When you think about Midway, you think about two games from its past. Mortal Kombat proved there was more to fighting games than just Street Fighter, and it was one of only a handful of games to be spun into a multimedia property. NBA Jam was the first building block in Midway's arcade sports empire, and it was the two of the one-two arcade punch that gave Midway--or Acclaim, who was doing all of Midway's home games at that point--an unstoppable home lineup. While the Mortal Kombat series may have lost its luster over the past few years, Midway's sports games have always maintained a certain level of quality. Even though the Blitz series has gone further and further offtrack since its high point--the arcade release of NFL Blitz '99--it has still managed to excel at what it was designed to do, delivering fast and exciting games of football that can be enjoyed by players regardless of their interest in the actual sport. NFL Blitz 2002 strays even further from the simple yet insanely strategic NFL Blitz '99, but due to Midway's careful redesign and improvements, it manages to come into its own in a way that the last two games weren't able to.
NFL Blitz takes several fairly major liberties with the rules of football. For starters, there aren't any penalties, so roughing the passer and extreme cases of pass interference aren't only encouraged, but are required to remain competitive. You now have to move the ball 30 yards to earn a first down, and the game has fewer players on the field than the real-life NFL. The game does, however, throw one more player on the field than previous Blitz games. This player, called the impact player, can be programmed to handle different tasks independently of the play you call. On offense, you can set the impact player to go deep, cover, get open, and so on. On the other side of the ball, the impact player can drop back into zone coverage, execute a delayed rush, blitz immediately, or work man-to-man coverage. The impact player is a neat idea, as it gives you a ton of different options regardless of the plays you call, but in practice, the impact player doesn't make too much of a difference.
The game features pages and pages of plays, broken up into a few different sets. The most popular set is also the default set, called old school. The old school plays are some of the best plays from previous entries in the series, and they're still the most useful plays in the game. Some of the newer plays are nice, but too many of them emphasize tricky routes and other weirdness that can't really be depended on too heavily. Plays can be flipped, and you can put a man in motion before the snap to add yet another twist to the existing play. The defensive playbook isn't quite as deep, but it has plays for every situation.
Once you've selected a play, the emphasis shifts from selecting a play that will leave a man open to getting tricky with the ball. As long as you're behind the line of scrimmage, you can lateral the ball back and forth between the quarterback and your receivers at will. This aspect has been toned down quite a bit when compared with past games in the series, though, as the passes move much, much slower now. So calling the split and hoping to get two laterals off before anyone crosses the line of scrimmage is pretty much impossible now. The rest of the game is about using the tools the game gives you to get as much yardage as possible. Previous games have contained a spin move that occasionally lets you spin around or through tackles without going down and a stiff arm that will knock defenders down if timed properly. New this year is a juke button, which causes your player to stop moving and juke for a second or so. During the juke, the player is very difficult to tackle, but the lack of forward motion makes it a move that is best used when you have only one or two defenders to shake.
One minor point that will stick out for hard-core fans of the series is that tackle animations that move the ball carrier forward actually count as positive yardage now. This occasionally tacks an additional three or four yards onto a play. Tackle animations that knock a player back, however, mark the line of scrimmage at the place where the tackle was started. Previous entries in the series simply marked the line where the tackle started, regardless of where the tackle animation placed the player. If you could control which tackle animations were used to avoid the spinning arm-grab tackle that usually gives the other player additional yardage, this wouldn't be a problem. But since it's random, it's a bit of an annoyance. In general, the game controls very well. The firmness of the Xbox's analog sticks gives you a nice level of control over the players without making it too difficult to dive accurately. The analog triggers can get in the way, though, as they make double-tapping the right trigger to spin a little difficult.
Blitz contains a collection of modes that more or less repackage the game in different ways. Quickstart lets you jump right into a game, arcade mode mirrors the "beat every team" challenge of the arcade versions of the Blitz games, and season mode lets you play a whole season of football. Tournament mode lets you set up tournament trees for multiple players. Like its predecessors, the game features a ton of different secret codes and players. Secret players include all kinds of crazy stuff, like pirates, robots, and clowns. Secret codes let you disable the insidious computer assistance, which keeps games close by pumping up the losing team and making the winning team more susceptible to fumbles, interceptions, and the like. Other codes include the ever-present big head mode and an additional page of offensive plays.
The series has received a complete graphical overhaul for this game, and the results are quite nice. The stadiums all look fantastic, particularly the turf. The players look bigger and meaner this year, and there are quite a few new tackle animations that accurately convey a message of complete and utter pain. The realism isn't quite up to par with that of the "real" football games, so you'll occasionally see a ball hit a player in the back and magically reappear in his hands, but considering the game's arcade focus, this isn't a big deal. Many of the same tackle and grunt sound effects return this year, but the commentary has been expanded a great deal. There is now a two-man team handling commentary, though this is mostly so the new color man can make painfully obvious observations for humor's sake. The commentary is funny at first, but it doesn't have the variety required to keep the jokes funny for longer than three or four games.
While it may not be as tightly focused as NFL Blitz '99, NFL Blitz 2002 features the same basic concepts that make the series great. Blitz old-timers will balk at the game's completely different timing and needlessly expanded playbooks, but in the end, NFL Blitz 2002 is the best arcade-style football game on the home market and makes an excellent alternative for those who haven't been wowed by the Xbox's other football offerings.