Sega Sports' NCAA College Football 2K3 is an all-around solid game that offers the basic elements of the college football experience. So fans of the Sega Sports style of football gameplay should have a fun time with it, especially since it lets you execute traditional college plays like the option. But the game lacks the overall polish (particularly in some of the defensive AI routines) and attention to detail found in EA Sports' NCAA Football 2003, making it difficult to recommend over that game unless you're a die-hard Sega fan.
College Football 2K3 basically offers the same types of modes found in previous installments in the series. For instance, there's a practice option that allows you to pick a team and then run through some of the basic gameplay mechanics. If you want to work on some running skills (such as jukes, stiff-arms, or spins), then you can select the option to run around openly on the field. Likewise, if you want to familiarize yourself with a particular school's playbook, you can run plays without any defense, which is helpful for learning how to run an option play. After you've learned the different facets of the game, you can choose the full scrimmage option and play against a full defense, though you never have to worry about losing possession.
The exhibition mode lets you select two teams and jump right into a game. In the game's tournament mode, you can basically create your own brackets. So, for example, you can have an entire tournament featuring only Pac-10 teams. The season option gives you the chance to play through a single college season, in which you can attempt to earn an invitation to a bowl game or earn the prestigious Heisman Trophy for one of your players. But the real heart of NCAA College Football 2K3 is the legacy mode, which is the equivalent of EA Sports' dynasty mode, but not nearly as deep. In the legacy mode, you select a team and take it through a season. At the end of the season, the game will tell you which players are leaving (either due to graduation or progression into the pros), indicating that you need to fill these positions through recruiting. The recruiting aspect of NCAA 2K3 is really straightforward--you'll get a list of prospective players, along with their position, rating, and the schools they're currently interested in.
Obviously, if you're not one of the schools that a player is currently considering, then you have a much lower of chance of successfully recruiting that player. But you can attempt to persuade him by making visits during each of the five recruiting weeks, which increases your chances of securing that player. Similarly, players who are interested in your school can be brought on quickly if you make two or three visits. When you're done with recruiting, you can decide which players you want to keep and which players you want to cut, and from there, you can start the training process, which is interestingly executed. You'll have several different training categories that you can put training points into--the more training points you put into a particular exercise, the more training those specific players will receive. For example, if you want your quarterback and receivers to receive higher ratings, then you can sink all your training points into the passing drill. When you're all done, you can start another season and try to get to another bowl game.
The modes in NCAA 2K3 are pretty basic--in addition to practice, exhibition, and legacy, there's also a create-a-team option that lets you put together your alma mater's team, if it's not in the game's default lineup. The selection of modes in NCAA 2K3 doesn't offer the variety of NCAA 2003 selection, but the gameplay is still really good. As it is in the actual sport, the passing game can be quite difficult to use effectively in NCAA 2K3. The defensive backs generally do an excellent job of covering the receivers, forcing you to really look hard for an open man, or at least a receiver who has a step on his defender.
In addition, the speed of passes really plays a critical role. If you're throwing over the middle to a receiver running a short route, you can try to throw a bullet pass to get the ball to him quickly, but by doing so, you won't put much of an arc on the ball, so a linebacker or a defensive back has a much greater chance of swatting the ball down while it's en route. But you can change the speed and the arc of the pass by simply tapping the pass button, which causes the ball to float through the air. Obviously, you run a greater risk of having the ball intercepted, but since the AI has the tendency to swat down a majority of your bullet passes anyway, it's probably the best approach. It seems unforgiving at times, but you'll start to adjust once you learn to read defenses.
The same applies to the running game. When you begin playing, it might seem as though the defense has the unnatural ability to read all your run plays, but that really isn't the case. NCAA 2K3's running game is highly dependent on your ability to follow blockers, find holes, and, most importantly, improvise. If you see that a hole in the offensive line is being plugged by a linebacker, then you can just as easily change direction, search for another opening, and hope that you can get two or three yards out of it. This is especially important when running an option play, because you have to read the defense to get any sort of substantial gain in yardage. If you see linebackers pursuing the quarterback, then you should pitch it to the tailback, but if it doesn't look like the tailback has a clear path, then you can cut back and try to make a few moves up the field as the quarterback. Of course, you can always just pound the ball up the middle of the line, but the computer will punish you if you continually use those sorts of plays.
As previously mentioned, the AI on both sides of the ball is generally good, but there are a few instances in which it seems like there's no one behind the wheel. For instance, in one of our games, the computer opponent had the opportunity to attempt a 10-yard field goal in the final seconds of a quarter, but instead of calling a time out and sending the kicking unit out, the computer simply let the clock run down. Additionally, after a punt, the computer wouldn't down the ball. It simply waited for one of the players on the receiving team to pick it up and then subsequently tackled him. These aren't huge problems, but they show that NCAA 2K3 lacks some refinement.
Visually, NCAA 2K3 looks solid, but it's apparent that the development team used one of the older engines as opposed to the NFL 2K3 engine. The character models look detailed, but many of the player faces have an odd, flat look, almost as if the texture were simply painted onto a flat surface. In addition, while the stadiums have the same general look as their real-life counterparts, you'll see that there are some notable details missing in a few of them, such as the hills surrounding Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. Thankfully, though, the slowdown problems in the PlayStation 2 version are not quite as apparent in the Xbox version of the game.
The commentary in NCAA 2K3 is really natural and gives the game a broadcast-quality feel, but like in NCAA 2003, the commentators tend to use lines that are out of place. In addition, they tend to repeat themselves a little too often over the course of a game. The realistic stadium noise is also worth noting. If you're trying to go for the first down on fourth and long, the crowd (if you're the home team) will start to boo. Additionally, you'll hear a few fight songs after scoring a touchdown or at the beginning of game.
On its own merits, NCAA 2K3 has quite a bit to offer to the college football fan. The gameplay is well executed, the graphics are solid, and the commentary is done very well. Additionally, the legacy mode adds a significant amount of replay value to the game. But even when all these things are taken into consideration, NCAA 2K3 still doesn't quite reach the level of quality found in EA Sports' NCAA Football 2003, which offers more in-depth features and is an overall better representation of the college football experience.