Full Review: If the Super Bowl isn't enough to get you pumped up, GameDay's loading screen cheerleaders are sure to help you rise to the occasion (hell, even Scalzo won't bitch about THESE loading times with hotties like this).
If Sony's NFL GameDay series is known for anything, it's the fact that the game is a prime example that the video game business is largely a ?What have you done for me lately?? kind of business. In the early days of the PlayStation, GameDay was neck and neck with Madden NFL, at one point scaring EA Sports so badly with NFL GameDay '96 that EA scrapped the PSX and Saturn versions of Madden NFL '96 (created by?guess who? Visual Concepts) and took their game in a completely different direction. While the GameDay team slacked off in later years (no doubt due to the loss of many of the team behind the classic '96, '97, and '98 GameDay games), the games were still solid and kept Madden on their toes throughout the PlayStation era.
Yet, with the release of NFL GameDay 2001 on the PlayStation 2, all that was completely forgotten. GD 2001 was a wretched game that totally ruined the series and enabled EA to take the crown for best NFL game of 2000-2001. GameDay and 989 Sports became the laughing stock of the sports game genre, thanks to that horrid game of football. NFL GameDay 2002 was better, but lagged behind Madden, and now Sega's NFL 2K2 (a game of course designed by Visual Concepts?funny how the ?What goes around comes around? theory applies here too). This brings us to this year, and NFL GameDay 2003. While Madden and NFL 2K3 are flaunting their best versions of their games perhaps ever, GameDay simply needs to be a passable game that's worth at least playing. Somehow, GD 2003 manages to do so. While it's still not in the same league as EA or Sega's game, GameDay 2003 is a respectable game of football that might be a decent, lower priced alternative to the 2 leaders. The improvements here are drastic ? so much that I'd say that by GameDay 2004, the gap between all 3 football games will be much, much tighter. Finally, GameDay is back on track.
GameDay 2003 comes with all the trimmings ? basic exhibition and season modes, a fairly robust but not extremely deep General Manager (Franchise) mode, and of course, Online Play. Funny thing about online play ? the box claims that it's Broadband only, but you indeed can connect and play on a 56k connection. Cable or DSL is of course the stronger alternative, but narrowband users can play fairly lag free. Arguably, GameDay's online play is actually the most in-depth of all the football games on PS2. There's a ton of lobbies to pick from, and a pretty well laid out system for moving up the ranks. Besides playing actual games online, you can download roster updates ? 989 promises roster updates every Saturday, to keep the rosters as up to date as possible. The only problem I find with GameDay's online mode is not really a software problem ? it's the fact that there's so very little players out there on the GameDay network. All the years of driving the series into the ground obviously has killed any interest, as I've seen no more than 14 people online at one time (BTW, you can find me on GameDay occasionally under the name of adamgt, if you're one of those 14).
When in game online, it has a very cool thing that keeps you aware of your opponents connection. Instead of information on plays and such (since you can only see the formation of your opponent), it shows a connection meter that displays strength. For instance, the person I was playing had a very wavering connection (I believe he was on 56k) ? usually it would be about half, but a few times it got to a dangerous level where he could have been disconnected. Madden's dot system is a nice thing in the lobbies, but when in game GameDay's way of telling is a better touch.
Back in offline mode, GameDay still has plenty to offer if you aren't interested in going online. The GM mode lets you play out multiple seasons with drafts, free agency, and all the usual things you'd find in a respectable Franchise. It's bare bones in comparison to Madden or 2K3, but for those perhaps not interested in such a deep gameplay mode, it will be just what the doctor ordered.
Of course, none of this matters, as always, unless the game itself is worth playing. While GameDay's gameplay indeed has plenty of issues that can drag the game down, it definitely shows flashes of brilliance in rare moments. Off or online, GameDay 2003 has enough going for it that it's worth the time to play a season or 2 and see what the game is all about.
When on offense, GameDay can be fairly easy, but against stronger teams the game does get challenging. The running game is well executed but easy ? usually the linemen can create huge holes to bust 7 or 8 yards every time, even on the harder difficulty settings. However, the running game feels fairly realistic in this manner, because the game forces you to find the holes and exploit them. It's just that making it happen is a little too easy most of the time. A few times you'll get stuffed, but getting positive yardage on the ground is not very difficult.
The passing game is pretty well done too ? just somewhat erratic. I will admit it's nice to occasionally see a player come down with a catch in traffic (but not too often that it gets too easy), but too often a player will drop a pass wide open ? how often does that really happen? It happens, yes, but not constantly. What's cool is the game has probably the best realism value here ? errant passes not only are thrown too far ahead, or too far behind, but now they'll miss just inches away or the ball will go directly through the hands of a receiver. It's really well animated and done. It doesn't happen very often, but it happens enough, since most QB's fire some bad passes here and there.
Playing defense is one of the trouble areas here. The problem is, the computer AI can carve up your defense with little effort, especially when playing against a strong team. They aren't smart against the run game, which you can shut down pretty effectively, but against the pass they'll dominate. When playing some games, I found that stopping them on 3rd and 10 is impossible at times, because a wideout will catch a pass with 2 guys around him constantly. It's like my computer-controlled defenders are handcuffed almost all the time. It makes for some challenging contests, but sometimes it seems really unrealistic and cheap at times. This is one of the things 989 and Red Zone needs to work on for 2004, for sure.
Rarely do I mention the kicking game, since it's pretty much the same year after year from Madden and 2K, but GameDay comes out and tries something different here. And it works, once you get the hang of it, which is no small task. Instead of a power meter that you press a button at the right time to stop it, GD's meter makes you release the button at the right time. Plus, you have to line up the spot where the kicker will boot the ball ? if you want the ball to travel to the right, you kick the right side of the ball, and vice versa. Plus you need to kick the bottom of the ball for more height ? if you don't, you'll just squib it and possibly lead to an opposing score. There's definitely a bit more hands-on to kicking in GameDay (and GameBreaker at that), and that's never a bad thing. However, it is a little tough to get used to in games where the weather comes into effect (bad wind can create bad timing, like reality), but once you do, it's smooth sailing.
There's 2 issues in GameDay that reduce the score here ? penalties and playbook presentation. Penalties in this game are completely non-existent. As a matter of fact, the only penalties I've ever seen have been in online play ? playing against the computer, I've yet to see one in about a dozen games. No holding, no offsides, no false starts, no pass interference, nothing. No penalties either way for either team. That said, at least they don't call penalties after nearly every single kick, punt, or field goal try (I'm talking to you, Madden and NCAA 2003) ? but the lack of any penalties being called sorely hurts the realism of the game.
Finally, the play calling system desperately needs a revamp. The awkward and confusing GameDay system returns, and it's as bad as ever. Picking out formations and plays is a chore, and more often than not they aren't diagramed right. When picking defensive plays, since they prefer to name them with catchy names instead of ?zone? ?blitz? ?outs? ?cover? and those sorts, it's up to reading the play formations on the play page to see what and who does what. After a bit it becomes more bearable, but for the most part the play calling presentation needs major changes ? and more Madden-ish, with their simple 3 play presentation that's worked for years.
Keeping in line with the cautious improvements, GameDay 2003 has much improved graphics and animations. For the first time, the game actually feels like a PS2 football game that belongs ? even running at a constant 60 frames per second.
First off ? the stadiums are huge. I mean huge. Madden's and 2K3's look small in comparison, because GameDay's look great. The huge stadiums and fields create a more realistic looking game, simply because the field size also means there's more ground to cover in route to a first down, and it actually looks it. There's some flicker and some jagged edges in place, but on the whole the giant stadiums really make the game feel alive.
The players are well done with animations, but the players themselves look a little rough. Their faces almost look plastered on, even though you can see their mouths move and talk in pre-game and during the game. There's still some blocky feeling to each player, and the helmets look like the ones you get with the youth football jersey set (you know, the one that comes with the team football and fake jersey & plastic helmet).
When in motion, though, the players look fluid and excellent. Thanks to an exhaustive motion capturing session, the GameDay team managed hundreds of animations to create a game that looks different every time. There's a ton of tackling animations, blocking animations, and running animations, each looking great. Still, there's a lot of emphasis on tackles that send the guy with the ball flipping over like McMahon in Super Bowl XX, which isn't exactly a common tackle in the NFL. The gang-tackles look great though. If there's one thing GameDay has over the competition, it's the great animations ? it just needs more refinement in the actual player models.
The sound has never really been a problem in any GameDay, and 2003's version keeps that going. From the intense and stirring introduction to the game (easily the best introduction to a football game in ages), to the trash talking on the field, to the commentary, GameDay does a good job in the audio department.
The play-by-play team is a 3-man team ? legendary NBC and CBS announcer Dick Enberg handles PBP, while hall-of-famer and Monday Night Football outcast Dan Fouts does color analysis. The 3rd member of the team, Ian Eagle, is responsible for snippets of information about players, and also responsible for being a major dork. When imagining this team in the booth, I can only imagine Enberg holding up Eagle for Fouts to give him noogies and stealing his glasses while they call the game, because Eagle doesn't really talk, he just spouts off ?you're right Dan? after Fouts makes a remark about the play, and gets ignored the rest of the game. It's amusing, because Eagle is a freakin' basketball announcer, not a football announcer. Still, they do a great job of sounding like they're in the same booth, similar to NFL 2K3. It can get repetitive at times, but for the most part it's well done, even though Eagle is really out of place and pretty lame most of the game.
Other sounds like trash talking and crowd cheering/booing are done well, but nothing out of the ordinary. Then again, I was so amused by the GameDay PBP that I probably didn't notice. ?You're right Dan, you're 1 million times better than Elway, how many Super Bowls did that freak win anyway??
The most amazing thing about NFL GameDay 2003 is that the game is fun to play, despite the problems. Online is fun, offline is fun, the game itself is a pretty enjoyable experience. By no means is it as technically solid as Madden or 2K3, but GD is no slouch ? just a game that still has a ways to go in order to get some more respect. The improvements are huge, so any GameDay fans (yes, they do exist, somewhere) scared away by the last 2 PS2 games (the PSX versions are just GameDay 2000 with updated rosters, really) would do well to check out GameDay 2003. Madden and 2K3 are superior games ? but anyone looking for an alternative might find something to like with NFL GameDay 2003. Next year though, is anyone's guess.