NFL Fever 2002
Microsoft's PC football franchise, NFL Fever, has made its inaugural showing on the Xbox as a launch title. The PC versions in the past have had their ups and downs and, truth to be told, I have never been a fan of any of the sports games that Microsoft releases. Thankfully I have an open mind and am willing to keep giving them another chance because NFL Fever is one of the better console football games on the market, ranking right up there with the Madden series and NFL2K series from Sega.
In this day and age, it goes without saying but I will say it anyway; this game carries all the NFL licenses allowing for real players, real uniforms and real stadiums. The game also boasts a fairly deep franchise mode, great graphics and a few new innovations that help it along the way. While I did say it ranks up there with the other big boys, does it have what it takes to knock them from the top?
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Let's jump right into it. This is a pretty solid playing football game that is marred by a few minor annoyances that keep it from greatness. Let's start with the good and then work our way to the flaws. First of all, I really enjoyed the overall pace and flow of the game. The players have a good balance of believable physics and fun. You can't stop on a dime and make a cut back (ala NFL2K) and you won't feel like you are driving a 1968 Cadillac either (ala Madden). It is a nice blend of the two and it was rare that I felt like I got cheated because a player did something that was not physically possible.
Another area where the game shines is in the blocking AI. It is really quite spectacular watching the blocking open up holes for your running backs to exploit. Never before have I played a football game that really allows you to watch the blocking unfold in front of you (or break down) and then make your move. Other football games have decent blocking, but not this good. Even your receivers down field will lock up the defensive backs. It was just so satisfying to run a sweep, see my blockers in front of me and know that they were going to take out the approaching linebacker. Pretty damn cool.
The controls are fairly fluid and intuitive once you get the hang of them. You can pull of a number of different moves on both offense and defense. A nice feature shows an icon over the head of the player corresponding with the move you selected. For example, if you press the speed burst button, a little lightning icon appears over the player's head letting you know the command registered and your player was bursting. You also have your spin moves, shoulder charge, and jukes move on offense. On defense you have a swim move (which is really cool because if you try it and are unsuccessful, your player stumbles and slows you down for a few seconds), jump and turbo.
The passing game is both good and, well, too good (making it not so good). Execution of passing plays is very easy and if you have ever played a football game before, you will have no problems. It is the standard snap the ball and a button icon appears of the receiver's head. You press the button on your controller that corresponds to the receiver. Tap the button for a lazy pass; hold it down for a bullet pass. Where the problem comes up is in your passing efficiency. It is just too damn easy to complete passes and exploit defenses. If you crank up the game difficulty level, you will start throwing interceptions all over the place, making it frustrating. There is just not a good balance between receptions/interceptions/incompletions.
Another complaint shows up in the running game. I would regularly break off 10-15 yard runs and almost every game I would hit a 50-plus yarder. If this was a college game, it would not be as big of a problem but this is the pros. Runs of longer than 10 yards are rare in the NFL. I knew that all I had to do was hand the ball off and I could march down the field with relative ease. It also did not seem to matter who the running back was either. Even the lower tier backs had the same success.
The final complaint I had was more of a frustration than anything. The AI of the defensive backs was incredible on one play and then awful on another. Almost without fail, if I called a passing route where my receiver would go out, stop and come back to the quarterback, my defensive back would have a complete mental lapse. When the quarterback would throw the ball, the defensive back would be right in position to make the play. As the ball approached, he would run away, leaving the receiver wide open. I can't tell you how many times this happened.
In addition to the single player game, NFL Fever 2002 offers a fun set of multiplayer features. Everyone knows the fun in football really shows up when you beat your buddy's team on the field. Because the game is so easy to pick up and start playing, after a quarter or two of play beginning players won't feel outclassed, and after a couple of games they should feel right at home. This has always been a gripe I have had with other football games. They can be so complex or difficult, it is not a lot of fun for the person with limited experience. But the multiplayer fun doesn't end with head-to-head play. Up to four players can take the controls -- playing either on opposing teams in any combination or all four players can take on the computer. When two or more players take control of a team, one is selected as Quarterback -- he makes the play calls and has control over playfield views. The others can switch between any of the players on the field, taking on any role they want. This gives you the ability (with the help of your friends) to fix many of the computer AI shortcomings that I listed above. Overall, I found the head-to-head games much more competitive than the human vs. computer games and, for a real challenge, try taking on three friends -- you might beat them, but only if you're very good.
Graphics & Audio
This is one fine looking football game. The players are modeled off actual physical size. Linemen are huge while receivers are small. The player uniforms are very detailed and look great. Players' uniforms get dirty if you play on a rainy day. The running, passing, defending and tackling animations were also well done. The more you play, the more subtle things you will notice that make it stand out above the other football games on the market.
The audio was average. I was not overly impressed with the announcers but they were not bad either. The sound of the big hits was what I would expect. The players talking smack is getting old but it is kept to a minimum in this game. Overall, it gets the job done.
If you can get past the few flaws I mention above, you will find a really fun football game. Once I figured out the secret to passing, I would try to not call plays that exploited the AI because that was not much fun for me. The graphics are a great example of what the Xbox is capable of at this point in its life, which means we have a lot to look forward to in the coming years. If Microsoft addresses the few problems I've mentioned in next year's version, NFL Fever may take home the super bowl ring.