy sideline reports about what the coach believes will be the keys to the game and how long your DB will be out after breaking his leg (don't you hate it when that happens?)
I did, however, notice that team-specific comments seem to be reduced in the commentary this season. When the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots take the field, for example, there's hardly a word uttered about their championship or Tom Brady's rise from back-up QB to Super Bowl MVP. I know most of the country still feels that the Pats got lucky breaks all the way to their World Championship (something the Yankees also receive nearly every year, as those of us here in New England will readily tell you!), but I still expected a little more love from the EA guys. After all, isn't it enough that St. Louis superstar Marshall Faulk is on the cover?
Game play wise, Madden still controls perfectly and feels great doing so. It's like revisiting an old friend each year. Of course, there are minor tweaks here and there: Madden 2003's running game feels a little more comfortable this time out, while diving ahead for large yardage gains has definitely been reduced in this year's rendition. Tackle animations and the dragging down of players also looks more realistic. Overall, the speed of Madden 2003 feels just a little quicker (though still not as rapid-fire as EA's NCAA 2003), and if you're into calling blitzes on the fly, EA has included new independent audibles for the defense.
EA has also made improvements to the Franchise mode, making the pre-season more in-depth in terms of scouting, training (player abilities can be enhanced by accomplishing off-field tasks), and assessing player injuries (pre-existing ones have been factored into this year's outing).
More impressively, Tiburon has included the ability to not only design your own playbook, but also diagram your own original plays! An elaborate play editor enables you to create your own formation and put the chalk to the board, where you can draw up as elaborate a scheme as you can possibly imagine. What's more, you can then test out the play and see if it's legal enough to work in the NFL! Cool? Absolutely, and a necessity if those of you who have grown accustomed to the nutty option play-calling of NCAA 2003 want to try out your offense in the pro ranks.
Graphically, Madden 2003 is a step-up from 2002 in most respects. Player models are even more detailed, stadium models are appreciably improved, and the crowd – carried over, reportedly, from the FIFA series – makes last year's fans look like Atari 2600 refugees by comparison! There are subtle new animations here and there that fans are going to savor: gang tackling, acrobatic catches, and post-play reactions have been noticeably reworked in 2003. Nothing has been substantially overhauled, but it's certainly more polished than the first Madden to grace the NGC. My only complaint is that the game seemed a little too dark: even in daylight settings, the colors and contrasts appear a little drab compared to last year's version. (Play a game in the rain and the entire screen looks gray -- including the players!)
Despite all of the various additions including DVD "Making Of" segments -- and reprisals of the classic Two-Minute Drill, Practice and Situation modes -- there are just a couple of small areas where Madden 2003 disappoints ever so slightly.
First up is the menu screens, which have been given an overhaul but certainly not for the better. When you go to select a play, you're greeted with ugly, triangular-shaped icons that look like they might be coming out of the graphics department at a late '60s local TV station. The menus are, for lack of a better word, unappealing. I'm not sure who decided to rework the look of the graphics and such, but the font is too small and doesn't fit the hard-hitting world of football in the first place. Maybe it would work as the title font for the Mary Tyler Moore Show, but not for Madden 2003!
Second is something that I know a lot of you aren't going to mind, but it bugged me just the same. I'm talking about EA's new "EA Trax" soundtrack, which includes hard, head-banging rock tracks from the likes of Bon Jovi and other artists. Now, it's one thing to hear this stuff over the main menus, but it's another for it to pop up in the game itself, even appearing on-screen as you're about to run a play! I do care how many consecutive completions my QB has thrown – but I really have little interest in knowing that Good Charlotte just wrote the track I heard before I called my last play. (Luckily, you can turn off the music completely, and fortunately not at the expense of the traditional Madden lead-in music, either).
While the GameCube version boasts connectivity with the GBA (the score appears on the GBA while you play -- oh boy!), the NGC version of Madden 2003 is sadly lacking the most desirable new element in the series: on-line play. The PS2 has it, but alas, GameCube and Xbox owners are going to have to wait at least until 2004 to be able to play with a pal across the country. Cross your fingers that in next year's edition, online will be a reality for us NGC owners.
That brings us to where Madden 2003 stacks up in the large scheme of things. Of course it's a great game – nearly every Madden, taken by itself and not compared to other versions, ranks with the top sports games of all-time. The improvements in this year's game are noticeable enough that football die-hards and Madden maniacs will want to purchase 2003 without any hesitation. Certainly if you didn't own Madden 2002, I can't recommend this version enough, and you can't find a more entertaining title when it comes to multi-player battles anywhere.
However, if you only have room for one NFL game purchase this season and already own Madden 2002, you may be thinking of giving Sega's NFL 2K3 a chance just for a change of pace. In that case, a rental of both games to see which fits your liking may be the best recipe to satisfy your football craving on the GameCube this year.
In any event, it'd be senseless not to give Madden 2003 a proper shakedown. Even if the most significant changes are cosmetic ones, the old workhorse still deserves its due. Even after all these years, Madden still reigns at the top of the sports game genre.