In the realm of sports games, a brand name will take you a very long way. Just take a look at the amazing lineage that Electronic Arts has established with their Madden, NBA Live and NHL series. EA Sports had a virtual lock on the sports genre during the Genesis/SNES days, although it faced stiff competition from Sega themselves in the form of World Series Baseball. With the Playstation, they faced a more powerful enemy; Sony and 989 Studios, countering with their lineup that matched EA Sports in every way. With the PS2 looming on the horizon, it seemed that EA would once again capture the title of undisputed champion of the sports world. However, Sega and the Dreamcast have stepped up to the challenge with NFL2K and NBA2K last year, and now Sega and Visual Concepts are back with NFL2K1.
Graphically, the game has improved over it's predecessor greatly. While the player models seem to have stayed the same, they are complete with brand new animations to enhance the feel of the game. Linebackers will point to players in motion, receivers are outfitted with brand new catch animations, not to mention the standard touchdown celebrations. With the new motion capture that Sega has done, the game feels more natural in look than last year's version. For the most part, the graphics have stayed the same; even the front interface is executed in a similar manner. The only complaint I have about the graphics is the fact that there are still those ugly 2D sprites on the sidelines. Especially on a VGA cable like mine, they appear so out of place that it's very distracting. I would've liked it better if they were low poly models or taken out of the game entirely.
As far as the commentary goes, it's still the best play by play I've ever heard in a game, hands down. The commentators call the plays as they see them, and they even add their own little quirps and in-jokes while you're playing. Like it or not, these guys know more about what to do in any given situation than most football fans. The players themselves have all new trash talking catch phrases, ranging from "I'm gonna hit you so hard your quarterback won't recognize you" to "Imma coming for you, boy!". Not only do the players trash talk, but the secondary will react to any movement on the field as well. The secondary will call out formations to the defensive line, or they'll scream to their cornerbacks to pick up the man in motion. A lot of times I found this to be extremely beneficial when running my defense, mainly because I could react to what my secondary was shouting out and adjust accordingly. Believe me, it's saved me a few times down the road to success. The commentary does lag behind the action sometimes (especially after a touchdown), but more often than not it makes a great recovery and jumps right back into the thick of things. The crowd in the stadium can be influenced if you're the home team, finally giving true meaning to the term 'home field advantage' in a video game. The noise can make a difference to both teams late in a game.
The real big catch of NFL2K1 is the fact that you can play online against players around the globe. To many, this is a dream come true for those who don't have the broadband connection or high powered system to fulfill this wish on their PCs. Logging onto a game server is easy enough, and challenging someone to a game is even easier. The bars that appear beside a player's name is the lag when compared to your connection. When I went online the first time, I had decent connection that allowed me to play a couple of games for the night. One game was very lagged, although it was playable at some parts, and my other game seemed that I was playing against someone right beside me. Without SegaNet, NFL2K1 was more than playable, so I'm assuming that Sega's high powered network would be even better. Too bad it's not available in Canada (yet).
But what would playing online do if the game wasn't good, right? Never fear, Visual Concepts is on the job. The gameplay overall has been boosted significantly over last year's version. If you thought that NFL2K was a great game, you'll be floored by how much new features there are in this game. For one thing, the running game has changed significantly this year, mainly due to the additions of new moves such as juking and power running, as well as the offensive line's ability to block properly. One thing I like now is that the stiff arm isn't as powerful as it was last year, so getting those extra yards after the first hit is much harder to do now. The quarterbacks have also benefitted from the yearly update, with controllable passes which allow you to throw lobs or bullet passes to your receivers. Each team now has their own unique offensive playbook that suits their strengths. For my Titans, this means a running game centered around Eddie George and a passing game that mainly relys on the tight ends. It's just too bad that every team has the same defense, but then again, a standard 4-4 defense can do the job great against any team. Then there are the little things that affect gameplay, such as when kicking a field goal or during a punt, where the location arrow will move by itself in order to give you a better challenge. No longer can you take your sweet time setting everything up just perfectly; you actually have to work for your field goals as much as you do your touchdowns.
In my opinion, the gameplay is great, but not without a few hiccups. Depending on how high you set penalty calling, the refs can be blind as bats. Calls that should have been made aren't, and those that are can sometimes come out of the blue. In one instance, I was called for Pass Interference when it looked like I swatted the receiver when I was trying to block the pass. Another nuisance that can't be overlooked is that the running game, while improved, can be extremely un-balanced because of many of the new additions to the running back's repetoire. Backs who get a play off-tackle can easily break free by juking forever, which is real annoying late in a game. Finally, the passing play can still be exploited when facing an AI team. Finding that one play that you can use over and over again still works here (just like in every football game, it seems), although the computer seems to pick up on you for a while if you continously run this play.
In reality, it's unfortunate that many stupidly loyal gamers will bypass playing NFL2K1 merely because they want the 'next big thing' (re: PS2) and it's hyped up football game (re: Madden 2001). However, those who are willing to try something that's just as good, if not better than the great white hype will find that there's a real gem to be found here. And Sega, if you're reading this, I consider this sweet redemption for World Series Baseball 2K1.
Bottom Line: If you want the best football game on the market, get this. Great gameplay and visuals matched with some great online features makes this the sports game to beat this year.
· · · Reno