When it's happening, it looks and feels like real NFL football.
Like its round-ball cousin NBA Inside Drive, Microsoft's NFL Fever 2000 doesn't attempt to challenge its major competitor, EA Sports' Madden NFL 2000, on a feature-by-feature basis. You won't find any sort of franchise mode that lets you negotiate salaries, trade players, and draft new talent season after season. There's no way to build custom leagues and teams. And the multiplayer mode is limited to hot-seat play at a single computer. But there's something to be said for NFL Fever's limited scope, especially considering how clumsily the franchise mode is implemented in Madden NFL 2000. This is basically an action game, and for the most part it's a pretty good one, at least until you spend some time with it and start to notice a bunch of quirks that keep it from achieving its full potential.
NFL Fever 2000 focuses solely on the 31 teams competing in the 1999-2000 NFL season: After selecting a team, you can modify its playbook, rearrange the depth chart, make trades (only for the same position, and all offers are automatically accepted), and hit the field once you've got everything the way you want it. You don't get stats during the season or even in the middle of a game. You only see them at the end of quarters and the end of the game.
At least in terms of graphics, NFL Fever 2000 blows Madden off the field. Just as in NBA Inside Drive 2000, the level of detail, especially for the players themselves, is simply astounding. (Strangely, weather effects like snow and rain are seriously diminished if you choose to play with a Voodoo-based 3D card.) You'll see precise renderings of players' faces and the accurate shadows those players cast even as they run, and the fluid animations look and feel right. You won't see guys being de-cleated on every tackle, but instead players are dragged to the turf, legs churning as they lean forward for that extra yard. Quarterback sacks are a real pleasure to behold, especially if the QB gets speared by a blitzing lineman or is crushed by a massive blindside hit.
Although the playbooks here aren't nearly as extensive as the ones in Madden 2000, a simple play-creation utility lets you crank out new plays almost as quickly as you can dream them up. You can also import plays from any team into your squad's playbook. The only problem with play selection is that you've got very little time to select a defensive formation against the computer-controlled opponent. On dozens of occasions I found myself watching my defense lining up before I had a chance to select a play.
Play-by-play commentary is handled by veteran announcer Dick Stockton, with color commentary by Matt Millen. Over the years I've come to appreciate Millen's insights during TV broadcasts, but the commentary here isn't broadcast quality. You'll hear the same out-of-place comments that you'll find in any football simulation. Then again, no one's buying NFL Fever 2000 for the announcers. It's all about the action, and unfortunately NFL Fever 2000 has just too many glitches to keep it from being the total package as far as on-field play is concerned. The first annoyance is the selection of camera angles: There isn't a good one in the lot. The sideline and three-quarter perspectives are totally worthless unless you want to just call the plays, and the ball cam is just too close to the action to be useful. That leaves the normal and overhead views, and both of them have problems. The normal view doesn't let you see your wide receivers when you snap the ball (you can scan the line of scrimmage before the snap to determine coverage, however), and the overhead perspective often cuts off your view of running backs, even ones that are lined up fairly close to the QB. I'm not a big fan of the Madden classic view in Madden 2000, but it's better than anything here - and Madden lets you customize your own camera perspective, too.
Another issue is running the ball on offense. It's maddeningly difficult to gain yardage on the ground because time and again linemen or linebackers simply blast past blockers and nail running backs as they're taking the handoff. Yes, this sort of thing happens in the NFL, but not nearly as often as it does in NFL Fever 2000. As a 30-year fan of pro football, I understand the importance of the running game in a winning game plan. I also know a thing or two about play calling, but nevertheless I only rarely managed to pick up those four- and five-yard gains that are the bread and butter of any good team.
There's also some weirdness going on with the actual gameplay controls. On several occasions, both on offense and defense, the players I controlled simply stopped in their tracks even though I was pushing up on the D-pad to make them reach the spot where the ball was headed. And sometimes hitting the "switch player" button while on defense doesn't give you control of the player closest to the ball, which sort of defeats the purpose of the button in the first place.
The punting game could have used some polish, too. Every now and then you'll hit the button to launch the power meter for the punt, and when you hit it again to set the distance, everything just stops - but the play clock keeps on ticking, forcing you to waste a time-out. You can blatantly interfere with a punt returner as he catches the ball - you can even hit him as the ball lands in his arms - and have no penalty called against you. And punts that hit inside the ten invariably wind up in the end zone.
Why all the hiccups in on-field performance? It's easy to suspect that the game was released a little bit before it was ready - a suspicion that's practically confirmed by the absence of photos for so many veteran players in the game. But the weird thing is that even as frustrated as I became over this game's problems, something made me want to keep coming back to NFL Fever 2000 for more football. Why? Because when it's happening, it looks and feels like real NFL football. Just as with NBA Inside Drive, NFL Fever is a new franchise with a lot of potential - but we'll have to wait until next year to see just how much of it is eventually fulfilled.