Isn’t it wonderful to see the Atari brand name up there in lights again, what with Infogrames having taken on the mantle of the famous label? It almost makes you feel like popping down the arcades with a pocket full of ten pees and indulging in a spot of Defender or Galaxian. Except of course these days you’d need pound coins and you’d be lucky to find anything but monstrous sit-in driving games and Dance Revolution 12000 or whatever it’s called.
Arcade reveries aside, it’s no surprise that Atari isn’t going retro and one of the first titles the company has picked up for the X-Box is Sega’s new but fast-improving “NFL 2K” franchise – that’s American Football for the uninitiated. The 2K3 edition features teams from the 2002 season, all new ESPN commentary, along with a sprawling, detailed franchise mode and X-Box Live support for multiplayer gaming.
The option set is extensive, with a sparkling new franchise campaign to get your shoulder pads into – more about that in a moment. It’s also possible to play one-off games, a single season, just the playoffs or a custom tournament, plus there’s a basic practice mode to work on running those plays.
Speaking of plays, each side has its own custom playbook which is realistically based on the team itself; an excellent touch. You can create your own players and teams too. The only option missing is an editor to actually create your own plays.
In the franchise mode you take control of a team, playing as coach, general manager and on the field. Issues such as college scouting, the draft, signing free agents, salary caps and contracts all have to be handled. When it comes to facets like evaluating player trades, the computer is at least reasonably competent, although sometimes tricked into giving too much away.
It’s an incredibly complete franchise experience, with excellent presentation backing it up, including a roundup of the week’s games, top-rated players and a “play of the week” highlight (although this is obviously scripted). The only real weakness here is the stats, which are inexplicably vastly inflated for the computer teams, though you can get round this by making them play shorter games than you.
The overall game presentation is excellent, with great sound, commentary and fantastic graphics. The players and their animation in particular are really quite stunning. The way they block and tackle is splendidly true to life and you get a strong flavour of realism from this, and the fact that the passing and running games are both very well simulated.
Some have accused NFL 2K3 of being overly arcade-like in its play resolution, but we disagree. It does actually play very closely to the real thing, with the only caveat being that yes, running backs can break too many tackles at times and it’s nigh on impossible to sack the computer’s QB. Be warned – this game is challenging to begin with, and playing on the middle difficulty setting is very testing (there’s quite a steep learning curve).
Those with little or no US footy knowledge may also find the formation and play-calling scheme overly confusing. Be sure to download the updated instruction booklet from the Sega Web site as this explains the terminology used a little more than the rather rubbish manual that ships with the game.
Finally, this is an X-Box Live game and you can play it online, download updated team rosters and take part in the “Sega Sports Score Challenge” (a large online high score table, basically). These extras are pretty neat and the actual online play was impressively lag-free in our experience (this was on a 512K ADSL connection). There’s a reasonable selection of options for one-off matches, but no online league play or anything that advanced. That’s promised for NFL 2K4.