E3 2002Madden NFL 2003 hands-on

We play the next installment in EA Sports' popular football franchise and check out its online mode.

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The latest installment in EA Sports' Madden franchise is on display at E3 in playable form--including its online mode for the PlayStation 2. The game's core has remained intact, but the game's development team at Tiburon went back and adjusted a number of small details that make themselves known after extended playtime.

The Madden formula has been incredibly successful, so it's somewhat understandable that EA Sports is reluctant to mess with the franchise's core gameplay. But it has taken great care to improve what is already there and remove some of the needless options that made last year's game seem unbalanced at times. One of the biggest additions is the minicamp mode, where you can practice eight different drills to improve your playing skills and win exclusive Madden cards. The list of drills includes a running back drill, a quarterback drill, a quarterback and receivers drill, a defensive line drill, a linebacker drill where you must fend off a blocker and make the tackle, and more. Adding to the peripheral features is a brand-new play editor that will allow you to design formations, receiver routes, and blocking assignments. Created plays can then be saved to a memory card and used in head-to-head play or the single-player franchise mode.

Speaking of which, the franchise mode has undergone a number of tweaks for this year's outing. You will now hold training camp, where you can scout rookies and listen to your scouts' opinions. You'll be able to check out a rookie's combine statistics to help make the cuts throughout training camp and form your team to your liking. There will also be preseason games in the franchise mode to help you see how your players perform in game situations. But probably the most welcome addition to the franchise mode is player progression. If your player performs particularly well, his attributes will gradually increase to reflect his true abilities. Likewise, if your player is having a lousy year, his ability ratings will be changed to reflect it.

Many of the small details have been altered as well. Runningbacks will be able to scoot around the line of scrimmage looking for holes, the play action has been sped up, and the stiff arm has been improved so that it's more effective near the sidelines, where it's normally used in the real NFL. In addition, the pass coverage has been improved so that speedy receivers aren't constantly scorching the secondary, and the blocking on the line of scrimmage has been vastly improved so that it's no longer a big, jumbled mess of humanity. However, hot routes have been removed so the gameplay is more balanced. Anyone who's played a great deal of last year's game will attest to the fact that using the go-to feature with all-pro receivers like Jimmy Smith can make the game seem unfair at times.

The online mode for the PlayStation 2 version of Madden NFL 2003 was also playable on the show floor, and we took some time to give the feature a look. Electronic Arts has established one huge server to play on that is divided by four difficulties to make sure that players of all abilities have someone to square off against. Once you choose your room, you'll be able to jump to a number of smaller rooms and access a list of players. Next to each player's alias is a five-dot connection rating system to help you avoid lag. While there will be no keyboard for the PlayStation 2, there is an onscreen keyboard that you can use to send messages to the competition. However, it can only be used while the game is paused. To keep from slowing down the game, you can enter and save 10 quick statements for use on the fly. The online gameplay was smooth with no noticeable lag, but the game was likely running on several T3 lines, so it's probably not a good barometer for how the option will function. Playing Madden NFL 2003 for the PlayStation 2 online will be completely free as long as you have the Network Adapter, which is a nice gesture on EA's part.

From the moment you start a game of Madden NFL 2003, some of the changes become immediately apparent. The pregame festivities have been changed drastically so that you'll now see players stretching as coaches bend down to whisper in their ear and the team's spiritual leaders pumping up other players on the team. The stadiums have been completely rebuilt, and the field textures have been redone to look much more realistic. Animation has also been reworked so that quarterbacks will now throw sidearm, gang tackles occur, and jukes for receivers are much more realistic. The animation routines for catches have also been improved. Despite these improvements, the game still looks predominantly the same as last year's outing. During extended play periods, the minute details will become more apparent, but on the surface, there's very little that has changed in the game's visuals.

Al Michaels has replaced Pat Summerall as the play-by-play commentator for this year's game, and EA Sports stated that his dialogue will be much more intelligent and situational. Only his pregame speech has been included so far, but we were able to hear him break down a matchup between the Rams and Patriots by stating that the two teams are well coached.

Like previous installments in the Madden franchise, Madden NFL 2003 is an incremental step above last year's game. There's a new drill mode, the PlayStation 2 version will support online play, and the franchise mode has received some additions, but the graphics basically look the same and the changes to the gameplay will only become apparent after extended play periods. Even so, the core of Madden has remained, which makes it one of the pigskin outings to look out for when it's released on all platforms later this year.

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