Gridiron roundup: Console football games run the gamut
October 7, 1999
By Adam Levine,
Another NFL season means big bucks for video game companies banking on tweaks and new stars to drive their latest offerings. Can't wait to make a Super Bowl run with Tim Couch and the Cleveland Browns? Been waiting for a game in which the Jets don't stink? If so, you are one of countless football fans ready to shell out some cash.
The pro football video game industry, once dominated by Electronic Arts, is now extremely competitive and reactive. Companies now duel with accelerated release dates and race to find the next must-have feature.
This year's crop for the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 includes offerings from Midway (“NFL Blitz”), 989 Studios (“NFL GameDay 2000”) and Electronic Arts (“Madden 2000”). All of the games have full NFL licensing with all the players, logos and stadiums. But each one takes a different approach.
Last year the new kid on the block was Midway's Blitz. This year it's clear that both EA and 989 have taken notice of the success of this arcade-style game and have attempted to broaden the appeal of their simulation-oriented games.
Gameplay - Electronic Arts set the standard in football gaming for years with the Madden series, managing to steadily improve in the past decade. Madden 2000 continues the tradition with a faster and smoother running game. In the past, outside running plays consistently worked. Now you can claw away at decent runs between the tackles. The key is following the play and resisting the urge to break it outside. You are occasionally rewarded with big runs up the gut when you can execute a stiff arm or juke on an inside linebacker.
The passing game on the other hand is a bit unpredictable. Madden 2000 forces you to make good reads and look for one-on-one coverage downfield, but on longer passes the ball seems to really jump out to the receivers. To further complicate your passing attack, receivers tend to stop dead in their tracks waiting for the ball. Fortunately, the game allows you to change individual player routes on the fly with a quick audible before the snap.
Graphics & Sounds - The Nintendo 64 version is much better looking (with the 4MB expansion memory pak) than the PlayStation version. In both games, the players are oddly proportioned and angular -- mostly with long, wide torsos and stumpy legs. The stadiums are decent looking, but don't blow you away with any degree of detail. The tackling and pass animations are pretty good. After a big offensive or defensive play you get treated to amusing cut-away celebration scenes.
John Madden and Pat Summerall sound pretty metallic, although the timing of their comments works well. However, the biggest disappointment is the lack of commentary from Madden himself. He is, after all, the most entertaining and knowledgeable football announcer on TV. His tracks are repetitive and almost a sidebar to Summerall's play-by-play. The crowd sounds are nothing special, but the tackling and grunting from the players works well.
Special delivery - EA has added the Madden Challenge, a clever system that rewards players with hidden codes for answering trivia questions and completing in-game tasks -- like a 100-yard rushing game. The challenge also has different levels of difficulty, each with greater rewards.
What were they thinking? - Madden 2000 includes an arcade mode, which is a big joke. Fewer plays, late hits and more turnovers don't work well with the Madden engine. This was a really bad idea by the folks at EA.
Gameplay – If you want fast, hard-hitting action, then this game is for you. This is the second generation of Blitz, an arcade game that has clearly influenced all of this year's games. The idea in Blitz is to deliver an NFL-like game without all the elements that can slow a game down -- like extra points, big play books, penalties and coin tosses. These elements are replaced with brutal tackles, taunts and addictive bone-crushing action.
Players choose from three pages of offensive plays (and just one page of defensive plays). But no matter what you call, turnovers are the key to this game. If you get ahead against the computer or another human then you can guarantee the other team will keep getting the ball back with wacky interceptions and improbable fumbles until the score levels out. This might annoy some folks, but once you get used to it, you can predict and count on it to keep games close and exciting. As a result, it is very common for the game to be decided on the last possession of most games.
Blitz 2000 features an improved one-button passing interface, eliminating last year's directional stick based system. One button snaps the ball and then three others (left, right and top C buttons) are assigned to one of your receivers. Two sacks or three straight completions to the same receiver sets your team on fire, allowing for unlimited turbo and the always amusing ability of receivers to carry defenders on their backs.
Blitz 2000 allows players to create and save one page of their own plays. The play editor is a bit tricky and somewhat time consuming to use, but once you invest the love in creating, naming and testing a play the reward is well worth it.
Graphics & Sounds - A quick look under the hood shows that Blitz clearly sacrifices graphics for speed. As a result, players are blocky, bulky and somewhat deformed. However, the look fits the game. Midway had added new stadiums and improved the rest, but you only really see them on game-opening kickoff pans. The sound samples get repetitive, but the announcing and background music at menus adds a solid sense of urgency and energy.
Special delivery - Last year Blitz was only a two-player game. Blitz 2000 allows four-player action that is downright intense. Teams of two trade off calling offensive and defensive plays, which mixes up the action and encourages both players to communicate or at least understand which plays will work.
What were they thinking? - The four-player mode is great, but why not let four people play on the same team? Getting the chance to hand the computer a beat down would have been well worth it.
Gameplay - From the start, GameDay 2000 is really fun to play. This game falls somewhere between a true simulation and an arcade game. GameDay features a far more realistic AI than in year's past, and 989 removed some of the sure money plays that were too effective against the computer.
Passes seem to pop out a bit to receivers, but it isn't too much of a distraction. Receivers generally stick to their routes unless you camp out in the pocket. The passing attack works best if you get rid of the ball quickly.
Running the ball in GameDay is very satisfying. This game seems to have the right mix of moves and realistic physics. When a running back gets popped by a defender, he usually can churn out another yard on the way down. It's refreshing to see diving in short-yardage situations consistently work.
In last year's game, defenders benefited from diving tackles for big losses. Dives in GameDay 2000 are less effective and much riskier. Running backs are better at shedding tackles and execute jukes and spins faster. A neat touch is -- the bounce back effect -- when an running back collides with a defender, both players are knocked back and lose their momentum.
Don't expect too many turnovers and penalties in the course of a game. However, interceptions are plentiful. In most football games, a successful defense is based on rushing the passer. In GameDay, dropping a defender into pass coverage is far more effective. A quick linebacker can get to the receiver at least 60 percent of the time and make a play on the ball for a tip or pick.
Graphics & Sounds - The player animations are fairly well proportioned, though the stadiums are a little rough. For the most part, the graphics have improved from last year's game, featuring brilliant colors and details. Want o see Terrell Davis break dance on his knuckles? Apparently 989 thinks you do, and includes several optional goofy player celebrations at the end of most plays.
The in-game sounds are decent, but the commentary from Phil Simms and Dick Enberg is charming and effective. The one downfall is that it tends to get a bit behind the action. For the most part this game sounds the same as previous editions of GameDay
Special delivery - Some instant replays are narrated by Simms with the aid of an on-screen telestrator. It looks pretty neat, but as with other gimmicks you will eventually tire of it and button crunch your way back to the game.
What were they thinking? - When calling plays on either side of the ball, players have four available sets in windows to pick from, each corresponding to the four buttons in a diamond pattern on PSX controller (the middle two are in the foreground flanked on either side by smaller windows containing two more options). All too often you will find yourself looking at the controller to make sure you have the right play. Earth to 989: cognitive dissonance doesn’t work, so copy Madden and use a three-choice system already.
Gameplay - Last year QB Club seemed a few tweaks away from becoming a great game. Apparently the folks at Acclaim didn't agree, opting for a new passing scheme and new player movements that are difficult to get used to and downright annoying.
On a more positive note, the defensive AI is much improved, though cornerbacks and safeties often cut inside to cover no one after a tight end catches the ball and runs up the gut. Defenders would benefit from a speed boost, but again Acclaim opted to remove last year's turbo button.
QB Club '99 suffered from unstoppable quarterbacks who on the run could shuck off all tacklers en route to unlikely touchdowns. This has been fixed, though running backs are still tough to bring down in one-on-one situations.
QB Club 2000 really takes a dive when it comes to the passing game. The game requires you to hit a catch button on every pass attempt. The timing basically requires a quick tap midway through the pass, or it simply won't be caught even if your receiver is wide open. That's fine for bombs, but for shorter passes this requirement just doesn't work. Worse yet, once the ball is snapped and you tap the passing button, the camera pulls back so you can see the whole field. This is really disconcerting, especially in multi-player games. This also burdens the defense, forcing one to navigate tiny defenders past blocking lineman.
Graphics & Sounds - The look of the players is beautiful. In close-ups and cut-aways the graphics shine with accurate stadiums and well-detailed faces. But despite the high-resolution look, framerate problems give the game a slow and choppy look.
Overall the ambiance sounds from players to stadiums are solid. Mike Patrick and Randy Cross combine for an entertaining play-by-play, though it tends to get behind from time to time.
Special delivery - The Create-a-team feature is well designed, allowing players to choose team names, playing fields, logos and uniform colors. You can also stock your team with current players, custom players, and guys from historic NFL teams.
What were they thinking? - This game should have been sent back to the programmers for some serious fixes. Releasing this version could ruin Acclaim's credibility with hardcore football fans.
Army Men: Sarge's Heroes for Nintendo 64 -
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