Microsoft looks to win one for the Gipper with NFL Fever 2002.
Launching a console with a great football game is like driving to the high school reunion in a Ferrari: It shows everyone just how well you're doing.
The Dreamcast flexed its muscles with the groundbreaking NFL2k, and Electronics Arts debunked the PS2 naysayers with Madden 2001.
But what about Xbox? Will NFL Fever 2002 be a sports car with style to burn or will it be a 1982 Pinto with more wear-and-tear than Bill Clinton's conscience?
It's too early to say exactly how things will turn out, but at least it looks like Microsoft won't embarrass itself, which is saying something. If you think a premier developer isn't ripe for humiliation with its first next-gen pigskin title, go have a talk with the boys at 989 Sports.
Football games often serve as a yardstick for a console's graphical prowess, and NFL Fever clearly indicates that Xbox has some serious horsepower under its hood. Though the game is nowhere near completion, the lighting and texture detail rival anything that's ever been done in a sports title.
The helmet reflections actually seem to track light sources and the portrayal of night and day lighting is a dead-ringer for the real thing. Adding to the realism are the textures, which already seem to outpace the commendable detail found in Madden 2001. Grass looks like grass, skin looks like skin, and faces look like highly-detailed but heavily-sedated faces. Okay, so perhaps real-life player faces are still a few years away, but the mugs in this game are a definite improvement over the spooky, brainless zombies found in Madden 2001. When a player gets his bell rung, you'll see him grimace, and when he goes deep for a pass, you can tell that his eyes are actually tracking the ball. Overall, the player models, while not yet representative of differences in player size, have extremely high polygon counts and an incredible level of detail.
If there is one Achilles heel, it's in the animation department. Anyone can tell you that fluidity is right up there with detail when it comes to conveying realism, and at this stage NFL Fever is coming up short of the goal line. Some key animations appear to be missing, and the framerate nosedives when the weather effects come into play. With several months remaining before the game's scheduled release at launch, however, we expect Microsoft to iron out these problems.
Of course, anyone can tell you that great graphics and $6 will buy you a hot dog and a beer at Lambeau Field. If you want to rumble with the big boys you need to deliver the gameplay. It's hard to tell if the ultimate product will live up to expectations, but the groundwork for a sterling experience seems to be in place. NFL Fever eschews the painstaking realism of Madden 2001 for the sim-arcade feel championed by the NFL2k series. The game moves at a breakneck pace and players can change directions in full stride without that sluggish feeling of momentum.
The passing games still needs a little work, but the running game already sports some of the features we've come to know and love about football--well-placed blocks, breaking holes, and believable tackles. Only time will tell if the other aspects of the game will make the grade.
It's heartening to see that, aside from bringing home the standard football fare, Microsoft is trying to add a new element to the mix. They call it "the Dynamic Player Performance Model," and while the esoteric name may not survive, the concept, if carried to fruition, could become a staple of future sports games.
Basically, the new feature is an elaboration of the hot-and-cold streaks found in current sports simulations. Microsoft says their model of streaks and player improvement will almost be like an RPG in its extensive manipulation of skill, experience, and ability.
Regretfully, online play has been left out of the final equation, so a super realistic franchise mode--as this feature implies--will do wonders for the game's replayability. Though Internet gaming is not an option, Microsoft is adding a bevy of traditional goodies to keep gamers happy. Statistics galore, a franchise mode, year-ending awards, and unlockable teams help round out what promises to be a solid package of extras.
NFL Fever 2002 still has a long way to go before it even reaches the red zone, but the crew that developed NFL Fever for the PC is going the extra yard to make sure the Xbox franchise starts on the right foot. Only time will tell if NFL Fever can strip the football crown from its vaunted next-gen predecessors.