Last year, Microsoft entered the console football fray with NFL Fever 2002, and while the game didn't quite stack up against some of its high-profile competitors, it was still a good all-around football game with a few problems here and there. Unfortunately, NFL Fever 2003 has many of the same problems, and the one feature that might have separated the game from its predecessor--the promise of online play--isn't actually functional yet, despite the game's availability, because Microsoft has not launched the Xbox Live online gaming service. So fans of last year's game won't find much more than a roster update and a few minor gameplay tweaks in NFL Fever 2003, while new players will find in it a fairly entertaining, though unrealistic, game of football.
There are several different modes of play to select from in NFL Fever 2003. The first is a nice practice mode that takes you through all the basics of the game step by step. In a typical training drill, you'll have to run through a series of cones within a certain amount of time, and as you progress through the drill, you'll have to do different things. For example, you may need to sprint or time a spin so that a rushing defensive player isn't able to tackle you as you make your way through the cones. When you're done with all the basic drills, you can enter a full scrimmage mode to practice different plays and audibles and learn how to find the hot receiver when the defense is blitzing. There's also a single-game option for those who want to jump into a game right away, as well as a season option, which contains NFL Fever 2003's dynasty and challenge modes. The challenge mode in particular adds some longevity to the game by letting you play against and unlock numerous classic football teams such as the 1998 Denver Broncos.
As is the case with most recent football games, the dynasty (or franchise) mode is probably the most compelling option, and while Fever 2003's dynasty mode offers very little in the way of new features when compared with the one in last year's game, it still covers the basic elements of managing a football team for an extended time. Over the course of a single season, you can make trades, sign free agents, and cut players. Signing free agents is an interesting ordeal, as it takes a number of factors into account, including the salary cap and the number of years left on the player's contract. You can also track an impressive number of statistics and monitor players for the purposes of picking them up a later date. If you happen to reach a point where you don't have enough healthy players at a certain position, the game will notify you and give you the option to either remedy the problem yourself or let the computer handle it--though, given the computer's inability to make good decision regarding the roster, you're usually better off making such decisions yourself. When the season is over, you'll find out which players are retiring and which players need to be re-signed or have their contracts renegotiated. In addition, you'll get to participate in a rookie draft and attempt to secure a player who will become the cornerstone of your franchise within a few years. You'll have plenty of information accessible on individual players while making your draft picks, though like in the actual draft, the lower you are in the selection order, the less it actually matters.
As far as actual on-the-field gameplay is concerned, NFL Fever 2003 is a little less realistic than its competitors. The game runs at a fast pace and has seemingly been designed to let you (and the computer) make a few really huge plays each quarter, for the sake of excitement. On two of the three difficulty settings, the passing game is basically a joke, since you can throw 20-yard bombs with relative ease. On the hardest difficulty setting, it's not quite as easy to do, but your receivers still have a knack for getting a step on the defensive backs. Also, the amount of time you have to throw the ball is ridiculous, as sometimes you'll be standing in the pocket for nearly 10 seconds before a defensive lineman even comes close to you. This wouldn't have been such a horrible oversight if it happened maybe once or twice a quarter, but the invincible pass protection happens much more frequently than that.
For the most part, the running game is solid, but there are a few quirks. Defensive linemen have the magical ability to leave their blockers instantaneously to tackle you as you burst through the line, making it quite difficult to get anything more than three or four yards out of such a play, even when there's an enormous hole in the line. In addition, the general run blocking could have used more work, as your lead blockers often tend to block players who aren't in your immediate path. If there's one bright point about the running game, it's the excellent control. NFL Fever's control takes a little of the Madden momentum-based gameplay and mixes it in with the NFL 2K style of gameplay, and it works really well. You can make cuts with relative ease, but not so much so that you'll juke each and every player out of his shoes. Spins, stiff-arms, and other moves associated with running the ball are easy to perform, and they look and feel quite natural.
There aren't too many problems on the defensive side of the ball. Swim moves and other maneuvers used by defensive linemen seemed to have been slightly improved for this year's game. If you time one of these moves properly, you can easily blast past the offensive line and run in for the sack, though if the halfback is still in the pocket, he'll almost always perform a chop block on you, which actually looks quite good. Generally, defensive backs are much more useful if they're controlled by the computer--especially since the passing game is so unbalanced. However, you'll undoubtedly notice that most of your defensive backs seem to have cement covering their hands, because they'll often drop balls that are thrown directly to them, which just makes the passing game that much more absurd.
There aren't that many visual differences between last year's NFL Fever and Fever 2003. The player models for the linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs all look great, but some of the quarterback and kicker models seem a little out of proportion and are generally bigger than they probably should be. In addition, the player faces--while good--generally lack any identifying details, so even some of the more popular players have a generic look. The game does have some really nice, subtle details, such as bump mapping on the jerseys and realistic reflections on player helmets. Every stadium in the game looks excellent--especially some of the domed stadiums, which have some really good lighting effects. There's also plenty of sideline activity, including coaches, players, photographers, and cheerleaders.
Kevin Calabro and Ron Pitts provide the commentary for the game, and on the whole, they do a respectable job and provide some nice insight. At times, however, the commentary sounds really unnatural and almost robotic. Moreover, not only do the commentators tend to repeat themselves dozens of times over the course of the game, but they also often don't call things exactly as they happen onscreen. This is especially noticeable if you happen to run a kickoff back for a touchdown--Calabro will still be calling yards when your foot steps into the end zone.
Other than the passing game, there isn't anything obviously wrong with NFL Fever 2003, and in fact, some may find the faster-paced arcade style of gameplay to be a breath of fresh air. But there are still problems with both the passing and the running game, and the AI on both sides of the ball could have definitely used some more work. So, if you purchased last year's game and are thinking about buying this one, know that you'd essentially be paying full price for a roster update--since the online feature doesn't work yet--but if you're looking to take a break from the more traditional style of football gameplay that's become so prevalent, then you'll want to give NFL Fever 2003 a look.