Microsoft surprised the sports gaming world back in November 2001 with its rookie football effort NFL Fever 2002. The fast gameplay, impressive graphics, and decent features made it a football franchise to be watched closely in the future. Last season, Fever disappointed some critics, citing not enough improvement from the previous version to get up to the Madden or Sega level.
Which brings us to today with NFL Fever 2004. Microsoft announced a major Xbox Live feature this past spring at E3 when they officially announced the XSN Sports network. The new feature would allow for gamers to form their own leagues and tournaments like never before. The feature looked promising, but could the game keep up with the features? That was the question that would be answered this fall, when Microsoft officially released the anticipated NFL Fever 2004.
If you’ve ever played either of the previous incarnations of NFL Fever, you’ll know what to expect as far as basic gameplay is concerned. The controls are roughly the same, except for one key new impressive feature: Read & Lead Passing. Putting to use the right analog stick, read and lead allows you to control the exact place you want the ball to land. After snapping the ball, you select a receiver to throw to by pressing the corresponding button above the player’s head. From there a target appears in front of the receiver, at which point you use the right analog stick to control the target, and in effect, the place the ball will land. Although difficult to master at first, especially on higher difficulty levels, read and lead is the best new control feature in any football game this season. If “Read & Lead” passing proves to be too difficult, the classic controls are also available, and completely customizable when you create your own player profile, which tracks your stats as well as remembers your control schemes the way you want them.
A dynasty mode is available along with season and exhibition options, your basic football gaming fare with the exception of the Network Play mode. Playing offline may get old in a hurry, as the Dynasty mode isn’t nearly as deep as Madden of ESPN NFL Football, and hasn’t changed much since Fever 2003. The game re-creation mode has returned for another season, pitting you against classic teams, fantasy teams, and unique situations. Once you’ve exhausted these modes, Fever may lose a bit of steam, however Xbox Live mode adds a whole new degree of fun that will almost DEMAND that you play the game for months to come, and we’ll go into details on XSN later in the review.
As you could expect with an Xbox-exclusive title, the graphics in Fever are quite impressive. The player models are nearly identical to their real life counterparts, and in-game movies showing the players’ helmets off, such as on the sidelines or other breaks in the action show scarily realistic player faces. The stadiums are modeled nearly identical to their real-life counterparts, with one exception being the Fever-signature gigantic helmet logos at midfield. The post game highlight reels also show off the graphical power, replaying the best plays of the game. Microsoft has been using the highlight reel since its first season, and the post game feature is still the best of any football game on the market today.
The only place where the graphics seem to falter a bit is only thanks to the in-game default camera angle. The wide view allows for a nice view of the field, but also makes the players appear smaller and fails to show off the detail of each player model. The giant helmet at midfield may be a Fever signature, but it takes away from the detail of each individual stadium. Other than those minor nuisances, the graphics in Fever are very solid, worthy of an Xbox-exclusive title.
In game commentary has the same team as previous years, with Kevin Calabro providing the play-by-play and Ron Pitts providing the color analysis. The duo actually avoids the plague of repeats quite well, although when the action gets fast paced and when you skip replays, it tends to lag quite a bit behind the action. In fact, a run play on third down for a short yard gain, skipping the replay, and immediately punting could cause the announcer to still be talking about your offense while you’ve already turned the ball over and started your first play on defense. Letting the replays breathe, and keeping the pace the way the game would like it to roll doesn’t cause too many problems, but if you’re in a hurry to get the action going, the commentary may suffer.
The in game menu screens feature the classic NFL films music, the only thing missing is that classic deep NFL Films announcer voice! In past seasons, Fever has gone with a rap track with such acts as Clipse and The Neptunes, so going to the NFL music could be considered a drastic change. In the end, the music is very inoffensive, and there is just something about that NFL music that can get you fired up for a game, or get caught up in thinking about your favorite NFL moments.
Player taunts are back again this year, and as always they deliver at the most appropriate moments. Hearing a defensive back taunting Kurt Warner or Rich Gannon on an important third down play is something you’d expect to hear on an NFL field, and with the possible exception of Sega’s First Person mode, the sound bytes from players is the closest you’ll get to hearing the NFL action on a video game this season.
While the single player action my grow old in a hurry, Microsoft’s excellent new innovation, XSN Sports, is by far the coolest online sports innovation of the 2003 season. XSN is simple, and allows you to compete with your friends, or total strangers, in season and tournament modes. The first step is to visit XSNSports.com, register your account using a .NET passport (if you have MSN Messenger, among other programs, you already have one, if not, registering is still simple). From there, you can search through joinable competitions, similar to signing up for a fantasy football league. League sizes range from 8, all the way up to 32, and allow you to enter your favorite team into a league and compete against other teams and players from across the country. Once you join a league, you are given a password to join the league in the actual NFL Fever game itself on the Xbox. Once league play has started, you can begin play of other teams in your league any time they’re available online. XSN then takes care of your stats and results, and you can view them from the game and also on XSNSports.com. League standings and results are available at the site, and once league play has finished, the best of the bunch make the playoffs while the others go home. XSN is by far the most involved and best feature of any online game on the console market today. If you’re a football fan who loves to follow stats, is into fantasy football, or just flat out loves to compete against real people, this feature alone may be enough to purchase an Xbox. The only drawback may be that XSN is limited to Microsoft titles only, which include NBA Inside Drive, Amped 2, Links 2004, and NHL Rivals among others. No XSNing with Madden or ESPN NFL Football, or any other non-Microsoft titles. You can’t blame Microsoft however, as XSN is the ace in the hole that distinguishes Fever from the other very well done titles on the market this year.
Fun Factor: 10.0 (with XSN), 6.5 (offline only)