Talk about a screwy NFL Season, huh? If I turned to you before any games had been played and told you that San Diego would practically be undefeated this year, or that St. Louis would only have one win under their belts, you’d check to see if I was drunk or insane. Instead, the unpredictability of the season has proven a fallacy of a classic adage. While you may not want to fix what ain’t broke, you do have to perform a lot of maintenance during the off-season. Otherwise, you won’t have a chance at all during the regular season. The same can be said about sports game development, where coming up with hotter, newer improvements, game innovations and deeper realism as key to holding and maintaining the title’s audience. Sony and EA have fought this battle out continually over the past couple of years. NFL Gameday 2003 is 989 Studios’ latest attempt to gain the upper hand over their rival’s Madden series.
It’s customary with most sports titles to compare them to either their competition or the last year’s iteration; I’ve decided to go away from that in favor of comparing Gameday to its little brother, Gamebreaker 2003. The similarities that you’ll find are rather obvious: You have a number of modes that you can choose from, such as preseason, exhibition, or tournament (otherwise known as post-season) play. It also features the Play Editor mode to design and modify plays to your own personal preferences, allowing you to customize your offense and defense the way you feel it should operate.
While you may have been rolling tough with the kids in Gamebreaker, Gameday is where the big boys play. To that end, the largest component of Gamebreaker is the General Manager mode, which places you in charge of a team throughout its pre, regular and post season fate, as well as its off-season decisions. Essentially picking up where the Coaching Career mode from Gamebreaker leaves off, GM mode places you in charge of signing free agents, negotiating trades with other teams, and, of course, every owner’s largest nightmare, the salary cap.
Affecting this as well are player retirements for different reasons, such as injuries or age. Luckily, you can replace these guys with fresh blood by trades or with the draft, which can create new players or import the graduating senior class from Gamebreaker 2003 if you own that title. Of course, you’re not just going to fling rookies into the NFL without getting them a little training or assistance. Enter the combine, where you can send your new players in for experience in the big leagues, improve their stats, and see if your choices will make the grade. If, for some reason, you find one that happens to be a dud, you can release that guy and save your budget.
Of course, you may want to check out the online rosters before you act too hastily, because you may just need that kid to pull a star’s weight. Gameday features updates to the NFL rosters on a minute-by-minute basis. This includes newly negotiated trades, injured reserve lists, and retirements, so you’ll always have accurate information when you play your games. It also allows for accurate play conditions, so if inclement weather occurs, like rain, snow, or wind, you can get that information quickly downloaded to your system and experience the game as its actually happening. Easily set up, you can jump online, find a player with your approximate skill level, and be in the midst of a game within 5 minutes. Plus, if you’ve got a few minutes between games, you can check out their promotion section, which can update you on offers, contests or other deals that 989 is running, as well as communicate directly with the 989 Gameday team by sending them a message.
Graphically, Gameday is using the same engine or character modeling as Gamebreaker. The 3D character models are very articulated and detailed. Reflecting light from the stadiums off helmets or individual touches like visors, wristbands or gloves provide a deeper sense of realism. Additionally, Gameday features tons of individual animations for passing, catching and tackling. Over 600 individual animations are in the game, allowing everything from shoestring catches to wrap tackles. Similarly, each team’s home stadium is accurately modeled to recent designs. However, using Gamebreaker’s engine does have a few faults. You won’t find every little detail per stadium. For example, Tampa Bay doesn’t have its signature Buccaneer ship around the stadium. Similarly, the cutscenes are practically taken verbatim from Gamebreaker. They also seem to have been reduced in the animation department, making them seem less natural.
Sounds of the game are pretty accurate, with hits and smacks that can make you wince. You’ll also detect much more communication in this game than in Gamebreaker. Defensive players will call out different coverages, specific players to target, and, of course, sling a ton of smack. On top of all of this is the play-by-play from Dick Enberg and Dan Fouts, fresh from his Monday Night Football stint. Both do a good job of calling the game, providing accurate comments. This also carries over to the online games, although there is a slight lag in the commentary. However, there is a big mistake with the commentary, because there are times, especially after recent roster updates, that Dick or Dan will refer to a player by their number instead of their name. It’s understandable with college, where there are a ton of players to try to track and not all schools list names on the backs of jerseys. But considering the NFL is much smaller than all the schools in Division I, there shouldn’t be a problem to have the names of the current players on teams included. Plus, players will also call opponent’s names out before a play, creating an obvious inequity within play. Music also seems to take a slight hit in Gameday. For example, while there is music in the game itself, you’ll typically notice it on menu screens rather than in-game. The few stadium pieces of music that do play are rather short, quickly fading into the background only a few seconds after they were played.
Finally, the offensive bias that was found in Gamebreaker can also be found within Gameday, providing a very much harder task for players on defense. It’s entirely possible to take a wide receiver into double, even triple coverage and connect on a thirty to forty yard pass. Even with blitzes from some of the best players in the game can’t overcome this imbalance, as you can call a hot route or audible and avoid danger for a few more seconds. This isn’t counting additional max protection from your running backs. On the receiver side, the fact that the receivers have been given so many catch animations provides them with a distinct advantage, as they will more often than not make a catch that you’d be more likely to see on Sportcenter’s Play’s of the Day. However, this and other imbalances aside, Gameday provides a good playable experience of both the NFL as well as the day-to-day management of a football team. Additionally, solid online gameplay along with its constantly updated stats and rosters are a major advantage for Gameday, turning the game into every fantasy football players best dream come true.