Every year I find myself caring less and less about the annual updates to all the popular sports franchises. 989 Sports and EA Sports have refined their respective sports games to such a degree that there's little else for the developers to do but refresh the team uniforms and rosters with each "new" installment. Besides the everyday sports fanatic, who really wants to shell out another $50 for a game that's basically the same as the one from the previous year (or even the year before that)?

Now that we're in the thick of the new NFL season, we have once again arrived at that pivotal point on the old sports game wheel. EA Sports has Madden 2001 for PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and PC. 989 Sports has NFL GameDay 2001 for PlayStation. And Sega Sports has released NFL 2K1—the sequel to last year's ground breaking NFL 2K. It's not exactly the momentous occasion the industry makes it out to be is it?

My feelings on the matter are no doubt a result of the last generation of consoles having reached their technical limits. Since the flagship sports games have pretty much come to a standstill as far as gameplay and game design innovation, the fact that the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 versions lack anything new visually just makes the situation that much more obvious. It's for this reason that the Sega Dreamcast is such an exciting prospect when it comes to the sports game market (or any market for that matter).

NFL 2K1 is just the cure for the football fan who is tired of the same old NFL videogames. Here we have a football franchise that's still growing—still searching for that identity, which so instrumental in determining a sports game's success. The NFL 2K series alone has that potential to show us new things, visually and otherwise. NFL 2K1 generates excitement by default (it is, after all, a Dreamcast exclusive). Anything on PlayStation and Nintendo 64 should justifiably look stale in comparison.

But I don't want to merely state the obvious here. NFL 2K1 is the best football game to come around in a long time because it avoids all the trappings the other gridiron game franchises have fallen into. You don't have to worry about the game becoming obsolete next year due to player and team changes because you can download updated rosters from the Internet (the developers also threw in a superb player and team customization option for good measure). NFL 2K1 also has a very user-friendly set-up. The controls are easy to learn and not nearly as complicated as its competitions, and the menus are laid out with the non-hardcore in mind. And most important, the game is filled with everything football freaks need to live out their authentic NFL fantasies. All the basics requirements are there: a Season mode with exhaustive stat-tracking; a detailed Franchise mode that puts you in the role of the general manager for an entire season (and off-season); a unique Fantasy mode that lets you build a full fantasy league or tournament; a Tourney mode; a Playoffs mode; and a great Practice option that allows you to practice any game scenario you can possibly think of.

And of course there's the one feature that no console football game will be able to touch for quite a while: the Network mode, which lets you play people from all over the country through Dreamcast's built-in modem. From the first moment I logged on, I was absolutely hooked. Playing football online is every bit as fun as I could have ever imagined, and much more competitive. Up to eight players (four per Dreamcast) can play at once, but it's just as fun playing one-on-one. It's not without its flaws—as games sometimes grind to a halt due to poor server connections, and the network interface doesn't keep track of win-loss records or even your own connection speed. Also, it would have been nice if the game could label users who frequently quit in the middle of games, that way they could be avoided without any problems. I've had several wimps bail out on me when the score quickly reached 14-0, and I wanted to strangle every one of them. But the inherent problems of online gaming don't stop NFL 2K1's Network mode from being totally fun (you can even talk trash during a game with Dreamcast's keyboard). I've already played more legendary online matches than I can count. In fact, it's possible to forsake the Season mode all together and just play NFL 2K1 online all the time. Who wants to bother playing the computer when there are hundreds of real people waiting to play you over the Internet?

It's very difficult to find something wrong with this game no matter which aspect of it you examine. The graphics and sound are every bit as good as you'd expect them to be—easily dwarfing anything yet seen on a home platform. Some of the weather effects left something to be desired though, and the player models are noticeably more blocky than in the first game—mostly likely due to the need to free up disk space for the Network feature. Despite those minor quips, it's pretty amazing what this game achieves in the audio-visual department. The players are detailed right down to the breathe strips across their noses or even the color of their elbow pads, and the motion-capture is top-notch. The stadiums not only look great—especially in the tracking shot following a kick-off—but they sound great as well.

Think of the atmosphere during an NFL game: the sounds on the field; the crowd; the stadium's announcer speaking independently from the play-by-play commentary. It's all there. I felt the scope and dimension of the pro football environment while playing NFL 2K1. Even the little things you normally dont look for are there—like the pylons in the end zones, the referees discussing a difficult call or the players' movements and gestures in the huddle. Visual Concepts didn't miss a thing in their realistic depiction of the NFL. That's perhaps the biggest improvement I noticed over the first game. There were all kinds of little oversights in NFL2K that have vanished without a trace in NFL 2K1.

The game manages to accomplish all of these things without compromising the gameplay—which is as smooth as I've experienced since videogame football made the transition from the arcade action in Tecmo Bowl on the NES to the slow simulation of John Madden Football on the Genesis. Just like everything else in the game, the gameplay is very balanced—not only between offense and defense—but between the running game and the passing game. Passing the ball can be a breeze with the Maximum Passing option, and running backs can make room for themselves with easy-to-perform juke moves. NFL 2K1 gives you complete control over the action without making things complex, and contests move along at a brisk pace as a result.

If there's one thing NFL 2K1 doesn't have, it's an attitude. Though it plays to near perfection, Sega and Visual Concepts have yet to establish a personality for this series. Focusing on Minnesota Vikings' Randy Moss here and there doesn't cut it. Conceptually, this football franchise needs a look and feel that doesn't scream "generic." I'm glad that NFL 2K1 shuns the "big TV" approach taken by the other football games. It doesn't try to overwhelm us with the realistic broadcast approach. I thank God that John Madden's ugly and annoying ass is nowhere to be seen, and the psuedo-Sportscenter backdrop that 989 loves so much is also a happy no-show. The music though, which is the worst thing about NFL 2K1, goes for the mighty trumpet and booming drums that echo the FOX network. It's repetitive and irritating (not to mention unhip as hell) all the way through the game, and only demonstrates that the sensibility on which this game revolves is all wrong. Thankfully, you can turn down the music during games, and that in itself speaks to NFL 2K1's biggest strength: If there is something in the game that doesn't fit with your style, you can change it to correspond to your tastes.

And that about sums it up in a nutshell. NFL 2K1 is quite simply the most comprehensive and authentic football game around, and it's a blast to play. I hate to be repetitive, but there's just no comparing this game with anything else, and the online features make it a no-brainer. I may sound like I'm doing a plug for Sega here, but if you want the best football game out there, you're going to have to pick up a Dreamcast. Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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