NFL Fever 2002 attempts to be a best-of-both-worlds football game that truly feels like a Madden football game but plays more like NFL 2K2. While this may sound like the game everyone was hoping for, actually playing a game that has a mix of simulation physics and overriding arcade control is really anticlimactic since it doesn't do quite as good of a job at either style of play. Be that as it may, NFL Fever 2002 is still a very solid game of football in its own right, and it certainly looks and plays quite well.
The game includes several standard modes of play, such as practice, single game, and season. NFL Fever 2002 of course carries the full NFL license, which means it has all of the real teams, players, and stadiums. You can also go into the game's dynasty mode and build your own team and take it through 25 consecutive seasons. The game also has a fantasy challenge mode that lets you go up against 15 fictional teams, which have names like the DaRuhlas, the Crocs, and the Cows. Defeating these teams will unlock them for play. The game also features five unique stadiums to unlock, such as the Roman Colosseum. NFL Fever also includes a fairly robust create-a-player feature. You can set your created player's ability to what you'd like it to be in several different categories, such as acceleration, strength, agility, speed, and endurance.
Increasing your created player's abilities also increases the amount of money it takes to sign him. A first-year star quarterback can go for two million, so you'll have to be smart about the team you create and how you spend your money, since the salary cap is in effect. On top of that, your created player's abilities fluctuate from game to game based on his performance. So if you create a mediocre running back and use him effectively throughout the season, his performance ratings will be higher at the end of the season than when he started. Of course if the player has some tough games and simply doesn't perform that well, his ratings will actually degrade. This fluctuating performance-rating system also directly affects the player's salary, so if your all-star quarterback has a great season, it's going to cost you even more money to re-sign him to a new contract than it did initially. If you can't juggle the money and re-sign him to a new contract, he'll go back into the free-agent pool and will most likely get picked up by one of the AI teams in the game.
The gameplay of NFL Fever 2002 feels like a mix of Madden 2002 and NFL 2K2. The controls are quite responsive and feature a slight touch of the Madden-style momentum-based physics system. The gameplay, however, is quite fast, much like the gameplay in NFL 2K2. Getting used to the game's default control setup takes a few games, but once you do, the gameplay is pretty solid. Holding the A button gives you a short turbo boost. When you press the button, a little lighting-bolt symbol appears above your player, indicating that you're using the speed boost. To switch players you can either press the X button after the snap or press the shoulder buttons prior to the snap. In addition to the standard actions of tackling, spinning, and hurdling, you can even put your hands up in the air with the shoulder buttons. This comes in extremely handy when you're rushing the quarterback and it looks like he's about to throw the ball. Another unique gameplay feature in NFL Fever 2002 is the ability to change a receiver's route on the fly. When your offense steps up to the line, you can simply press a button and select the receiver and the new route you want him to run.
The running game in NFL Fever 2002 is very solid, which is also tied into the impressive offensive and defensive line AI. Passing and receiving is easy in NFL Fever 2002 since it's icon-based, and the only decision you have to make beyond which receiver to throw the ball to is whether it's going to be a bullet or a lob pass. You can throw a bullet pass by tapping the button, and if you hold the button the quarterback will throw a softer lob pass through the air. At a great distance, however, whether you hold or tap the button, the quarterback will throw a high lob that's up for grabs. Pulling down a pass as a receiver is fairly easy to do, especially when hitting a receiver on an out pattern.
So while NFL Fever 2002 certainly controls well, there are some problems with the game's AI in regard to how the game deals with defending against receivers and passing in general. To get right to the point, after playing about eight games you'll become accustomed to the timing it takes to catch most passes, as well as the timing it takes to get an unrealistic number of interceptions per game. Bumping up the game's difficulty setting to the hardest setting increases the defensive back's AI and takes away the timing trick that you'll learn early on. Still, the computer's ability to stick with a defense that stops a passing assault is fairly poor. For instance, you can get away with throwing a deep pass one play, then picking a run or short-pass play the next play, then going back to the bomb, and you'll usually get another first down. Of course depending on the team and players involved in this little AI dance, the results are varied.
Visually, NFL Fever 2002 is quite impressive. The animations of the players are the best we've seen on the Xbox thus far. Microsoft did a very good job of marrying the animation of the players to the physics system used in the game, thus creating a very natural looking tackling-animation system. Its not uncommon to see a defender spin around the ball carrier after overshooting a dive tackle and only getting a hand or two on him. These dynamic tackling animations also look quite impressive thanks to the fact that NFL Fever 2002 has a terrific collision-detection system that makes the players look as though they are actually moving against each other rather than through each other. You will see quirky things every so often when looking at a replay up close, such as a hand or football inside one another, but it doesn't happen as often as in other games. The faces of the players animate with expressions and have mouths that open and close appropriately when they are taunting each other, which looks pretty good. All of the stadiums have been wonderfully re-created in 3D and feel alive with activity. Fully animated 3D coaches and players watch the game from the sidelines, as do cheerleaders, cameramen, and security guards. When you take the camera in for a closer look, you can see that the eyeballs of the players actually follow the football, as do the cameramen with their cameras. Lots of little touches like these add to the realism of the game's presentation, as do the terrific lighting and shadows. Stadium lights and natural lights give different types of shadows in the game as they do in real life.
In the audio department, NFL Fever 2002 does a terrific job of keeping the game exciting even when you're picking the plays. The two-man announcing team is pretty good at calling the plays and providing insightful commentary. They even keep track of your team and players throughout the season and make intelligent comments referring to past games in the season. You do hear a lot of the same stuff over and over again, but for the most part the announcing is really good. Another nice touch is that the announcers will actually say your created player's name when they talk about him if it's a fairly common name. The game's intro music features Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome," which is a nice fit with what is one of the coolest intro movies for a football game ever. The game's menu track is a remixed version of N.E.R.D's "Rockstar Poser," which has been lyrically sprinkled with various football references and an NFL Fever chorus.
In the end, NFL Fever 2002 is a solid game of football. The casual football fan who wants a great-looking and solid-playing football game may not notice some of the AI quirks and high passing percentages in NFL Fever 2002. But longtime fans of the Madden and NFL 2K2 series are sure to. Many of the features in NFL Fever 2002, like being able to save in the middle of a game, are unique to NFL Fever 2002 as is the style of play. So if you're going to buy only one football game for the Xbox and aren't sure what style of play you'd enjoy more, you may want to rent Madden and Fever to see which suits you better before making a purchase.