Whether you're a hard-core football fan or a casual follower of the sport, you'll find that NFL 2K3 delivers nearly every aspect of professional football flawlessly. The game offers several different modes to choose from, including a revamped franchise mode and the Sega Sports challenge, which allows you to have your stats ranked against those of other players from across the country. Aside from a few very minor gripes, the gameplay is also incredibly balanced, and the introduction of the ESPN license gives the game a better overall presentation and feel.
There are several modes to choose from in NFL 2K3. You can jump right into a game by choosing the quick game option or the exhibition option (you can also play as dozens of classic teams in these modes). Likewise, you can create your own tournament with up to 16 teams, or immediately jump into a playoff situation. There's also a practice mode that will help you become familiar with the fundamentals of NFL 2K3's gameplay. You can practice special moves while running with the ball, practice plays in your team's playbook with no defense, or hold a full scrimmage with a randomly selected defense, which is helpful since it essentially replicates a game-time situation and gives you a chance to get a feel for your team's strengths and weaknesses. In the Sega Sports challenge mode, you play games on default rules and options settings and then receive a password that corresponds to the stats you put up in each game. You can then use that password on segasports.com to rank yourself against other players and their statistics. It's not quite a full substitute for the Xbox Live feature, which currently doesn't work, but it does draw on the same sense of competition.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing options is the situation mode, which lets you edit everything from the score and the amount of time left on the clock to the line of scrimmage. So, for example, you could set up a game so it starts in the fourth quarter with two minutes remaining, and your team has the ball but it's losing by six points. You can create just about any scenario with this feature, and it can present quite a challenge for even veteran players, but if you're looking for something with a little more depth, then you'll find it in NFL 2K3's season mode.
The season mode lets you take a team through a single season of football and the playoffs. Along the way, you can set and tweak your roster, release players, and engage in trades. You can view any injuries that occur over the course of the season and adjust your roster as necessary. The season mode also provides you with a number of coaching-related options. In the coach game plan, you can place an emphasis on particular types of plays, so you can have your defense focus on blitzing or have your offense lean toward running. In addition, you can edit your team's playbook by searching through other teams' formations and plays and selecting the ones you want to add. Of course, most teams already have a large number of plays to choose from, but there may be a few occasions when it seems like your team doesn't have a play that's suited to its particular strengths or a specific situation. The season mode can be quite fun for those who don't necessarily want to get involved in the deeper layers of the sport, but those who do enjoy those deeper layers will undoubtedly be impressed by NFL 2K3's franchise mode.
Before you even dive into the franchise mode, there are a few customizable options to mess around with. You can decide whether or not to have a preseason, a trade deadline, or a fantasy draft, and you can also decide if the computer should handle drafting, re-signing, and other contractual dealings--though, part of what makes the franchise mode so entertaining is being able to handle such things yourself. In addition, you can create an entirely new league by moving teams into different divisions and importing players from NCAA 2K3. When you've set these parameters, you can then select your team and edit the coach's name and physical appearance.
From there, you're brought into an office area, which serves as your team's headquarters. This is where you can monitor upcoming games in the season, adjust your roster, look at injury reports, edit the playbook, and take care of other general coaching duties. If you select the front office option, you'll be sent to an entirely different office area where all the behind-the-scenes work is done. You can view the current status of individual player contracts and then choose to release players, renegotiate contracts, initiate trades, or put players on the trading block.
Trades are a fairly straightforward affair in NFL 2K3, as you can select up to three players at once and offer them to another team. The other team will decline your offer if it doesn't think the trade is fair, but you can continually badger it by offering different players. The trading block option is separate from the main trade feature, but it's probably the more useful of the two. Essentially, you can put any player you want on the trading block, indicating to other teams that this particular player is up for grabs and that any team can make an offer for him over the course of the season. The trading block is useful if you have a high-salary player who sits on the bench, but usually, teams will make counteroffers, asking you for another player before going through with the trade. If you're not sure which positions you have needs in, the front office has a team needs option that basically tells you how many players you have at each position and how many you actually need. For example, the 49ers have five quarterbacks in NFL 2K3, but you only need four, so you can either release that extra quarterback or attempt to make a trade. Lastly, you can also keep track of a huge number of statistics, including team, individual, and rookie stats.
There's just as much to do during the off-season as there is during the season. You'll have to jump back into the office and make roster adjustments to compensate for players who might've retired, renegotiate expired contracts, sign free agents, evaluate trades, and release players. More importantly, you'll also have to prepare for the draft. NFL 2K3 gives you a brief look at rookies and their abilities before the start of the draft, but to get a better idea of their skills, you'll have to participate in the NFL combine. In this mode, you'll have access to a list of the rookies who will be in the upcoming NFL draft, as well as some of their basic physical statistics, such as their 40 time and jumping ability. To get more information on these players, you have to devote scouting hours to them. Since there are only a certain number of hours in each day of the combine, you can either sink three or so hours into a few players to get a detailed rundown of their abilities, or you can just use a single hour for several players to get a general idea of where they are. The reports you receive will specify what the rookies' strengths and weaknesses are and what skills they'll be able to improve. When the combine is finished, it's time for the draft, but before you jump into it, you can hold a mock draft to get a general idea of how teams will select certain players so you can adjust your strategy as necessary. At the draft, you'll get to see which players have already been selected and which players are currently available. In addition, you'll be provided with a list of the players you've scouted on a separate screen and a number of suggested picks on a PDA located on the desk in the draft center. Finally, you'll have to sign any players you've picked up in the draft, make final roster adjustments, and then start the next season. Needless to say, NFL 2K3's franchise mode is pretty deep, and it will undoubtedly keep you busy for hours on end.
Of course, NFL 2K3's gameplay isn't exactly a slouch either, as it offers some of the most balanced football gameplay to date. The running game in NFL 2K3 is excellent, and the running backs are easy to control and have a nice assortment of moves, including jukes and stiff-arms. In addition, when you're running the ball through the line, your running back will turn his torso slightly so he can slip past his blockers and the defensive line, which almost solves the problem of not being able to get by the linemen in most previous football games. Similarly, if a defender or a member of your team falls to the ground, your running back can leap over him and pick up a few additional yards. The run blocking is also excellent, as the fullback and guards will almost always pick up the linebackers or any linemen who happen to break through the line.
Passing the ball in NFL 2K3 can be difficult at first because of the excellent defensive back AI, but you'll start to adjust once you learn how to read defenses and get the timing down. In fact, timing is a crucial aspect when the defense is playing zone, as you have to throw the ball when the defensive backs are switching up coverage. For example, when the cornerback lets his man go because he thinks the safety is coming over to help, you'll see a perfect opportunity to throw a midrange strike. Likewise, for shorter passes, the key is to throw the ball quickly before any of the defensive backs or linebackers pick your receiver up in the zone. The only annoying aspect about the passing game (and perhaps NFL 2K3's biggest problem) is the defensive backs' propensity to time tackles perfectly so your receiver can't hold on to the ball--just when you think you have a completion, a safety will come running in and hit the receiver the second the ball makes contact with his hands. Of course, this encourages you to look for receivers who are a little more open, but it happens so frequently that it seems a little unfair at times.
Otherwise, you'll find that the defensive game is almost as balanced as the offense. Linebackers will sit back in passing lanes and knock the ball down or make key interceptions, and as previously mentioned, the safeties will actually come over and help cover or assist in tackles, much as they do in the NFL. However, blitzes seem to be a little unbalanced. Obviously, a defense running a blitz should be punished if the quarterback can get a pass off to open receiver in time, but to have the offense burn you for a touchdown almost every time on a quick pass play seems a little unfair, especially considering that the blitz has become an integral part of quite a few defensive schemes in the NFL. Still, it's not as bad as it may seem, since you can call an audible if it looks like the offense has the potential to get the ball off on time, or you can shift the defense around to attack the line if it looks like a run play.
The Xbox version of NFL 2K3 is probably the best looking of the three versions. Everything looks incredibly sharp, and the special effects (such as the reflective surfaces on the helmets and the bump mapping) are especially pronounced. The player models are incredibly detailed and can be easily identified by their faces. Some really nice facial animations have also been added, and they give some much-needed life to the players. Generally, the animation in NFL 2K3 is great, but there are some elements, particularly the animations for player injuries, that could have used some more transitional animations. The stadiums look equally good and are accurate representations of their real-life counterparts.
NFL 2K3 also features incredibly high-quality commentary that sounds quite natural and flows really well. The commentators will even go so far as to talk about what's been happening in the game, and the only time commentary is consistently recycled is in the introductory sequences and the presentation of the defensive and offensive lineups at the start of each game. Both members of the commentary team provide nice insight into the game and generally seem to be enjoying themselves, which helps make the commentary seem more authentic. The stadium noise is pretty generic, with the usual chants and crowd noise, but there's some pretty good chatter between players.
There's very little, if anything, to really complain about in NFL 2K3. The graphics look great, the commentary is interesting and sounds natural, and, most importantly, the game features balanced offensive and defensive gameplay that does an excellent job of mimicking the nuances of the actual sport. In addition, the ESPN license has gone a long way toward giving the game some personality. You'll be treated to the ESPN-style presentation, complete with split-screen replays and music from ESPN programming, which simply tops off an incredible game that any football fan would do well to buy.