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Madden NFL 2003 (Xbox)
MSRP: $49.99
Number of Players: 1-4
Developer: Tiburon
Publisher: Electronic Arts

Rating:
****1/2
out of
*****

Remember when the differences between one year's version of Madden and the next year's version were worth waiting for? For example, the upgrade from Madden NFL '98 to Madden NFL '99 that brought the game out of the darkness of sprite-based graphics was well worth the money. (Even though it followed in the footsteps of the once-proud NFL GameDay series by more than a year.) The update from the PSOne to the PlayStation 2 in 2000 was also well worth the price of admission. (If you don't factor in the cost of the PS2, that is.) Now, it seems that instead of pushing the hardware, the folks at Tiburon are playing catch-up with the new kids on the block, Visual Concepts and Sega.

Last year, the NFL 2K series came onto Electronic Arts' turf (the Xbox and the PS2) and surprised a lot of people by being very good despite a limited development schedule. The game made Madden's decrepit commentary and somewhat plodding pacing more noticeable and, in the process, raised hopes that this year's Madden would be the best yet. Well, to be blunt, ain't much changed in the land of Madden NFL.

Al Michaels now joins John Madden in calling the on-screen action. He replaces Pat Summerall who, of course, retired at the end of last season. One would hope this would mean that the commentary would be given a complete overhaul but, alas, the somewhat robotic commentary of years past is intact. Al Michaels' voice is nice to hear, but some of Madden's comments remain from last year's game (and earlier.)

The gameplay is also pretty much unchanged from last year. Supposedly improvements were made to the defensive schemes and the running game, but I'll be damned if I can find them. It does seem a lot easier to get burned while playing defense against the computer this year, so something must have changed -- although not for the better.

So, what's truly new? There's a new mini-camp mode that allows you to improve certain aspects of your game like pocket passing and following blockers. This is accomplished through the use of several mini-games that range from entertaining and fun to tedious and not really of much use. I will say that they're worth a look and might help newcomers to the Madden franchise get into the game a bit more. For those of us who've been playing Madden since the mid-1990's, they're a distraction at best.

Also new this season is a play creator which allows you to create your own offensive and defensive formations and use them. How useful or desirable this feature is to you will depend on how much free time you really have. With the actual games each taking over a half an hour -- even with five minute quarters -- you might not have time to tinker around with something that most feel isn't broken.

The meat and potatoes of Madden is the franchise mode. It's back this year and just as deep as ever. Spanning 30 years, you can draft, sign and manipulate your team's roster and coaching strategies in almost any way possible. You can now scout for rookies and, of course, you can still import players from EA's college football game, NCAA Football 2003. It's a couch potato football geek's dream!

One of the big features with the football videogames coming out in the fall of 2002 is online play. In some weird twist of fate, Electronic Arts blessed only the PlayStation 2 version of Madden NFL 2003 with an online play feature. If you want to play football against people on the Internet on your Xbox, you'll have to buy Sega Sports' NFL 2K3 or NFL Fever 2003. Way to go, EA!

One thing that might impress some people is the inclusion of a lot of actual, licensed songs from artists like Bon Jovi, Good Charlotte, Nappy Roots and Andrew W. K. These do add energy to the menus and the mini-camp mode. You'll also hear the songs as stadium music from time-to-time and that's a nice atmospheric touch. Some songs are always available and others have to be unlocked. The song variety is really good and it's good promotion for the bands and artists involved.

So, before you think I don't like Madden NFL 2003, let me just say that I do like it. I like it a lot. The problem is that I liked last year's version equally well. There's so little difference between this year's edition and last year's that I really have to stretch to say that the game warrants spending another $50.00, especially since there's no way to play it online. If you've only got an Xbox and you want to play online this fall when Xbox Live launches, then this isn't the football game for you. However, if you don't care about online play, then the game becomes much more desirable.

Madden NFL 2003 is a great football game, no doubt about it. Still, it's going to need a shot-in-the-arm of some kind to keep players coming back year-after-year. Essentially, when it all boils down to it, this is the same game as Madden NFL 2001, which was Madden's first foray onto next generation platforms. Roster updates, a few new additions to the franchise mode and the mini-camps may be as far as this incarnation can go.

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