NFL Fever faces the longest yard in its duel against two seasoned competitors.
NFL Fever 2002 is like the team that banks its hopes on a slew of high profile acquisitions. Sure, these guys look good on paper, but they have less playoff experience than a second-team cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Frankly, it's hard to know what to expect from the Xbox version of Microsoft's football franchise. One could use the PC version as a yardstick, but that's like trying to gauge a player's NFL potential from his play in the Mid-Atlantic Conference.
Basically, it's a whole new ballgame. The stakes are higher, the competition is bigger, meaner, and more experienced, and you're winning record at Whatsamatta U. isn't worth the sweat on Champ Bailey's jock.
As much as we might like to root for Microsoft's hometown heroes, we know they face a steep climb up a Vaseline slope against the likes of EA and Visual Concepts.
Nonetheless, you can't overlook that impressive roster (read: unparalleled console power). If anything, NFL Fever's developers have more talent to work with than any of their wily competitors. What remains in question is whether they have the gameplan, tenacity, and execution to earn the crown.
The only sure thing is that NFL Fever won't have any problems getting a date for the prom. As you might expect, the game is strikingly handsome. If polygons were people, the player models would be China. I can't tell you which pigskin title uses the most polygons, but NFL Fever clearly has player proportions sized up better than anyone else. When a 330-pound heifer lumbers up to the line, you know, by virtue of a gargantuan gut, that this guy eats enough in one day to sustain a nuclear family for a week.
The level of detail is generally beyond reproach. Rich textures with intricately detailed uniforms, anatomically correct veins, and amazing player faces usher forth a new era in realism. Overall, the texture quality is on par with that of Madden 2002, but the player mugs truly are a remarkable achievement. Prepare for heart palpitations the first time you see Eric Mould's eyes track the ball in one of your several hundred slow-mo instant replays.
I know I risk being called a dweeb for saying this, but the field also looks exceptional. [Ok Tony, you're a dweeb. - Ed.] Even the most recent football games, with their entire technological prowess, still haven't managed a decent-looking football field. NFL Fever finally delivers with grass so real you almost expect your father to have you mow it.
The stadiums, from what we've seen, also trump the competition. The level of detail and staggering scope of the stadiums in NFL Fever put even Madden 2002 to shame. Seeing Chicago's Soldier Field loom impressively over the field was almost a religious experience.
Of course, no Xbox title is complete without some breathtaking lighting effects, and NFL Fever is no exception. The night and day lighting is so realistic it gives us goosebumps, and the real-time helmet reflections are enough to induce shock. Mix in some smooth motion-captured animations, and you have potentially the best looking sports game ever made.
The gameplay generally complements the delectable visuals. The developers are clearly leaning more in the direction of NFL2k than Madden, but so far NFL Fever has a little less polish than either. There certainly are moments of greatness, particularly when a well-placed block frees your running back, or when a thundering hit jars the ball loose, but the controls still feel a little "floaty" at times.
The passing game, in particular, needs a little tweaking. We've played enough video game football to make Bear Bryant look like a Pop-Warner tryout, but sometimes we still have difficulty connecting passes in NFL Fever. Perhaps it's just a steep learning curve, but we'll keep our eyes on the issue as launch day approaches. On the bright side, the collision detection is exceptional, and we certainly can't say the game isn't fun, because so far it seems to excel in that department.
The gameplay may not be ready to crack the starting lineup, but the feature list is all-pro caliber. Leading the way is NFL Fever's "Dynamic Player Performance System." According to this feature, player ability will fluctuate from game to game depending on your performance. Flex your skills and a mediocre running back might elevate to pro bowl status; fumble the ball and even Marshall Faulk will end up warming the bench.
The obligatory dynasty mode is anything but perfunctory. In NFL Fever you can take your favorite team through 25 seasons of gridiron action, complete with more stat-tracking than espn.com. Like Jerry Jones, you can dabble in every managerial aspect of the game. Gamers can draft players, sign free agents, wheel-and-deal - whatever it takes to bring home that gleaming silver trophy. Disgruntled owners can even move their franchise to a new town.
Speaking of trophies, NFL Fever also implements a nifty trophy case feature. Here you can stockpile your numerous end-of-season awards, and there might even be room for your jersey in the Hall of Fame after a player hangs up the cleats.
Calling the plays are Dick Stockton, currently in his seventh year of play-by-play for the NFL on Fox, and Ron Pitts, a fellow seven-year veteran on Fox and former player with the Bills and Steelers. These guys are pros, so expect some top-notch commentary. After each contest, a post-game highlight reel reviews the key plays. This feature will not influence the game, but it offers further evidence that the development team went all out to distance NFL Fever from the pack.
Whether they succeed in this endeavor is another matter. NFL Fever faces some stiff competition. Its main rivals also have the added edge of learning from last year's mistakes (on other consoles). Life is never easy for a rookie, and a football crowd accustomed to high standards will not cut any slack for NFL Fever.
Fortunately, adversity is the stuff of which legends are made. NFL Fever is not the preseason favorite, but it certainly has the tools to wrangle with the competition. At the very least, it should make for one hell of a fight this fall.
Moves like Barry Sanders, throws like Joe Montana, and lies like Bill Clinton.