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NFL 2K1 (Dreamcast)
MSRP: $49.99
Number of Players: 1-8 (with Internet play)
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: Sega of America

Rating:
*****
out of
*****

NFL 2K1 is quite possibly one of the most anticipated games ever. The game's promise of improvements to what was already considered one of the best console football games of all time, plus the addition of online play made many players salivate at the possibilities. Now the wait is over and the game has finally hit shelves. Is it worth a purchase? In a word: Absolutely! There are some major differences between NFL 2K1 and NFL 2K, so if you think it's just the original game with updated rosters and online capability, you'd be quite wrong.

Last year's game opened a lot of eyes simply because of its graphics, which were unlike anything players had seen on a console before. NFL 2K1 actually looks a little less impressive this year. The player models have been scaled back a little bit, as they look slightly less detailed than last year. Whether this is because Visual Concepts wanted to save a few CPU cycles for online play or something else, I don't know. However, the people on the sidelines, which looked like cardboard cutouts last year, are now animated. The crowd is now much more lively, even standing up when points are scored. While the player models may be less detailed, the animation has been improved. The players now look a lot more lifelike in how they tackle, catch passes, etc. So, in essence, the game looks as impressive as last year's model, just in different places.

Now what about the gameplay? This year, with Madden NFL 2001 coming for the PlayStation 2, NFL 2K1 needs to have solid gameplay to backup the visuals. In response to many critics of last year's game, the running game has been markedly improved. The offensive line blocks like they know what they're doing and the holes open up with a lot more ease. That's not to say that running is now a piece of cake. Not at all. It still takes skill, but the stats should be a lot more realistic this year if you're playing with Fred Taylor or Terrell Davis. The passing game, which was pretty good last year, has been improved as well. Passes no longer hang in the air as much as they did in NFL 2K. There are now true bullet and lob passes, which makes the game much more realistic in terms of both gameplay and appearance. Even the kicking game has been made more realistic, with a direction indicator that drifts with the wind direction. Factor in the pressure of making a clutch field goal as time runs out and you'll be happy that there are no automatic field goals anymore.

In the control department, in-game movement has also gotten better. A juke move has been added and the speed burst has been improved. There wasn't a lot wrong with last year's game and there's nothing really wrong this year. The only hiccup is that it seems harder to switch to a player closest to the ball. I've read that Visual Concepts added some strange algorithm that will compute the player with the best chance to get to the ball and pick him instead of the player who's simply closer to the ball. That doesn't make much sense, but it does seem to be harder to choose the right player as fast as you'd like to. Still, this doesn't detract from the gameplay much at all. It's just different than last year's game.

Visual Concepts has also added a franchise mode, which allows players to manage their team from a front office standpoint. Players need to be signed, salary caps need to be managed and rosters need to be adjusted. This is something that many hardcore football fans wanted to see and their prayers have been answered. The "Create-a-player" option is still included too.

The in-game audio has been improved as well. The commentary, which again is provided by "Dan Stevens" and "Peter O' Keefe," is top-notch once more. There seem to be a few more incorrect calls this year, such as when my Pittsburgh Steelers had a 4th Down and Goal situation and the commentators said, "Well, we should see the punting unit come out." Still, the in-game banter between Dan and Peter is head-and-shoulders above any other console sports game in existence. Individual stadium noises have been added too. For example, you'll hear a horse whinny in Denver when the Broncos score or you'll hear a cannon in Tampa Bay. The on-field audio now includes players taunting each other, often by name. If you're playing with the Indianapolis Colts, you'll hear defensive backs taunt Peyton Manning by name, calling him "Manny." If your quarterback's been sacked on the previous play, the defensive backs will say, "I'm gonna do it again. I'm comin' for ya!" These additions really improve the atmosphere of the game, especially when playing against someone else.

Everyone wants to know about the online aspect of the game. Is SegaNet worth it? Is it possible to access the game from your current ISP? Is it even worth playing online? Personally, I was skeptical. How could a game as detailed as NFL 2K1 run acceptably online using a console and a 56K modem? The answer is, "Quite well, thank you very much!" I don't know how Visual Concepts did it, but it IS possible to play this game online as if someone is sitting next to you. However, the quality of the experience depends on who you're playing, where they're located and what you're both using to connect to the Internet.

You're given several ways to connect to Sega's servers. You can use your own ISP or you can use SegaNet as an ISP. Is there an advantage to using SegaNet? Yeah, sort of. Is it possible to play lag-free on your local ISP? Yeah, sort of. I tried both methods and, although I played some lag-free games on both occasions, the SegaNet connection provided the best experience. Sega provides a 50 hour free trial of SegaNet, so you can make up your own mind -- that is, as long as you don't live in Canada, Hawaii or Alaska since the service is not available in those locales. I've played almost a dozen games online and the most consistently lag-free games I've played have been while I was on SegaNet playing against someone else on SegaNet. That's not to say it's impossible to have a lag-free game without using SegaNet, it's just that I did not find that to be the case. The key to keeping lag at bay is by choosing to play people in your region. If you live in New York and try to play against someone in California, you're bound to introduce lag no matter what you're using to connect. In any case, the online play aspect is more than just a gimmick. It works and it works well.

One neat thing about the game's ability to connect to the Internet is that you can now download the most up-to-date rosters. One of my biggest gripes about console football games is that, previously, once the rosters are locked in by the developers, that's it. Did they screw up and make Kordell Stewart the starter for Pittsburgh? That used to be something you'd have to change manually each time you played. That's now a thing of the past. You can download the current rosters and -- bingo -- you're all set.

Overall, I can't say enough good things about NFL 2K1. The graphics have remained more or less intact. The gameplay has been strengthened and all of the major complaints from last year have been addressed. With the addition of online play and a franchise mode, NFL 2K1 is now the console football game to beat this year. PlayStation 2 may have Madden NFL 2001, but even it can't be played over the Internet. All hail Visual Concepts!

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