American Football is a sport that only a handful of people outside America follow or seem to know exactly why large numbers of men run into each other continuously for a few hours. However underneath it all lies a very strategic sport which makes for great game play. The NFL Fever series in its first two games hasn't gotten off to the best start but 2004 is now available and the level of improvement is astounding.
NFL Fever 2004 is Microsofts next foray into the NFL market. For those of you who don't know the sport, American Football consists of three team units; offence, defence and special teams. These units clash with each other and the aim is to get the football into the end zone for a touchdown. So now that you've had your quick NFL 101, heres our impressions of the game.
For those of you who have played the original two games be prepared to say wow when you first play the 2004 iteration. Whilst most of the game has stayed the same, the presentation and other aspects of the game have completely changed. The main game modes are back with franchise; exhibition and practice but some new multiplayer options have really spiced the title up. Exhibition mode is fairly self explanatory allowing you to pick two of the NFL teams, play a single game and then finish up. Franchise tasks you with picking a team from the current NFL franchises, and taking them on a twenty five year run to try and form an NFL dynasty. Of course most gamers won't play the full twenty five years, but if you do along the way you will encounter retirements, serious injuries and players moving to other teams.
One omission which is a surprise is the lack of playoffs mode. Traditionally in NFL games this has allowed the player to take a team through the NFL play off series without having to first play through the seventeen week regular season. It does encourage you to play through the regular season, but there's only so many times you can do it before it becomes quite monotonous. Also there is no option to play a season without taking on the other responsibilities of the franchise mode such as trading, the NFL draft and other end of year tasks.
Being officially licensed, NFL Fever contains all the official players, franchises and stadiums from the league. Everything is completely authentic such as the insignias on the players uniforms and the construction and look of the stadium. As well as the official NFL teams, there are numerous famous teams to unlock such as the San Francisco 49ers from 1969. Once you have won a Superbowl championship, a classic team will challenge you right away. Defeat them and the ability to use that team is yours.
There is varying degrees of realism for you to choose in NFL Fever 2004. If like the other titles you want to play with basic controls, basic plays etc then you can, but if you want more of a challenge then you can crank up the realism. For instance you can choose between one button passing or read-and-lead. Read-and-lead forces you to guide the wide receiver to where the ball is going to land, much like in the NFL itself. Takes a while to get accustomed to, but increases the realism tenfold.
In the basic game play modes, the play book is broken up into various categories such as pass play, running play or special teams play. This makes it easy for those of you who don't know the sport to well to pick a play. The assistant coach at times will give you some information to help you make a decision. He also at times provides a set of plays which he thinks would be good for the current situation. As well as the assistant coach, Chalk Talk has returned and will again take you through the basic rules of American Football in a video format.
Possibly the biggest addition to both Fever 2004 and Xbox Live this year is the XSN Sports service by Microsoft. Fever 2004 is the first game to make use of this new service and it allows you to setup private tournaments, leagues and various other options online. After the league is created you enter a password in the XSN login screen in-game and from there your league is available to play in. Once this service is not in pre-season mode like it is at the moment, then it could change online sports games forever.
The controls used in Fever 2004 very much mimic that of last years game. The sticks are used to control the players, with the buttons performing tasks such as jumping, blocking, tackling etc. If you choose to use the advanced options such as read-and-lead passing the controls become a bit more complex. Players have to select the receiver to catch the ball and then press the right trigger to throw it. The DPAD is used in the defensive plays to change which player you are currently controlling.
One of the most significant changes to NFL Fever this year is the animation system. The players no longer look like they are running around with a nappy on, in fact the animation system is quite impressive. The graphics have been toned down a little on last years version (except in replays and the end of game highlight reel) but the game play more then makes up for that. Commentary is again provided by Kevin Calabro and Ron Pitts and at times it does seem lacklustre. Sound effects are great and the soundtrack is very run of the mill.
The NFL Fever franchise has made leaps and bounds in terms of realism and playability this year. Whilst titles such as ESPN Football 2K4 probably still have the lead on Fever, it is catching up. With XSN Sports, full Xbox Live compatibility and the new animation system, Fever 2004 should definitely entice a few NFL Fans. If they keep improving upon the franchise in this manner for 2005 and beyond, then it will definitely be a serious competitor in years to come.
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