Reviewed: September 14, 2002
Released: August 6, 2002
Wow! Itís been a long time since I played, let alone reviewed a ďserious football gameĒ. In fact, after checking my archives itís been exactly two years to VERY THIS DAY that I reviewed Segaís NFL 2K1. Other football games have come and gone over the past two years, and aside from the Blitz series from Midway, I tend to let my ďsports reviewersĒ tackle the hardcore sims.
I had played last yearís NFL Fever long enough to determine that it was easily the prettiest of all the football games out there, but it still lacked the cutting edge of Madden to deliver a true football simulation. Now, another year has passed and we get our annual fix of Madden, NFL 2K3, and of course, the new NFL Fever 2003.
Microsoft had the edge last year, at least in graphics and overall presentation. They had the inside track on the Xbox hardware and could pump the machine for all it was worth. EA and Sega have had a year to catch-up, and while their new games show significant improvements over last yearís offering, Fever seems content to add new players, rosters, and a few improvements to gameplay. Oh yeahÖand online support too!
What can you say? Itís football. If youíve played one youíve played them all so what makes this one special? Previously, football game franchises have seemed to suffer from alternating strengths and weaknesses in passing and running games. What I mean there is that one year a football game has a great running game and terrible passing, then next year the passing game rocks and the running game is dead on the line. Fever 2003 does a remarkable job of blending excellent air and ground attacks.
My first major complaint is that all teams use the same playbook. One of my favorite things about the Sega football games is that each team had their own specific playbook, but you could take that playbook and use it with another team. Since all teams in Fever 2003 use a universal playbook there isnít as much variety in gameplay, and you can quickly learn how to counter the opposing teamís plays.
After playing about 20-some games I have come to the conclusion that Fever cannot decide if it wants to be a true simulation (Madden) or an arcade game (Blitz). Perhaps if there were some slider to control the ďseriousnessĒ of the game, but at least the players donít catch on fire in Fever. This isnít to say Fever is a bad game; quite the opposite. I had a blast playing every game whether it was against the computer or one of my other reviewers.
Navigating the interface is as easy as can be. Picking plays from the playbook is a snap, and there are nice features for viewing the running paths and button icons for the players overlaid on the field prior to the snap. The menus are all sharp and easy to read with cool sounds and music.
For the most part, gameplay is smooth after the ball is snapped. There are a few problems with the smoothness of the plays that are directly related to the various animations sequences of the players and how they blend together. It is not uncommon to see a hiccup in the actions of a player as he goes from say a jump to a run. If the defense is breathing down your neck these hiccups could end your play prematurely.
Control is tight and responsive once you learn the complex array of moves. Every button has at least three functions depending on which player you are controlling and if you are on offense, defense, or if itís pre-snap or a live ball. Once you memorize critical buttons like turbo, spin, juke, jump, and dive, you will be ready to play some football.
Perhaps the single biggest improvement in Fever 2003 is the Dynamic Player Performance Model (DPPM). This feature actually adjusts the skills of your players and your team, as you become better at playing the game. A handy chart appears after each game showing instant results for any player improvements.
Graphics look just as good as they did last year, which is a nice way of saying there really hasnít been any improvement. Players all look amazing from the detailed faces and uniforms, to the shiny helmets right down to seeing muscles and veins in the playersí bulging arms. The stadiums are all stunning and littered with details right down to the cheerleaders, referees, and highly active crowds.
The animations for the players are all excellent and look very realistic as is to be expected in todayís world of motion-captured animation. The only problem is the obvious lack of unique animations that lead to the problems mentioned earlier. Itís as if they captured players running and jumping in two separate recording sessions, so you donít have a fluid combination of a player running then jumping creating the hiccups between the base animations.
It also appears that they designers used the same animation for every play in the game. Instead of recording several variations of each possible move you end up seeing the same dive, jump, catch, tackle, juke, or spin move over and over. This becomes painfully obvious when you see your 300lb lineman running down the field in the same stride as your 170lb running back.
For as lacking as the gameplay animation is, there is an abundance of non-game animations such as end zone dances or players waving or yelling at the TV camera after a sack or other great play. I only wish there was that much variety in the actual play animations. It could have been a whole new ballgame or at least a better one.
Even though it has no bearing whatsoever on the game, I must give special kudos to the creative geniuses who created one of the most awesome opening movies ever seen in a football game. I just know there are a bunch of graphics wizards at ESPN wishing they had done it first. This stuff is Superbowl quality CGI and I still sit through the entire opening every time I play this game.
The music during the opening movie and menus is typical sports fanfare you have heard a million times before on ESPN and other sports games. You can also hear the loudspeaker music echoing between plays adding to the realism of the stadium atmosphere. Itís all great stuff and fits the intensity and style of the game and the sport.
Of course the heart of any sports game is the commentary, and this year we have Ron Pitts returning to the broadcast booth along with Kevin Colabro who is replacing Dick Stockton. Kevin does an excellent job of calling the game, and Pitts offers some random color commentary that seems to tie in with the action down on the field a bit more than it did last year.
The entire sound presentation is all wrapped up in a nice little Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that brings the stadiums to life. You can hear the crowd, the refs, the players, the announcements over the PA system, and every bone-crunching tackle, all in glorious 3D surround. I was using the Altec Lansing XA3051 speaker system, and my Bears home game sounded like I was in Soldier Field.
As with any sports game there is more than enough here to keep you busy until next yearís installment. As expected, Fever offers the full line-up of gameplay modes including practice, single game, season, network (online or linked), General Manager, Dynasty, and even Offseason mode where you can trade, draft and sign up free-agent players forming your own custom team. If you want to get really involved you can even create your own custom player and take him through the league. There is even a uniform editor that lets you change or create from scratch your own team uniforms.
Multiplayer options are plentiful. Up to four can play on a single system or you can link two systems together with the link cable. This November you can even take the gridiron battle online with the Xbox Live service. Iím guessing all sorts of possibilities will open up with access to the Internet Ė things like weekly updated rosters, player injuries, and quite possibly even real-time weather updates to make your games as authentic to the real season as possible.
Fever was a good football game last year and it is still a good football game this year. While Sega and EA have stepped up their respective games, Microsoft has only offered minimal improvements and incentives to invest in this yearís installment. If online play is important you can forget about Madden, but you still have to choose between Segaís NFL 2K3 and Fever 2003.
If you want a pure football simulation then Fever probably isnít where you will find it. The forgiving gameplay borders dangerously on the arcade side of the fence, and the jittery animation can cause problems until you learn to adapt. The presentation and visuals are all top-notch. Itís just a shame there isnít enough substance to back it up when you get past the pretty face.