Lets say theres this football team, and a pretty dismal one. It finishes the season with a 4-12 record. It stinks. It cant run and it cant pass. Cant defend and cant begin to compete with the elite teams in its division. Stung by constant humiliation and losing its previously loyal fan base, the team fires its coaching staff, overhauls its personnel, and begins anew.
Lets say that in the next season this team somehow manages to match its division rivals in passing and defense, looks damn stylish doing it, and, despite a few glaring weaknesses, finishes at 10-6 and makes the playoffs. Not bad at all, youd say, and with a bright and shiny future.
Well, that team is a lot like Microsofts NFL Fever 2000, the 10-6 arcade football game. For a rookie, NFL Fever is a surprisingly solid--and sometimes brilliant--effort. Its gorgeous, its loads of arcade fun, and it even plays (with a few exceptions) a pretty good game of football. And since NFL Fever is priced at $19.99, its abundantly clear that Microsoft is going after EAs PC sports game empire (and specifically Madden) by employing the Wal-mart strategy that made Deer Hunter a million-seller.
Chief amongst NFL Fevers virtues are its 3D graphics. Simply said, this is the best-looking computer football game ever. The players are exquisitely modeled, their movements are silky-smooth, and the attention to detail is unsurpassedyou can quite easily read the names on the back of the players jerseys, and player animations are excellent and distinctive. Big backs like Bam Morris or Jerome Bettis are brawny and bulky and hammer away like power backs, and sleek ones like Garrison Hearst look slim and quick and put on a lot of jukes and spin moves. But it goes beyond thatI mean, Brett Favre looks and moves like Brett Farve and Randall Cunningham looks and moves like Randall Cunningham. Its all very impressive. Weather effects are quite atmosphericplaying a game on a snowy day in Soldier Field or a rainy one at Candlestick (Im still boycotting 3Com) gives a real "you are there" feel to the game, and seems to affect gameplay, though Im not sure about this. Also included in the game are an enormous collection of animations of ferocious hits and post-play celebrations, all integrated seamlessly into the gameplay. The animated hits are especially cool, and manage to be spectacular without crossing the line into NFL Blitz territory. Adding to all this graphic goodness is an excellent replay feature that allows you to zoom, rotate, and get all kinds of cool screen shots of your favorite plays.Sound is very good as well; theres a suitably crunchy amount of collision noise, the occasional smartass fan pops off, and theres a blessed lack of in-game music. As for the announcerswell, Dick Stocktons play-by-play is typically unobtrusive and pretty well-blended, but Matt Millens color commentary is no fun. Typically, Millens commentary consists of belaboring the obvious"Boy, that quarterback sure must be angry that the receiver dropped that"or saying negative things about quarterbacks and kickers. Matt, buddy--Alex Karras ran that well dry twenty years ago. Get a new schtick.
The games got a nice set of options, too. You can play a single game or a whole season (though it lacks a career mode), and you can choose from rookie, veteran, or pro difficulty settings. If your team is lacking in talent, you can create your own players and pick them up as free agents, or just make unfair trades with other teams (my personal favorite). Theres also an easy-to-use player editor, so you can transform the 1999 Bears into the 1985 Bears if you so desire. If you think the games default playbook is unimaginative, you can design your own wack plays and playbook. (But you probably wontthe default playbook contains scads of plays. So many, in fact, that I use the playbook feature mostly to prune them down to a manageable size.) And the game also provides a practice mode, so you can drill your players like a little Lombardi. Unfortunately, the only way to play others is by hotseating it; there are no network, modem, or internet options. Fix this, please.
Gameplay is a mixed bag, so Im going to break it down into its
component parts here, listed from best to worst.
First of all: if you dont have one, get yourself a decent gamepad. You can play with the keyboard, but its not something Id wish on anybody. (Of course, the game is designed for the Microsoft Sidewinder, and the default settings are pretty decent. You can of course reconfigure if you wish.) If youre using a good gamepad, NFL Fever has the best passing game Ive yet to see in a computer football game. Period. End of discussion. My favorite part of the passing game occurs as your QB strolls up to the line and prepares to take the snap. At this time, you can call up a diagram of your receivers routes while you scan the opponents defense. This allows you to spot mismatches and single coverages, and you can even check off if the play looks doomed. Theres nothing like looking over the Denver defense on 3rd and long and realizing that the seam pattern youve called is wide open; on the other hand, its hell to look into double coverage. No kidding, reading the defense is the key to the passing game-- listening to Jaws on Monday Night Matchup has finally paid off.
Once the play begins, youll be able to watch every route develop. Thats right, theres no blind passing in NFL Fever. Its great to watch the safety commit to double coverage on your flanker, then throw away from him. Some routes seem to work better than others, though. Seam, post, and slant routes are pretty realisticif you can get a man open, youll usually get a completionotherwise, forget it. On the other hand, streak patterns are damn difficult to complete--OK, it is hard to throw long in the NFL, but Ive only very rarely completed any long bombs. And forget screen passes; they just dont work. On the other hand, out patterns are a bit too easy to complete, and if youve got a merely decent tight end, you can make a living off of him.
For all its upside, the passing game does have a few serious glitches. First, the receivers drop way too many balls, especially at the veteran level. This is clearly done to make the passing game less effective, but it would have been much more realistic to have more cornerbacks tipping passes away or QBs overthrowing than to watch Cris Carter drop three straight passes. Has that ever happened in real life? And quarterbacks have a little too much "escapability". I first noticed this while watching my ten-year-old son and his pal play a Bills/Vikings game. Both of them were fading twenty yards back rolling out of the pocket, and waiting for the defense to break down. At first I thought, well, with Flutie and Cunningham, thats plausible. But after some experimentation, I found that even slewfooted signal callers could scramble pretty well.
Playing pass defense takes a while to get the hang of, but can be reduced to this simple maxim: always pressure the QB. As well see, the running game is underdeveloped in NFL Fever, and since theres no reason to fear the rush, you can bring it on every down. And you better. If you dont pressure the QB, theyll pick apart even nickel and dime defenses. If you go into a third and long defense, make sure you have at least two players blitzing. Otherwise, youre toast.
In most defenses, youll control the middle linebacker by default. Though you can switch to control other defensive positions, Ive found the MLB to be the most effective defensive playerhe gets to make a lot of unblocked stops. Even better, Ive racked up a load of interceptions by dropping my linebacker back into zones and covering tight ends man-to-man over the middle, something the computer defense doesnt do very well.
Excellent and realistic, with a two-click interface thats both intuitive and elegant. The distance on punts and field goals is very realistic, as are the yards on returnsthough at easy level, youll return more than a few all the way. Unfortunately, the only nasty bug in NFL Fever resides in its kicking game. Sometimes your center will not snap the ball on punt playsand you can do nothing while time runs out, you take a delay of game penalty, and you lose five yards. Grrrrr.
Ok, Im a Bears fan. And along with my love for Da Bears and Da Coach, I love, as all true Bears fans do, the running game. From Wille Gallimore to Gale Sayers to Walter Payton to Neal Anderson, Bear fans have lived and (mostly) died with the running game. Theres still something vaguely distasteful to us about heaving the ball around. Oh, well tolerate it when it pays off, but well take a 100-yard rusher over a 400-yard passer any day of the week.
So imagine my distress with NFL Fevers running game, which is quite simply broken. At the easy level, this isnt a problem. NFL Fever plays like an arcade game at that levelits a snap to complete passes and break off long runs. But at the more difficult levels, passing becomes more realistic and running becomes damn near impossible.
Dont tell me to try spin moves and lowering my shoulder and straight-arms; I have, and I still end up with a 1.4 yard per carry rushing averageon a good day. A big part of the running games problem seems to stem from the atrocious blockingdefending players dont just shed blocks, they seem to pass through them like wraiths. Defenders also react unbelievably quickly; I know holes close fast in the NFL, but Ive hit a gaping hole with my runner on sprint, only to have him tackled for no gain by a linebacker who seems to materialize out of nothingness. Its as if someone at Microsoft got their game genres confused and programmed defenders with RPG-like magical attributes. It doesnt help any that you never get the spot on offense; if your back lunges forward for three yards at the end of a run, you can bet they wont be counted.
And the computer doesnt do well running the ball, either. Most of the computer opponents I play on veteran settingincluding the Falcons and Broncos, with Davis and Andersenhave not managed to average over a yard per carry. Thats right, not even a measly yard. I wish I could claim this was due to my superior defensive ability, but Im trying to break myself of the whole lying thing. I repeat: the running game is just broken.
Another thing thats broken with NFL Fever is its statistics. It doesnt have them in any meaningful way. There is no way to keep individual stats, so theres no way to win a rushing crown (which would probably take about 320 yards), no way to see if youve broken passing records, no way to tell which of your running backs is getting it done. This is made doubly perverse by the fact that you will occasionally be given individual stats in-game. Huh?
Are we getting the picture here? A game thats real purdy, priced for the Wal-mart shopper, and that highlights the pyrotechnic passing game over the honest, workaday running game and statistics favored by real aficionados. Like me. NFL Fever is, purely and simply, a beautiful arcade football game that comes tantalizingly close to being a beautiful realistic football game. The development team clearly put most of its efforts into the areas of the game that would make it a big seller---graphics, passing, arcade fun. Theres nothing wrong with that, but if next years edition of NFL Fever puts just a little more effort into the hardcore aspects of the gamerunning and statsit could easily go from a 10-6 game to the Super Bowl.