Net Gains

This season's crop of video football games includes an option for online action

September 19, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

Stars like Tom Brady, Marshall Faullk and Jamal Lewis have returned to television sets across America -- and not just in real life. We're talking about the latest console video games that put the all 32 NFL teams in the hands of armchair quarterbacks.

This season's video football lineup is solid, with several contenders for the best football experience. To enhance the game even futher, players will be able to meet and compete online for the first time.

Microsoft has begun a beta test of its Xbox Live online system with Microsoft NFL Fever 2003. The service will go live in November. Meanwhile, Sony PlayStation 2 owners can go online now with EA Sports' Madden NFL 2003 and 989 Sports NFL GameDay 2003. Sega Sports NFL 2K3 will also be online with the PS 2 and Xbox titles this fall.

You'll need ethernet/modem adapters for each system to play on line.

Besides the enjoyment of playing human opponents who live too far away to drop by your house for a game, online play adds the real-time update factor. If an injury forces a player onto the disabled list, online gamers can update team rosters and play on in a more realistic universe.

Even if you're just playing your buddies offline, you'll be pleased with the improvements in graphics, game play and the number of play modes available in this year's titles. If you haven't tried one, football games as a genre tend to be more inviting to new gamers by offering practice and pre-season modes.

Before you buy any of the games reviewed here, our advice is to rent it first and play it for a couple of hours -- the competition is that close. That said, here's what we found on this year's roster:

Madden NFL 2003 (EA Sports, $39 for the Xbox, PC, PlayStation2, Nintendo GameCube and Gabe boy)--This perennial favorite barely edges Sega's NFL 2K3 for football fanatic interest. What really makes Madden stand out is that it satisfies visually while providing the kind of depth that makes for layered strategy.

Faster game play, new spin moves and about 300 redrawn player faces have spiffed up the graphic realism. I also liked being able to create custom plays and drafting a class from EA Sports' NCAA Football 2003 at the end of a season.

For rookies, Madden also offers a feature called "Football 101," in which the former coach explains in layman's terms what's going on in each of the plays. In fact, Madden will be using the game to break down plays on ABC's Monday Night Football.

The big man's bombastic performance on play-by-play still entertains. Color commentator Al Michaels replaces Pat Summerall this year.

NFL 2K3 (Sega, $49.99 for Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube) -- This game looks better than last year's edition of the game and plays better as well. Its fluid movement and even more realistic players look better than those in Madden, although all of the players do seem to be the same size.

Sega's branding arrangement with ESPN brings a nice slice of reality to this offering. The announcers are generic, but that's okay, because they're not nearly as repetitive as the voices of real announcers in other games. On replays, you can see the quarterback and receiver on split screen -- just like on ESPN.

Along with standard play modes (practice, game, etc.) you'll find a curiosity called Situation Mode in which you set up a game scenario -- you determine the line of scrimmage, time on the clock and the down, among other things -- and play out the rest of the game.

While my style of play favors passing, running enthusiasts will also enjoy NFL 2K3 , thanks to the ease of the controls. Leaps by the running backs over fallen players are a nice touch.

NFL Fever 2003 (Microsoft, $49.99, Xbox) -- Microsoft's premier sports title looks only slightly better than last year -- which means it's still fantastic. But if you have Fever 2002, you may want to try out one of the other games this time around, because the new relase doesn't make enormous leaps in game play. The best reason for current owners to buy Fever 2003 is to try online gaming.

For newcomers, Microsoft pours on the visual realism with foo steps in snow, great lighting effects and good-looking players. In fact, fever has the best graphics of the three top NFL simulations. I also believe Fever is easier to play than Madden or NFL 2K3, with simpler controller movements. You might say this is as close to arcade-play as you want in a simulation.

Kevin Calabro and Ron Pitts are the commentators. They quickly begin to sound repetitive.

NFL GameDay 2003 (989 Sports, $39.95, PlayStation, PSOne and PS2) -- For a change, I pulled out my PSOne (the portable versoin of the original PlayStation) and found this title to be the only disappointment in the group.

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