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Playing with the Pros In a test of the latest NFL video games, most of which become more realistic with each new edition, SI's master of the control pad crowns a new champ

As part of a plot to keep men 35 and under from leaving home, NFL
video game makers have come up with a new feature: online gaming.
Many of this year's video games have that capability, so even if
you live in Boston and a buddy resides in Birmingham, it's
possible to play your pal without flying him into town and
watching him eat your chips and drink your soda.

As NFL video games have evolved, they've become more than just a
diversion--they've become a way to learn the strengths and
weaknesses of players. As a Cleveland Browns fan this reporter
wanted to see firsthand if running back William Green, the team's
first-round draft pick in April, has star quality. With that in
mind, I test-drove the new NFL games on the market to see how
they (and Green) performed.

NFL Fever 2003
(Microsoft), $49.99

Move aside Madden, there's a new champ in town. Virtually
everything about the Xbox game is outstanding, right down to the
green blades of grass. The game moves at a perfect pace--fast
enough to keep you on the edge of the couch, but not so fast that
a play is over before you know it started--and has superior
controls. For instance, the turbo button gives your player a
boost of energy that lasts only a second, and another button
allows a defender to execute a swim move, which is the most
realistic way of shedding blocks and pressuring the quarterback
that you can find in a video game.

There are a few minor complaints, most notably the way passing
buttons are assigned to receivers. In Madden, for instance, to
throw to a receiver on the far left, you press the button on the
left side of the control pad. In Fever the buttons are not always
assigned as such, so it's easy to throw the ball to an unintended
target. Or maybe that was just Tim Couch being Tim Couch.

William Green Report: Nitpick number 2: The Rookie Level of play
is too easy, and Green looked like Jim Brown in his prime. At a
more difficult level he performed admirably. Grade: A

Madden 2003
(EA Sports), $49.99

The dethroned champ is still solid. Now that its broadcaster
works for Monday Night Football, you get the MNF crew on the
audio, which is a plus. Finding fault with this game isn't
easy--but it's simply not as cool as NFL Fever. The players in
Madden look more like computer-generated characters than humans,
and the pace of play tends to be a touch quick.

Like Fever, Madden is loaded with features, such as G.M. mode (in
which you make personnel moves, draft players and hire coaches).
It also has a bevy of training drills, some of which are
head-scratchers. For instance, to participate in an exercise
called QB Pocket Presence, you hop in the Madden Cruiser for a
trip to Jacksonville and work out with Jaguars quarterback Mark
Brunell, who was sacked 57 times last year.

William Green Report: If the way he performed in Madden is any
indication of how he'll do in the pros, Green, who was slow
hitting the holes, was a wasted draft pick. Grade: A-

(Sega), $49.99

With graphics patterned after ESPN's telecasts, this game looks
like a broadcast by that network. There's not much wrong with
2K3, but it doesn't have anything Fever or Madden don't have. The
graphics are merely mediocre. The grass looks like a solid green
sheet, and the players aren't lifelike. In short, it looks like a
video game. What's worse, the Browns' defense kept lining up in
reverse order--Courtney Brown at right end instead of left end,
and so forth.

William Green Report: At best he was an average player. Grade: B-

NFL Blitz 2003
(Midway), $49.99

In this game you need 30 yards for a first down, there are no
penalties, and tackles look like outtakes from the WWE. But the
most noticeable difference between the video game and the real
one is if a player becomes hot, he literally bursts into flames.
When he's on fire, the player becomes faster, stronger and more
violent than usual. Silly, yes, but also amusing. (Note: This
game doesn't have the online feature.)

William Green Report: A flameout. When last seen, he was facedown
on the turf muttering, "I want to go home," after being suplexed
by a flaming defender from the Tennessee Titans. Grade: B-

NFL Gameday 2003
(989 Sports), $39

The opening of Gameday features a solemn voice delivering a
speech peppered with the phrase "great country" and culminates
with, "One country, one game, one goal: Emerge from the fight as
champions, as heroes for another day." This is followed by a
slide show of cheerleaders in poses that would be more
appropriate for Maxim. The game isn't much better. It's missing a
few basics, such as the ability to get an aerial view of the
routes the receivers run.

William Green Report: He backs up James Jackson, who is a
wrecking ball. In other words, the realism is low. Grade: C+







The College Grades
If you prefer campus life, there are a trio of college football
video games on the market. The quality of each is roughly on par
with its manufacturer's NFL game. All three college versions
feature every I-A team, but there are quirks that give each game
a unique feel.

NCAA Football 2003 (EA Sports, $49.99) is the best and has a cool
feature that allows you to build your own college team. I'm happy
to report that the Bechtel Technical Institute (Bech Tech) Bears
won their first game, a 20-17 thriller over Troy State. NCAA 2K3
(Sega, $49.99) is solid, with weekly writers' and coaches' polls,
and one of the best things about NCAA Gamebreaker 2003 (989
Sports, $39.99) is that it has Keith Jackson behind the mike.
Grades: NCAA Football 2003, A; 2K3, B; Gamebreaker, B-.