Midway's NFL Blitz series has its roots in the arcades, where it started back in 1998. As an arcade game, its first few installments didn't have to do much other than play extremely well--which they did. The series came home in the form of NFL Blitz 2000. The gameplay was still dead-on, but as a home game, it suffered from the same fate that most arcade ports of the time faced--a severe lack of options. Later console-only editions of the series went on to experiment with additional modes and minigames, each with varying degrees of success. The series was starting to look and feel a bit dated by the 2001 edition and was in dire need of an overhaul. The series received that overhaul in the form of NFL Blitz 2002. The first installment for the current generation of hardware redesigned the product from the ground up, adding another level of complexity in the form of the impact player while still maintaining and improving most of what made the NFL Blitz series so great in the first place. Unfortunately, the game shipped incredibly late. Most 2002-season football games hit stores in August 2001. Versions of Blitz 2002 didn't start hitting until February 2002, when most people had already forgotten about video game football. NFL Blitz 2003 works out many of the kinks found in last year's game and gets the series back on track.
The NFL Blitz series has always been about providing a fast-moving, easy-to-learn version of football that throws away the rule book in favor of huge, hard-hitting tackles and post-play brutality. Its deep playbooks lend an enormous amount of strategy to the proceedings, giving the game the same sort of high-speed depth you'd expect to find in a great fighting game. Last year, another layer of complexity was added in the form of the impact player. The computer-controlled impact player is commanded separately from the play-calling, giving you the ability to have an extra blocker or an extra receiver downfield. On defense, you can set the impact player to block, rush, delay rush, blitz, or cover the offensive impact player. It's a powerful weapon, if used effectively.
The Blitz series has always been about precision. Some moves require you to double-tap buttons. For instance, double-tapping turbo causes your player to spin. By default, the GameCube version maps turbo to the right analog trigger, and analog triggers and precise double-taps simply don't mix. Remapping the buttons causes you to have too many buttons to push on the face of the controller, and the end result is that there's no "correct" way to configure the controller on the GameCube. It's something you can get used to over time, but given the importance of timing the spin move properly, it can be a real hassle. Perhaps using the GameCube's dual action triggers to allow for turbo when pushed in partially and for spins when clicked in all the way would have been a better option here.
New to the series this year is a create-a-player option that works similarly to the mode found in Midway's basketball game, NBA Showtime. You'll design the players' looks, either by using standard football gear or by going with crazy players, such as a robot or a giant hot dog. You'll also assign points to various stats. Winning games or answering trivia questions with your created player earns more stat points. The game's tackle animations have also been improved, preventing last year's offense-friendly tackles, which would occasionally fling the offensive player an additional five to seven yards downfield. As a result, the game feels much more balanced this year. Rounding out the new features list is instant replay, which lets you back up any play and watch it again from any perspective at varying speeds. The instant replay can be great for rubbing in a great play, but the pause it provides can break up the flow of an otherwise fast-paced game.
The NFL Blitz series has always been at its best as a multiplayer game. The two-player game is perhaps the best, though the three- and four-player options are also fun. Early games in the series had extremely predictable AI that would essentially let you walk all over the opposing teams in one-player contests. This year's game, however, is a different story. The AI is extremely interception-happy, even on the game's easiest setting. It will punish you for any bad pass. It's also very good at diving on receivers to break up plays before the ball is caught. A better spread of difficulty settings would be nice here. At least when the AI was a pushover, you could use the one-player mode to test out various options for each play to prepare yourself for multiplayer games.
Most of the sound effects and commentary from the previous Blitz games have been recycled year after year. Last year's game introduced two-man commentary, setting up the old announcer as the straight man for the new guy's jokes. It works pretty well in NFL Blitz 2003, but it doesn't have the long-lasting humor value that MLB Slugfest 2003 had. Graphically the game looks about the same as Blitz 2002. The stadiums still look great, the player models look a little bigger and meaner this year, and the game moves quite well.
In the end, NFL Blitz 2003 is a great game that fixes a lot of the little problems with the 2002 game and adds a couple of nice features. There's nothing seriously wrong with this year's game, but it's also coming just under six months after the last installment of the game with a relatively small number of changes. It's a great game and definitely worth purchasing if you didn't already buy Blitz 2002, but Blitz 2002 owners may wish to rent this one first to see if the changes are meaningful enough to them to warrant another purchase.