There are two ways of looking at Madden NFL 2002. Optimists might see a game that is significantly better than its predecessor, one with helmets that reflect stadium lights and a respectable running game. On the other hand, pessimists might note that last year's version is hardly a worthy benchmark; that this new installment has significant gameplay balance issues that render each of the difficulty settings dissatisfying; and that it's really nothing more than a port of last year's PlayStation 2 edition of Madden NFL 2001, warts and all.
The truth falls somewhere between these two extremes, though an extended period of time spent with Madden 2002 will likely prove unfulfilling to all but the most forgiving arcade sports gamers. There are just too many hurdles to overcome. Although the customizable artificial intelligence sliders and appreciable range of difficulty settings can make a huge difference in regard to realism, you're always compensating for one problem or another. Finding an acceptable re-creation of the NFL gridiron remains frustratingly elusive. No matter how much you tweak, the basic game engine contains cracks in its foundation that can't be readily repaired.
Such flaws show up as soon as you get beyond your first few games and grow comfortable with both the gameplay and the interface. Offensive play rapidly devolves to nothing but long-range passing. Although the short game is properly realized, complete with agile cornerbacks and linebackers who are quick to bat down a pass anywhere near them, patterns that go longer than around 15 yards send the defenders into a vapor lock. At those distances and beyond, corners fixate on the receivers they're covering and completely forget about the ball. They never glance back and seem blissfully unaware of what's going on around them until the pigskin has been caught and they're required to make a tackle. Virtually every quarterback in the game can rack up a minimum of 350 yards in the air, every game. And that shouldn't be the case in a league featuring weak sisters like Tony Banks and Charlie Batch, and hapless clubs like the Cleveland Browns.
You can address this problem somewhat by boosting the difficulty setting and adjusting the AI slider bars to enhance computer defensive awareness and pass knockdowns, and reduce your own catching ability. But the issue never really goes away, and the adjustments cause their own problems. Bump the general difficulty up to all-pro or all-Madden, and you'll lose most of your ability to move the ball on the ground. Running to the outside becomes virtually impossible, and going straight up the gut is never worthwhile. Of course, this can be tweaked by adjusting the running ability and run-blocking AI sliders--though as in the case of the passing game, you can't fully compensate for the problem. The all-Madden mode adds even more obstacles by apparently maxing out player abilities. Defenders have both preternatural awareness of what you're about to attempt and godlike skill to stop you from doing it. Be prepared to watch the likes of Warren Sapp running down cheetahs like Randy Moss.
All of this adds up to create a game that's one-dimensional and rather boring, despite the aerial displays that take place every time your players step onto the field. These issues waste the outstanding depth of the game design and features, as only diehards of the Madden series will stay interested long enough to enjoy the presence of all 31 NFL teams, plus the expansion Houston Texans and the NFL Europe clubs, the new create-a-team option that lets you design a custom team logo and uniforms, and the involving franchise mode (complete with the salary cap and coaching changes). Speedier Internet play will likely be embraced, as other human players can compensate for the weaknesses outlined above, although that certainly can't make too much of a difference in regard to correcting the serious run-and-pass imbalance.
One mitigating factor that makes Madden NFL 2002 entertaining for a longer period of time than it should be is an impressive visual quality. This is almost certainly the best-looking sports game ever released for the PC, or perhaps any platform. Tiburon Entertainment has perfected the television-style presentation that's been the hallmark of EA Sports releases for a decade. Graphics are close to photo-realistic, particularly the stunning player models that are so detailed that you can even see the hair on their arms. Those typically unmoved by this sort of minutiae can't help but be wowed by realistic facial features, authentic skin tones, and even the rolls of fat jiggling around the bellies of offensive tackles.
The animations are miles beyond those in last year's game. That awkward ramrod gait has been replaced with motion-captured moves that are one step removed from NFL Films. Bulky linemen, lithe receivers, power backs, and stand-up quarterbacks all move like their real-world counterparts, from their powerful block to their acrobatic one-handed catches. Tackles are equally accurate--and so diverse that you'll rarely see a player brought down the same way twice in a game. They're even messy, with running backs often staggering forward until a series of clumsy hits bring them to the ground or with wide receivers getting knocked off stride by a near miss around the knees and stumbling until they collapse. Best of all, offensive plays now look exactly as they should. In direct opposition to recent Maddens, where the ball often bounced around subject to behind-the-scenes play result determinations that were beyond the ability of the graphics engine to depict, here you can watch the ball travel from quarterback to receiver without a hitch. Catches with the backs of helmets and tosses emanating directly from a pivot's chest are finally a thing of the past.
Frills are everywhere. Helmets reflect light sources dynamically, so you'll see both the sun and stadium lights shining around team logos. You can also adjust the time of day of the game. Play in the morning and afternoon, and you'll have the sun high overhead; play at dusk, and you'll see long shadows creeping across the field. The position of the sun even advances as day games progress. This is particularly noticeable in contests that start at dusk, as shadows slowly move into an end zone as the sun goes down. Stadiums themselves are filled with animated fans that bring the surroundings to life. Officials are present on the sidelines, and last year's 2D cutouts of players all wearing number 88 have been replaced by fully 3D models of players (with different numbers) and coaches.
The only major complaint to be made about the presentation concerns the shoddy play-by-play. Considering that the game bears the name of the biggest loudmouth in pro football, it's unfortunate that John Madden and his broadcast buddy Pat Summerall seem like they're out to lunch for the majority of each game. They contribute nothing but generic broadcasterese that has little to do with what's actually going on, and they miss big plays entirely. The two remain silent while players are crossing the goal line, while passes are being intercepted, and even while a dozen players are fighting it out for fumbled balls bouncing around the turf. It would be comical if it weren't so annoying to be kept in the dark about the results of the play. You'll often wait for 10 seconds or more to find out if the ball carrier broke the plane of the goal line, or if a receiver managed to get both feet down before going out of bounds. At least the on-field smashes, crashes, and groans of pain are nicely realized.
All of this video and audio glitter is showcased between every play, courtesy of cutscene-like close-ups and instant replays that take you into the trenches. These clips are lengthy but varied and so reminiscent of watching TV on autumn Sunday afternoons that you'll often sit through them, if only to see a player's reaction to what just unfolded. Gameplay flaws and all, it's still easy to get wrapped up in a contest here because of the way that it unfolds.
Well, for a short period of time, at least. Madden NFL 2002 will wear out its welcome in short order if you have any demands on the game as a serious simulation of the sport. Most will want to move on to the current PlayStation 2 version of the game, which represents a year of design improvements that this dated port does not. Arcade sports fans should be able to enjoy themselves more, though even they will likely grow tired of the many limitations and quickly move on to something else. It's worth a look only if you're curious about the eye candy, and if you're curious about seeing just what is possible on a contemporary PC. This is one of those games that people may want to have in their collections simply to show off the raw power of their expensive gaming rigs. Actually playing the game should be a secondary concern, if it's any concern at all.