For a fledgling console, the Xbox has no shortage of football titles. With Electronic Arts' Madden NFL 2002 and Sega's NFL2K2 bringing their own refined brand of gridiron action to the table, Microsoft's in-house project NFL Fever 2002 has been held to some pretty lofty expectations. Maybe we don't expect Microsoft to revolutionize video football, but as the Xbox is an up-and-coming system needing strong word of mouth, a solid, playable title is the least gamers can and should expect. For better or worse, NFL Fever 2002 is exactly that. It won't quite knock your socks off like the original NFL2K did back in 1999, and it won't leave a sour taste in your mouth like Acclaim's NFL Quarterback Club did, er…every year since its inception. It's a well-designed football game with a deep playbook, plenty of options, good artificial intelligence and a great physics engine. It doesn't deliver a knockout punch, but this rookie franchise shows that it has the potential to be a real stunner in coming years.

The game gets off to a showboating start with a stellar full-motion video intro that segues into an easily navigated menu. I could do without the repetitive rap track pumping in the background, but fortunately I didn't have to spend much time figuring out how to get where I wanted to go. For the novice, the addition of a training mode to teach the basic skills of the game (i.e. stiff-arms, jukes, spins, etc.) is a nice touch. A practice option (now standard in football games) that allows players to run offensive and defensive plays is useful for learning the nuances of the game's unique physics engine. The whole gamut of video football options are here; there are more than enough features to keep hardcore fans occupied: a twenty-five season dynasty, fantasy challenge, create-a-player, a full NFL draft, stat tracking, and others too numerous to list.

Options in a football game, though, are the frosting – not the cake. The meat of any football game revolves around effective implementation of a realistic yet not overbearing physics engine. The physics in NFL Fever are fantastic. I have been truly impressed with the balance between responsiveness and realism. While players are generally quick to do your bidding, their movement will be affected by their weight, speed, balance and the corresponding traits of the players with whom they come into contact. The players are all animated smoothly and have convincing weight and speed. Although personal preference undoubtedly comes into play, I feel that the well-balanced physics in NFL Fever are the best in the genre. They are lifelike enough to feel convincing, but not so drowned out in motion-capture and attempted realism as to forfeit the sense of control that players should feel in any football game. Because of the excellent physics engine, running, evasive maneuvers, and tackling feel very smooth and responsive.

The passing game is acceptable but not outstanding, hurt primarily by the lack of an option to lead the receiver a la NFL2K's "maximum passing" feature. The direction of the ball can't be altered; a quick tap will lob the ball and a firm hold will send a bullet — that's the extent of control. My first impression of the passing game was that it was inconsistently done; it seemed that my players' ability to outwit defensive backs had more to do with luck than with my skills and clever play calling. However, a little patience on my part let the passing game's strengths show through. Once I got a better grasp on timing my passes and eyeing the defenders, I was able to formulate an effective passing offense. Again, much of the quality of the passing game relates back to the physics engine itself and the corresponding feel of the quarterback, defenders, and receivers.

I have to admit that although I consider myself quite adept at noticing the idiosyncrasies of game characters' artificial intelligence (AI) in most genres, football games are bit tougher. For example, if I just lobbed an 80-yard TD pass, is that a sure sign of lousy AI, or is it plausible (assuming the defense ran a 4-3 blitz against a short flag, for example)? Rather than focusing only on the frequency of money plays, I try to notice the smaller things: are my defensive backs adapting to plays? Are my linemen going beyond their preprogrammed patterns and actually seeking out ball carriers? Are they keyed in to what is happening on the field? I want players to act like they know what their jobs are and when they need to do them.

I remember a favorite play of mine in the Sega Genesis classic Madden '92. I'd simply grab the Buffalo Bills and send Thurman Thomas on a trustworthy "halfback toss left" that all but guaranteed a twenty-yard plus gain. No matter how many times I ran that play, the clueless AI never picked up on it. Well, nothing of the sort happens in NFL Fever. Just to be outlandish, I created a team made up of perfect-rated supermen. I pitted my monsters against the St. Louis Rams, and for the first quarter of play easily dominated with a ludicrously effective offensive line and an impeccable running game. To my surprise, the Rams rose to the occasion and by the second half had completely shut down my running game despite their obviously inferior player ratings (don't worry, I still won that one). The players in NFL Fever do in fact adapt to plays and have a good sense of what is happening on the field. Incidentally, I remember beating beaten in NFL2K1 by a player who had found a hole in the defensive AI during the halfback option. Once the halfback was handed the ball, the entire defense would come charging for him, leaving receivers open downfield – a quick pass meant an almost guaranteed touchdown. In NFL Fever, defensive players will pursue ball carriers without completely abandoning their positions, making such plays unlikely. AI can make or break a football game, and although I noticed nothing particularly striking about NFL Fever's AI, it is clearly well done and free of any obvious holes.

I must also admit that I am a sucker for atmosphere, and NFL Fever does a great job recreating the mood of the game with its presentation. The graphics are unequivocally the best yet in video football. The players have convincing physiques and are detailed beyond reproach. The stadiums look fantastic and are accented nicely with animated crowds and busy sidelines; on a clear day, expect to see well into a stadium's surrounding city. Particle effects like snow, rain, and dirt are also very clean and convincing. The commentary is rather banal, consisting mostly of mechanical play-by-play and cheesy one-liners like "lot o' flavor on that play!" There is no interaction between the two announcers, and many of the one-liners are repeated to the point of becoming predictable (expect to hear "now that's how you help your team!" nearly every time there's an interception). It's tolerable, but they have a ways to go for next year's edition. Still, the overall visual and audio package is superlative. I enjoyed smaller touches such as the player taunts, the detailed textures on the field itself, and the gratuitous (but impressive) cinematic camera angles used as the players line up for plays.

NFL Fever 2002 is a good start for a franchise that will likely be a big investment for Microsoft and its first-party developers. It offers a surprisingly polished (though certainly not superior) alternative to the more established football franchises from Sega and EA. A good deal of refinement and a dash of innovation are needed before it can be considered a truly superlative franchise, but even in its current incarnation it's an enjoyable title with solid gameplay and enough options to keep players busy until next year's update. The excellent physics, deep playbook, and solid AI truly demonstrate the potential this series has, and I for one hope to see Microsoft make the most of this underdog in the coming years. Rating: 8 out of 10

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