Madden NFL 2003's biggest attraction is the sheer number and depth of its different modes, which are complemented by really good, if slightly flawed, gameplay. The game not only offers an in-depth and overall excellent franchise mode, but it also has a series of minigames that you can compete in to gain access to Madden cards, a teaching mode, a situation mode, and an incredibly robust play editor that enables you to create just about any play imaginable. Madden NFL 2003 has plenty to offer, and fans of previous games in the series shouldn't think twice before picking it up.
If you're relatively knowledgeable about the sport of professional football, then you'll want to check out some of the customizable options, namely the playbook editor, before jumping into a game. Like with most other playbook editors, you can scour various playbooks from coaches around the league and pick plays that you'd like to add to your own repertoire, but this option also gives you the ability to create your own unique formation, and from that you can create an entirely new play. Basically, you'll be presented with a grid and a series of circles representing the players on the field. You can move the receiver, tight end, and running back circles almost anywhere on the grid, which gives you the opportunity to create some really weird-looking formations, but you can only move the quarterback in a line perpendicular to the center. In addition, you still need to have the proper number of players at the line of scrimmage, so there are some limitations put in to accommodate the rules. When you're done setting up the formation, you can go into the create-a-play option and decide whether it will be a running or a passing play. If it's a running play, then you can indicate which direction the running back has to go and indicate blocking assignments for offensive linemen and receivers. Conversely, if you're creating a passing play, you can either use one of the preset routes (such as a post, a streak, or a curl) or create your own route--needless to say, you can create some pretty crazy routes that will undoubtedly make things difficult for the computer- or human-controlled opponent playing zone coverage. Finally, you can test the play and make any final adjustments before integrating it into your playbook. The defensive play editor is almost identical--it lets you make your own formations and place defensive players just about anywhere on the grid. Other editable options include the ability to make your own team and players and to adjust rosters before starting the game.
As with any football game, the heart of Madden NFL 2003 is its franchise mode, in which you can take a team through numerous NFL seasons while trying to get to the Super Bowl every year. After you select your team, you can go through the roster and switch players around or just look at some statistics to see who some of your better players are. You can also make changes to your coaching options by selecting a primary defense type, as well as your preference for offensive and defensive strategies. In addition, there's a league news section where you can find out about all the latest transactions or injuries that have occurred over the course of the season. Making trades, signing free agents, and other such front-office duties are a pretty straightforward affair--you can trade up to three players at once, offer contracts to free agents, release players, or re-sign players and extend their contracts. When you attempt to sign a free agent, you'll receive comments from that player's agent explaining what the player wants, whether it's a long-term contract or money. These agents are pretty staunch individuals, and they tend not to give in unless you meet a player's demands, but of course, you always need to keep the salary cap in mind when making trades or other transactions, otherwise you could end up hurting your franchise down the line.
Naturally, the franchise mode starts with the preseason, which is actually a valuable period in Madden NFL 2003 because it gives you a chance to develop some of your players' skills, particularly those of your rookies. At the end of the preseason, you'll have a chance to see if any of your players have developed and what areas they've developed in, such as speed and strength. You can then go through the full season and attempt to make your way to the Super Bowl.
In the off-season, there are several duties you'll need to take care of. First, you have to see which players are retiring and then adjust your rookie scouting accordingly so that you can fill the position with an adequate player as quickly as possible. The scouting in Madden NFL 2003 is handled pretty well--you'll be given a big list of rookies and a limit on the number of players you can actually scout, so you have to make some wise selections based on the projected round that the player will be drafted in. After you've made your selections, you'll get some basic physical information on the player, such as his 40-yard dash time, and have an opportunity to schedule additional scouting sessions with the players you've selected.
Next, you'll have to re-sign players and go after any potential key free agents that might be available, before entering the draft. The NFL draft lets you go after any rookies that have the potential to be great players in the NFL, and in Madden 2003, you'll be able to look at a list of all the rookies and a list of the rookies you've scouted, both of which can be sorted by position. After several rounds, the draft will end and you'll then have the option to sign any of the rookies you've drafted, but like with free agency, a player's agent won't necessarily give in to your initial offer, so you might have to negotiate a little before signing that key rookie. When you're done with the signings, you can reorder the roster and start yet another season.
The franchise mode is probably where you'll spend most of your time in Madden NFL 2003, but there are several other gameplay modes to choose from, one of which is the incredibly fun minicamp. This mode is essentially a collection of minigames spread out over different NFL camp facilities across the country. You can participate in a variety of different drills, ranging from pocket presence (in which you have to avoid tennis balls being shot at you while staying in a small circle and complete a pass to a dummy receiver) to linebacker chase and tackle, where you have to tackle a running back as he makes his way up through a line of moving blocking dummies. In addition, upon completing the minigame, you'll be moved into a game situation that mimics the skills taught in the minigame. This mode is incredibly fun and can be quite challenging, but the fact that you can gain points to unlock Madden cards (which can unlock secret teams and options) provides enough incentive.
Another interesting mode in Madden NFL 2003 is football 101. In this mode, you can pick just about any play and have John Madden explain the formation and what coaches typically use it for. In addition, he'll break down the play and show how the defense is supposed to be pulled apart in order to make the play successful, whether it's a pass or a run. Madden shares quite a bit of insight into the sport (so much that it makes his game commentary seem weak by comparison), and casual fans may actually find it interesting to see firsthand what makes football such a strategic sport.
The practice, situation, and two-minute drills are also helpful for brushing up on your skills and getting to learn the different elements of Madden NFL 2003's gameplay, which is still based on the momentum system seen in previous games in the series. Essentially, if you're holding down the turbo button, the player has more speed but less maneuverability, which makes basic cuts a little more difficult to execute. However, this isn't a huge issue since you can ease off the turbo to make a sharp cut, or you can use a juke maneuver, but Madden NFL 2003's biggest problem is somewhat related.
While the running game is pretty solid overall, it does have a few lingering problems, the most apparent of which is line blocking, or the lack thereof. Even with a high-powered offense, it seems like your offensive line is rarely capable of clearing a large enough hole in the defensive line that you can run through and not collide with any of your teammates. It's incredibly frustrating that your running back will get caught behind a lineman or just make enough contact so that it slows your momentum to the point where a linebacker can come up and hit you out of your shoes. Speaking of linebackers, on any sort of toss running play, the linebackers seemingly get a ridiculous boost in speed as they charge down the line and tackle you at the line of scrimmage, even though it looked like you could get a 3- or 5-yard run just a few moments before. These sorts of situation don't happen so much that it makes the game significantly less enjoyable, but these areas could have used a little more refinement.
For the most part, the passing game is really good. You can throw a lob or a bullet pass to a player depending on whether you press or hold down the passing button, which is actually crucial in timing your passes properly. One of things you'll learn in the football 101 mode is that you need to hit your receivers at a specific point and not just wait around and hope they get open before the defensive line comes crashing down on you. For example, if your receiver is running a post play, you'll learn that you need to throw the ball precisely at the point that he makes his cut toward the sidelines. Likewise, you'll have to learn how zone defenses work and how receivers can be used to pull the defense out so that it's just man-on-man coverage, which significantly increases your chances of getting a complete pass. The only noticeable problem with the passing game is that the out passing route (where a receiver makes a sudden cut to the sideline) is still a little too reliable for getting those 6 or 7 yards in a pinch.
But the defensive AI has been improved, so it's not quite as bad as in previous Madden games. Cornerbacks are now much more adept at stepping into passing lanes and knocking down passes (particularly on shorter routes), and the zone coverage operates much as it does in real life, with the safety coming over to help if any of the other defensive backs get beat down the field. Blitzes are handled quite well--you won't necessarily get burned by running one, but the offense will gain a significant number of yards if they execute the play in time. Still, it's incredibly satisfying to have a blitz work on a running play as the linebacker shoots down the line of scrimmage and takes the running back down. Tackling can be a tricky proposition at times since your tackle is dependent on speed and where you make contact with the opposing player, so you can expect to see the computer shake off one or two before you get comfortable with the system. There are also some moments, such as during kickoffs or punt returns, when an AI-controlled opponent will be within a foot of your player and not tackle him, which is somewhat surprising given how good the AI is in other areas of the game.
Visually, Madden NFL 2003 on the Xbox looks quite good, but there isn't a significant change over last year's game. All of the player models are properly scaled, the stadiums look excellent, and there's plenty of sideline detail, but the faces on the player models still have that generic look. It looks as though EA tried to give some key players distinguishing features, but you still wouldn't be able to recognize them without the jersey number. On the other hand, the animation for these players is excellent, and just about every movement flows well into the next.
There's quite a variety of sound in the game. The commentary is improved over previous versions of Madden, thanks to the introduction of Monday Night Football commentator Al Michaels, who seems much more lively than his predecessor, Pat Summerall. Madden's commentary has also seemingly expanded, and he tends to speak a little more about certain types of plays, but there are a succession of plays where he says almost nothing, and the interaction between the two commentators just isn't there. The soundtrack for the game is very good. It includes music from artists like Andrew WK and even a new track from Bon Jovi--all of which fits pretty well with the theme of the game.
Madden NFL 2003's abundance of modes and the amount of detail in them are sure to keep you busy for quite some time. But the few minor issues in the gameplay and the fact that it has the same general look as last year's game really prevent it from taking the crown in this year's football race, though it's still certainly one of the best football games out there.