Reviewed: October 17, 2003
Released: August 26, 2003
In the world of computer football you have three primary contenders; EA’s Madden franchise, ESPN (formerly SEGA) NFL 2K series, and Microsoft’s Fever franchise, now in its third season. In my ultimate quest for the perfect football game I have played all three of these games for the past several years, some from their original release. I have a pretty good idea of what makes each one tick and how they compare to each other in gameplay and features, so hopefully I can provide a little enlightenment.
NFL Fever 2004 is Microsoft’s first-party entry into the raging console sports war, a war that grows more ferocious each year as EA and SEGA continually tweak and improve their respective franchises while Microsoft is left to play “catch-up”. Most of the issues I had with Fever 2004 are brought about by Microsoft’s desire to create a friendly and accessible football game that tries to balance arcade play and controls with the sim-like features of the competition. A valiant goal to be sure, but one that just never seems to work.
Rather than redesigning the franchise from the ground up Microsoft continues to fix (or try to fix) the mistakes from the previous year, so rather than getting any innovation in gameplay or interface we just get a patched version of an already troublesome game. That’s not to say Fever 2004 is totally without merit. There are several new features in this year’s “patch” that outshine Madden and ESPN in concept yet even these breakthrough ideas falter in the presence of other gameplay issues.
The most obvious improvement in Fever 2004 is the new Read and Lead Passing. This is a Pro (or difficult) alternative to the simple one-button passing of the previous games. One-button passing is the auto-lock mode where you hit the button corresponding to the intended receiver and hope for the best. Read and Lead is much more elaborate and precise. Basically, you pick the intended receiver then you control the passing target with the right stick. This allows you to lead the receiver but you still have to throw along the path of the chosen play. You further determine if the pass is a bullet or a high lob by how much pressure you use to pull the right trigger and can throw high or low using the right stick. It’s a very tricky process that will take lots of practice to master, but once you do there is no going back.
Speaking of practice there is an excellent tutorial, “Chalk Talk”, in Fever 2004 that other games would do well to imitate. Using a coach and chalkboard style of presentation you are shown how to execute every type of play then are put into drill situations. This is not only a great way to learn the game but it is very immersive and you’ll feel like you are at training camp.
Now that I’ve got the new and cool improvements covered let’s talk about what’s wrong with this year’s game. While Microsoft has tried to fix a lot of things that were wrong with Fever 2003 many of the most glaring issues are back for another year. Perhaps XSN and Read and Lead were supposed to dazzle and blind us to these issues but they are here and just as annoying as ever.
First and foremost is the inexplicable speed changes that makes the game unpredictable and often unplayable. It’s not exactly a framerate issue but for some reason the speed of the players bounces all over the spectrum. One minute they are moving in a quasi-slow-motion and the next they are moving at super speeds. It’s almost like you are watching the game on video and somebody is screwing with the remote. This problem has plagued Fever since 2001 and the fact that is hasn’t been addressed is starting to piss me off.
Another ongoing and unresolved issue is the ball physics or more precisely, the helium-filled pigskin that casually floats downfield providing enough hang time that the entire defense can get into position to pummel your receiver as soon as he catches the ball. Even more unrealistic is the fact that these timing issues allow your receiver to be double or triple teamed yet he still manages to magically pluck the ball from the clutches of overwhelming odds. So even though you can complete your passes a majority of the time, don’t plan on getting a whole lot of yardage after the catch.
The AI is fairly impressive but at times it seems the game “cheats” to make up for deficiencies in the game engine. Players will burst across the screen at warp speed to make up for the slow-motion bug at the line of scrimmage, and receivers have superhuman catching abilities despite the lagging pass engine that has you throwing into a sea of opposing jerseys. When the AI works it works well, both for the opposing team and your own computer controller teammates. The defense is so tight that it will have you looking at all of your passing options or even considering a toss or QB run from time to time, and when you are on D you’ll be comfortable taking control over that lineman for the sack knowing that your other players will be covering their respective targets.
Fever 2004 is the first Fever game to support online play out of the box. Last years version eventually supported online play (3 months after the game released) and frankly I had already moved on to bigger and better things by then, so I didn’t play a whole lot of Fever online. This year we get the new XSN Sports – basically Microsoft’s attempt at creating an online league or network like ESPN.
XSN ties your Xbox Live experience into a huge network of other gamers creating a fantasy league environment that you can manipulate with your PC. This makes it extremely easy to setup leagues, tournaments, and track your team and player stats on your PC (and keyboard) using the information created by your Xbox game data. This makes XSN a substantial improvement over traditional Live play and will certainly set the stage for future XSN titles for sports other than football.
I couldn’t see any real improvements over the aging graphics of the Fever franchise, which is a shame since Madden and ESPN are showing marked improvements in almost every way including graphics. The players look identical to their 2003 models – even those animated towels are back sporting more dynamic animation than Lara Croft’s ponytail, but after careful examination you can tell that all players are basically created from a few standard models then slightly tweaked with variable proportions to torso and limbs and two or three levels of height.
The stadiums are sadly as generic as the players. They offer some standard sideline details like cheerleaders, and the coach shouting advice from the bench and even security gustfd and photographers but it’s all pretty generic. Perhaps most disappointing is the crowd which may have actually taken a step back, or at least it seems that way when you compare it to the glorious crowd shots in Madden and ESPN. The crowd is nothing more than 2D poorly animated cardboard cutouts.
Of particular note is the excellent TV-style presentation with a variety of unique camera angles that capture the teams and the individual players, and even the cheerleaders. There is even a post-game highlight reel that shows the best plays of the game and the MVP.
There are some nice special effects like lens flares coming off the stadium lights, reflections on helmets, grass and dirt getting kicked up during plays, but in the end these are in place to show off rather than enhance the gameplay. Most aren’t even noticed until you watch a replay or the between-play animations. The HDTV support certainly enhances the football experience for those with the TV’s to enjoy it.
As with any sports game the sound quality relies almost entirely in the commentary. In this case Ron Pitts and Kevin Colabro are back in the press box delivering some rather generic commentary. The play-by-play does a respectable job of following the game action in the broadest of terms. The color commentary is equally as generic and could slip into just about any football game from any season and still work.
The rest of the sound package includes the traditional grunting and crunching of tackles and players getting thrown to the ground. The crowd noise rises and falls with the action and is actually properly geared to favor the home team in most situations. All of this is presented in a wonderful Dolby Digital mix that puts you in the stadium.
Fever 2004 offers all the standard modes of gameplay that will keep the non-discriminating armchair quarterback busy for countless hours. The Dynasty mode is quite massive and includes all the franchise options, drafting, pre-season play, and multiple season careers. Locally, you can support up to four human player or eight if you link a pair of Xbox systems together.
When you tire of the local gaming options those of you with Xbox Live can enjoy the features of XSN. It’s just a shame that these great online features aren’t associated with a better football game. The voice capabilities are pretty fun and let you taunt your opponents online but I would like to see the microphone used for other things, even in solo play like calling “audibles” prior to the snap.
While Fever 2004 might be acceptable (or excusable) if it were a debut release, one cannot simply overlook the fact that this is the third reiteration of the franchise and nothing much has changed or improved. Microsoft keeps inserting small innovations when what is really needed is a major overhaul to the entire game engine.
With Madden, ESPN, and even the forthcoming NFL Blitz Pro (yes, Midway is getting “serious” about football this year), Fever 2004 just doesn’t have the legs to carry it across the end zone. My advice to Microsoft is to either revamp this game from the turf up or turn it over to another developer who can. And spare us the innovations until you can give us a solid core game then build on that.