- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2003

Sometimes you just need to start from scratch.

Maybe that’s the lesson Microsoft failed to learn over the past three years with its NFL franchise for Xbox, NFL Fever. Like many new products, Fever appeared in 2001 with many flaws and much promise. Microsoft has corrected some of those errors. More than that can’t be said.

Take, for instance, NFL Fever 2004’s graphics. You would think in a first-party game things would look great, but before each play, when the camera pulls back to give you a sense of the field, the players appear unfocused. Worse, they have some sort of black outline around them. Once play starts, the camera zooms in, and graphics improve. In a word, inconsistent.

In fact, inconsistency might be the disease of NFL Fever 2004. You can control game speed, but that doesn’t help when it isn’t constant to begin with. At normal speed, most of the players move relatively slowly; the ball, meanwhile, leaves the quarterback’s hand like a rocket. Pass rushers act like they’re running through wet cement, but call a run blitz and the linebackers fly through as if each one were Ray Lewis. It’s the kind of thing that should have been improved by now.

Luckily, the artificial intelligence works better than ever, allowing for realistic stats and scores. You won’t get 120-0 scores, even on the game’s easiest level. And playing is easy to pick up for the most part, mostly because Microsoft wisely included controller setups aping its biggest competitors as well as its own traditional button assignments. There are tons of plays, but the game allows you to see all of your recent choices, plus the success of those choices, when you go to call another.

Where it goes slightly wrong is in the passing game. NFL Fever 2004 has the normal one-button passing, but you can’t control how hard the ball is thrown. To do that, you have to switch to trigger passing, which is more of a nightmare because it requires you to press a button to choose a receiver, then pull the trigger to control whether it is a lob or a bullet. It would seem to make more sense to remove the trigger from the equation, especially when you consider there’s a tougher way to pass.

The read and lead method allows you to move a target so that the receiver will run onto it in an open area. Unfortunately, it requires three steps: pressing a button to choose a receiver, moving the target and pulling the trigger.

The 25-season dynasty mode remains decent but underwhelming; its depth just doesn’t match some of the other football games on the market. There’s no training camp or preseason to improve your players. Instead, players will improve or get worse as the season continues based on their play. The draft is fairly basic, but the Hall of Fame feature is a nice touch.

Where NFL Fever stands out, of course, is online play, perhaps the best new feature in any pro football game this fall. Not only can you use Xbox Live to find random games or play against your friends, you can start leagues with what Microsoft calls XSN Sports.

XSN basically allows you to create a fantasy football league on its Web site just like you would have on Yahoo!, only your games against the league’s other players provide the stats.

But XSN feels like the only fresh feature of NFL Fever 2004, a franchise that has gone stale. Is Fever a bad game? Decidedly not. But it hasn’t really improved since its first incarnation, which means the other pro football simulations for Xbox have left it behind.

And who wants to play a game online that isn’t all that great?

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