Critics and consumers agreed that Red Zone Interactive, which developed GameDay 2001 for the PlayStation 2, put forth a rather halfhearted effort in bringing the first-party football game to Sony's console. Perhaps it was a result of the game's shortened development schedule. However, with GameDay 2002, the studio has addressed many of the complaints aimed at last year's game and has brought the series back to contention among PS2 football simulations. NFL GameDay 2002 isn't without its flaws, and ultimately, it falls short of more robust competing products, but it is also a much-improved game with solid graphics and presentation.
Unlike in last year's game, the controls and general gameplay feel in GameDay 2002 are actually pretty good. Although the game uses a momentum-based control system, à la EA's Madden, it moves at a fluid and relatively quick pace. The control scheme is quite intuitive, as players can stiff-arm and juke left and right, dive, spin, high-step, and use turbo to turn on the speed, all on command. In the running game, blocks form realistically, and, although most of the offensive linemen in the game should be routinely flagged for holding penalties, running the ball does require the player to recognize holes and to follow blockers. Additionally, the tackle animations are extremely high-intensity, as you can almost feel some of the game's more vicious tackles. There are some over-the-top hits, like the ones that involve the offensive player being lifted 6 feet off the turf, but generally, the tackles are very realistic and forceful. However, GameDay 2002--even though the gameplay is much better than that of last year's lackluster version--isn't without its glaring flaws.
GameDay 2002 has problems with its gameplay on two fronts. There are some inherent problems with the AI and the pass defense, which becomes readily evident after only a handful of games, but then there are some bugs in the code that pop up from time to time after extended playtime. The usual culprits, such as clipping and slowdown, rear their ugly head once in a while, but there are also a few superfluous bugs. For example, in certain instances, the offensive team will run plays literally from the huddle--no kidding. The offensive team will get in the huddle, and the ball can be hiked while it's in the huddle--so the play will run with the players scrambling in vain to get into their set positions. This happened more than a few times in our first season with the game. Bugs like these aren't overbearing, but they are unforgivable for a seasoned product like GameDay. However, although these bugs don't significantly detract from the game, there are some inherent gameplay flaws that do.
The most prominent gameplay problem is the passing game. Defensive backs are always left at a disadvantage, as it is easy to routinely throw for long gains by simply chucking the ball down the field and letting the receiver run underneath it. Against computer-controlled teams, for the most part, long passes will result in either completions or a dropped pass by the wide receiver. The defensive backs will hardly ever make an effective play on the ball. Granted, AI-controlled DBs in GameDay 2002 are better at reading out-routes and crossing patterns, but they are always a step behind on post or fly patterns. Raising the game's difficulty level, which increases in four increments, hardly makes any difference. Although it's a bit better against human players, who can read formations better than the game's AI, even head-to-head games turn into scorefests because of the unbalanced passing system.
Exasperating GameDay's passing problems further is the game's weak defensive AI. It is generally pretty easy to fool the defensive team into thinking run. Most of the time, after one or two running plays, the defensive team will sneak the linebackers closer to the line, leaving the already inept defensive secondary at a further disadvantage. On the offensive side of the ball, the AI, although a bit smarter, still makes a lot of dumb mistakes. It is entirely too easy to bait the quarterback into a throw. For example, keeping the linebacker back a little bit when the running back runs a route in flat will almost always entice the AI quarterback into throwing the ball in the back's direction. After the ball is thrown, some of the faster linebackers can either take a sharp angle for an interception or get to the running back just as the ball gets there and deliver a huge hit for a loss.
Perhaps to accommodate these AI holes, the computer-controlled wide receivers and running backs receive unrealistic speed boosts once they manage to get behind the defense and catch the ball. If you're ever beat on a long pass, you can forget about it, because the AI receiver will turn on the afterburners and leave your defensive back in the dust every single time--regardless of the players involved. On top of all that, individual player statistics don't matter nearly as much as they should in the game. Playing our first season with the Chicago Bears, we threw for more than 5,000 yards with Shane Matthews at quarterback and ran for more than 1,500 yards with James Allen. Granted, both of those players are decent, but they shouldn't be putting up such robust numbers. You can take just about any player in the game and turn him into a superstar.
Off the field, the game's options, in particular the franchise mode, are quite comprehensive. There are four primary modes of play, including season and exhibition. But the aforementioned franchise mode naturally holds the meat of the gameplay. Here, the game keeps track of full individual player and team statistics over multiple seasons. Players will be drafted, improve throughout the course of their career, strive to make the pro bowl and win the MVP award, and retire into obscurity or into the game's hall of fame. The franchise mode also keeps track of statistics for the coach and the franchise. Everything from career win/loss records, playoff appearances, and Super Bowl wins are tracked.
In terms of player movement options, such as free agency, trades, and the draft, a salary cap option comes into play and governs all personnel moves. Each team has a cap that cannot be exceeded, and player salaries increase or decrease depending on performance. Unfortunately, when offering new contracts, it is not possible to tweak the salary and number of years offered to the player--the game calculates the individual NFL player's preference in that area depending, again, on performance. Still, the game does provide scouting reports for each individual player in the draft and lets you track individual player stats for each of his seasons in the league. The menu interface in the franchise mode, as with the rest of the game, is quite intuitive, and managing multiple seasons can be a blast, albeit a rather time-consuming one, for hard-core football fans.
Although the franchise mode has been beefed up considerably, the area that has received the most attention from the development team is the game's graphics. GameDay 2002 has improved in just about every aspect visually when compared with last year's counterpart. The player models look more realistic in terms of size, movement, cadence, jersey, and facial textures. Each of the players now has a variety of facial animations that differ depending on the game situation. Linebackers will point out weaknesses in the offensive formation, quarterbacks will call plays in the huddle, and players will celebrate in several different ways after big plays.
The stadiums in the game are designed to the specifications of their real-life counterparts. From the jungle motif in the Jaguars' stadium to a working JumboTron in PSI Net stadium in Baltimore, every last bit of detail is in the game. However, in terms of visual quality, particularly in texture detail, lighting, and shadowing, the game still does not keep up with competing products from EA Sports and Sega Sports. It has improved a lot since last year's version, though, which is a great sign for the upcoming games in the series.
The sound and music in GameDay 2002 is typical NFL simulation game fare. Big drum sounds and percussions blare over subtle guitar-heavy baselines. It is the type of music you would expect to hear on any NFL pregame show. Interestingly, 989 Sports enlisted the aid of NFL films narrator, John Facenda, to provide the commentary during the game's intro sequence and after you win the Super Bowl, which is a neat little touch. In terms of the announcing team, Dick Enberg returns and is joined by former NFL quarterback and Monday Night Football announcer Dan Fouts. The announcing is spot-on, but it is also not very in-depth. Enberg and Fouts do a great job of calling plays and discussing the action on the field without becoming repetitive, but they hardly reference previous plays in the game and overall team strengths and weaknesses. Still, although the announcing isn't multilayered, it is one of the strongest to date for the series.
After an anemic first-year effort on the PlayStation 2, it seems that with GameDay 2002, the series is finally back on track. The game improves in just about every category. The graphics are more vibrant and detailed, the controls and gameplay are solid for the most part, and the sound and presentation are much improved. However, as discussed, there are still plenty of issues that keep the game from favorably competing against other more polished football games on the PlayStation 2.