Here we go. The videogame industry has unleashed two new gaming consoles in the same week. The Xbox and Gamecube were released to the delight of gamers everywhere, and the Xbox got out of the chutes early with an initial batch of sports games. Among the most anticipated titles is Microsoft's own NFL Fever 2002. Sure it may be a bit late in the NFL season, but football fans are always in the mood for some gridiron action.
Right off the bat you'll notice something a little different about Fever. The game is hard to classify as a full blown simulation in the Madden vain or as an arcade disciple of games like Blitz. It rests somewhere in a purgatorial limbo, straddling the two extremes. The back of the game box touts its attributes, including the fact that it contains the attitude, impact, and intelligence of real NFL football. Them's strong words. With such lofty ambition, the question is whether the new kid on the block can unseat either of the two football frontrunners, Madden or the NFL2K franchises.
Presentation/Graphics : 85
First generation titles are always difficult to judge as you know that future titles will always look better as programmers become more adept with the hardware. With that said, Fever looks nice, though the first generation titles show little difference between the Xbox and the current generation of Playstation 2 titles. Yes the graphics are better, but they are nowhere near the jump seen going from the the PSX or N64 to the first next gen console (that's the Dreamcast for those of you who skipped one of the best consoles ever). The graphics are simply appealing. The players aren't lifelike, but the player models are detailed.
Thanks to the advanced texturing capabilities of the Xbox, player uniforms have a more natural look, approaching the realistic sheen of polyester fabric. The contour of thigh pads penetrate nicely through pants, and helmets have nice reflective qualities. The players themselves come in a variety of sizes. Unfortunately there isn't enough diversity in some of the players. Offensive linemen all look like they've spent too much time at the buffet line, and running backs are often the same stature. Regarding stadiums, without a doubt grass fields have never been better looking. Again, you can thank the texturing characteristics of the Xbox for such a nice looking field. When playing outdoors in the snow, the snow-covered field slowly loses the white patches as players leave footprints. Unfortunately, artificial turf actually looks more like a grass field than the carpet it is. In all stadiums, the animated crowd adds some atmosphere to the game.
The animations in the game are many, though I felt the diversity was lacking compared to games like Madden or the NFL2K series. Tackles seem to be either smacks or wraps. I have yet to see bone jarring tackles that pop the helmet off. One definite problem area that is graphics related is the playcalling screen. Offensively there's no big issue, but defensively you can't tell what the heck your players are doing. Zone defenses have green lines pointing to a section of the field, and the lines for corners and linebackers often intersect. What results is a blinding mess of green.
The camera angles are diverse in the game. There are nearly a dozen standard camera views, and if you can't find one to your liking, there's always an option to specify your own zoom, angle, and height. While great in concept, I still had difficulty settling in on the perfect camera. Defensively I had no problem, but on offense I was always struggling with the camera views. When passing to receivers on out patterns, they'd often go off screen and I'd throw to their area blindly. If I zoomed the camera out to view them, I'd lose valuable close views for the running game.
Presentation/Audio : 80
The commentary in Fever is provided by Dick Stockton, Ron Pitts, and Randy Rowland. For the most part, the running audio stream consists of play by play with occasional color. The color is limited, which is a slight downer, but the play-by-play is consistently on target. The only fault is that the commentary sometimes gets fragmented by Stockton unnaturally inserting player names into a canned speech. The stadium sounds add a degree of realism to the game. After good plays by the home team you'll often hear some popular stadium tunes in an effort to hype the crowd.
Interface/Options : 60
Fever comes with the usual football modes of single game or practice play. In addition, the Dynasty mode provides the gamer with full control of the team over several seasons. This includes controlling the action on the field as well as management decisions. Finally, a Fantasy Challenge mode pits you against fictitious teams that get progressively more difficult.
Sim fans will be disappointed by the lack of tuning options for the game. The AI and gameplay options are restricted to penalties being turned on or off, an injury toggle, difficulty setting, fatigue, and the like. Remarkably there's no option to set the quarter length for the season or Fantasy mode. You are restricted to 5-minute quarters. Furthermore, fatigue is a non-issue. Not once did I see a player get substituted for fatigue, and his fatigue meter was always displaying a fresh status. Don't expect to find any sliders like in Madden to tune things like secondary awareness or running back effectiveness. Fever is bare bones.
The poor pool of options carries over to the playcalling section of the game. On offense, there's a decent assortment of plays, but they are the same plays for every team. The lack of team specific playbooks is a killer in the sim world. On defense, the playbooks are impossible to figure out. Plays carry crazy names that are impossible to remember. Even worse is the lack of decent secondary sets. Zone coverage seems busted, and the game has the fatal flaw of not including a prevent defense.
The offseason moves in the dynasty mode aren't as good as Madden, but for the first in the console series it's a good start. You have control of trades and drafts, but player signings aren't as detailed as Madden. One of the nice features of the game is that player attributes can change from year to year and even from game to game.
Gameplay : 60
Here's where a little personal bias comes into play. I've played various editions of NFL Blitz on a variety of consoles, and frankly the octane boosted arcade action is not my cup of tea. I'm a huge fan of the Madden, NCAA, and NFL2K series. Even Visual Concepts' attempt at college football was a hit with me. The VC products bring a game that's a nice mix of arcade and sim, whereas the EA products try to hit the sim community right in the face. After your first series of downs you'll realize Fever is a blend of arcade and sim. Unfortunately, the game fails at both.
For the positive, you need to look no further than the offensive game. The running game is a blast. The shoulder charge button in the game adds just the right amount of power to the running back. Furthermore, there are plenty of running sets with pulling guards, counter plays, and the like. The control of the runner is more along the lines of the NFL2K series rather than the exaggerated momentum based Madden. Players have the ability to cut better, and the trigger buttons of the Xbox controller are perfect for jukes. Unfortunately, the passing game isn't nearly as good as the run game. You can't control the type of pass in the game. It doesn't matter if you tap the pass button or hold it indefinitely. Pass velocities and trajectories seem pre-determined. You'll find more than your fair share of lobs that seem like they take forever to fall from the sky. In addition, passes lead receivers too much. On fly routes, a pass can be projected 20 yards in front of a receiver, and the receiver will easily catch up to it (often leaving the DB in the dust). On out patterns where a player makes a cut at the hash mark, the QB often targets the pass at the sideline. As soon as the player makes a cut after 10 yards, the pass is nearly at the sideline. And of course the receiver catches up.
But offense is only half of the game. In the other half, Fever behaves like its name. The game is sickening in its flaws. The line and linebacker play is OK, but the secondary is the pits. On offense you can find plenty of holes in the secondary and exploit single and double coverage. On defense, you get frustrated as the CPU routinely completes 80 percent or more of the passes. One problem is that players seem to defend the receiver's area rather than attack the ball. CBs and safeties often play behind the receiver, and if a pass is short, they will simply stop behind the receiver and wait until the ball gets to him. They simply don't attack the ball enough. Contrast this with the DB play of Madden where outstretched arms often greet every pass. In man coverage defenders often give up on their assignment and chase someone else. To help mitigate the problems in the secondary, I figured I could use the same technique that I use with the EA and VC games. I like to take control of the defender just before the pass gets to the receiver. Well, in Fever 9 times out of 10 the defender runs away from the receiver as soon as I switch to him.
The same switching problems manifest themselves in run defense as well. If you tap the switch player button, the player often cuts in a non-anticipated direction. In addition, it seems like the wrong player is selected at least a quarter of the time. Rather than getting the player closest to the ball carrier or a receiver, you get some other guy yards away from the action.
Still, the gameplay has some bright spots. The CPU playcalling is diverse. The CPU has run a few reverses on me as well as a couple of flea flickers. It also seems keen on when to go for the PAT or pound it in for 2 after a touchdown. I was down to the CPU 15-0 after a touchdown and the CPU rubbed it in by going for 2. But in the end, the defensive game just kills the enjoyment. If you can deal with unrealistic pass completion percentages than go for it. I found I could get more realistic CPU pass stats on the rookie setting, but then the CPU defense was a patsy. If I want a challenge on offense, I have to bump up the difficulty, but as soon as I do, the flaky secondary AI rears its ugly head. Give me AI sliders or give me death.
Replay Value : 60
Admittedly, I did get some enjoyment from Fever, but it has been short-lived. When I lose a game in Fever I curse the game for feeling cheated by lousy AI programming. If I lose in Madden, I know it's because EA did such a fine job with Madden 2002's AI. There's simply no comparison. While I like arcade action in a football game, it must be accompanied by a solid AI foundation. NFL Fever 2002 unfortunately lacks that foundation, and there's already another football game for the Xbox that's better.
Overall : 67
NFL Fever 2002 came so close to being a good game. But like many of the also-rans, it failed primarily to the questionable secondary AI. There are some bright spots in the game. The graphics, running game, and CPU playcalling are all positives. However, the defensive side of the game keeps the game from star status.