PC sports gamers have been largely ignored for a long time now. Aside from EA Sports, nearly every other major publisher of sports games has moved its efforts to the current generation of console systems. So while Xbox, PS2, and GameCube owners get to enjoy three or four different games representing each of the four big North American professional sports, computer owners have to make do with one baseball game, one football game, and so on. Such a lack of choice has caused a lot of die-hard computer-sports-game buffs to feel neglected. A cure for that feeling can be found in FarSight Studios and Konami of America's ESPN NFL PrimeTime 2002. Unfortunately, being stuck with only the Madden series depicting football on the PC doesn't seem so terrible after a bout with this game, which is every bit as awful as its release date more than a month after the Super Bowl might suggest. If having a choice means that you have to endure poorly designed, ugly, bug-ridden shovelware like this, better then to have no choice at all.
Actually, NFL PrimeTime 2002 isn't a choice for many of its prospective victims. Bugs have been widely reported, and our test system--more than a match for the recommended system requirements and equipped with a GeForce3 Ti 500--experienced frequent crashes. Playing games in 32-bit color at video resolutions above the default 640x480 was impossible, as every attempt resulted in an immediate crash that not only shut the game down, but also rebooted our machine. Switching to 16-bit color enabled us to play above 640x480, though random drops to the desktop continued to be a problem. In all, the game probably crashed at least twice for every game that we successfully completed.
Even when you can get the game to run, playing just isn't worthwhile. While the list of available options is solid--with the inclusion of a thorough franchise play mode offsetting the absence of an Internet multiplayer option--the gameplay is a pastiche of everything that people complained about in computer football games a few years ago. The computer is far from astute as a coach, no matter which of the four difficulty settings you're using. Play-calling choices are often straight from the Bizarro World's Pop Warner league, complete with running the ball repeatedly in long-yardage situations and throwing repeatedly when stuck in a situation where running out the clock is advisable. Get the computer club back on its heels inside its own five-yard line, and it will do nothing but throw long, no matter how much time is left on the clock, no matter what the score. We've come back to win more than one game because the computer chose to go for an unnecessary first down instead of just letting the clock expire.
The game also does a subpar job of general clock management. Computer plays are called instantly, leaving a minimum of 25 seconds on the play clock, meaning that you'll be able to get off many more plays than would be possible in a real NFL game. This makes it hard to keep scores close to their real-world equivalents, even when you're playing with five-minute quarters. Playing with full 15-minute quarters is impossible, unless you want to see scores in arena football territory.
The play mechanics are equally disappointing. Compensating for the second-rate artificial intelligence is the computer's uncanny ability to pull off long bombs and make interceptions at opportune times. Because of this, scores typically remain close when they shouldn't, and you begin to feel like the game is cheating. Control issues also make you feel like some cheating is going on. Players glide across the turf as if they were skating, making it hard to make precise moves and cuts. Animations appear to skip frames. Tackles happen with all the suddenness of a bolt of lightning--one moment the defensive player is three yards away, the next he's got the ballcarrier on the ground. Additionally, there is no gray area with tackling. If an opposing player gets close, the ballcarrier is going down, no matter how well he uses the speed burst, juke, spin, stiff-arm, or other specialty moves. This works both ways, of course, though it still seems like the game is compensating for unsatisfactory AI with these magic tackles. After all, if players weren't taken down so easily, the game would be even more of a wide-open scorefest than it is already.
The visual quality is at the same low level as everything else here. The player models are rough, with blocky faces and knees and elbows so sharp that every tackle should result in a dozen stitches for everyone involved. The models also seem incomplete. Close-ups shown between plays often let you look through players' helmets to the sky above or peer through their shoulders at the sidelines. Players also frequently shudder during play, causing a strobe-light effect that makes it difficult to keep your eyes on the screen, and they sometimes flicker when standing on the sidelines. The weather effects exacerbate the latter problem, with snowflakes and players often flashing as much as a broken neon sign. But NFL PrimeTime 2002 isn't all bad visually. The stadium art is pretty good, particularly the animated crowds and textures used for the grass and turf. Team-specific banners are used to further customize each club's home field. Also, the player models get dirty as games go on. Mud and grass stains show up on their uniforms and helmets when playing on natural turf, a subtle touch that reinforces the "down in the trenches" feeling that football is all about.
The audio quality is also spotty, though it is better overall than the game's visual components. Much of this edge is due to the ESPN signature voices of Chris Berman and Tom Jackson, who provide all the play-by-play and color commentary. Berman's contributions are particularly welcome, as they do a good job of describing the on-field action with a minimum of hyperbole and a good sprinkling of players' names among accounts of what's happening. Jackson isn't quite so useful. Most of his lines consist of catchphrases like, "The offensive coordinator didn't have that in mind when he drew up that play." The only saving grace is the sheer number of these bland comments. In-game effects include the standard thumps and smacks, though a number of expected effects are missing. It's odd that penalties aren't announced and that audibles are called without a peep.
Which is in some ways fitting, because "without a peep" is exactly how ESPN NFL PrimeTime 2002 should disappear. Feeble gameplay makes the game unappealing, and the number of serious bugs that have come along for the ride make it completely unacceptable. The idea of having an alternative to EA Sports' award-winning Madden series is apparently superior to the reality, at least if this is the only choice available.