Sunday, September 28, 2008

NFL 2K2 on Dreamcast

Alright, I've wasted enough of my weekend on this thing. Time for a few official opinions.

I was a fan of Visual Concepts' (now 2K Sports) NFL 2K series. It was the biggest surprise of the Sega Dreamcast on day one, and somehow managed to hold my attention and anyone else's who happened to come by. It's a masterful sports franchise that has always offered a flashier, more fluid, and more immediate game of football than EA's stalwart Madden franchise.

I think it helps greatly that Visual Concepts served as EA's studio for Madden for several years. The relationship fell apart, famously, with the ill-fated Madden '96 on Playstation, which was scrapped after a troubled (but ambitious) production. Thankfully, Sega was wise enough to employ them for their Dreamcast football title. It may have been Sega's smartest move of the Dreamcast era.

NFL 2K was an outstanding, but deeply flawed game. The running game was completely broken. Forget about running anywhere against the defensive line. You were stopped cold, with two or three yards at most. Wouldn't matter which play you ran, inside or outside - you couldn't run the ball. It's a testament to how much fun NFL 2K was that we were so willing to put that aside. Everything else was damned near perfect, and I don't ever recall a previous football game that was so much fun.

NFL 2K1 arrived the next year as Dreamcast's most hotly anticipated title. And it was absolutely spectatcular. We were long since resigned to the fact that each season's Madden would be 95% the old game, with only a couple tweaks here and there (and usually one Bad Idea that would be scrapped the next year - remember the QB "high beams" from last year?). VC would have none of that. They hurled so many changes to NFL 2K1 that it felt like we skipped five seasons at once. Clearly this team spent the entire year figuring out what worked and what didn't.

I think this is the real reason NFL 2K1 is remembered by many as the best in the series. That sense of surprise, of exceeding expectations, was a breath of fresh air. It was a revelation, and I think sports gamers quickly became jaded and expected the same every season. Forget Madden's cynical cash cow scheme. This was now the football game for real sports fans.

It's a damned shame, then, that Sega was forced to retire the Dreamcast in early 2001 and get out of the hardware game. They had a spectacular game system and a roster of modern classics, especially the 2K sports titles. This basically meant that 2K2 would be the "re-orgainizing" season, as the game would have to be ported to PS2 and XBox.

So I think it's easy to understand if NFL 2K2 was forgotten or overlooked by the fans when fall 2001 arrived. The Dreamcast faithful, still feeling bruised, might have clung to 2K1 a little more tightly. That was our last pure game, the last one that was ours alone. Now it has to be shared with all those damned Sony fanboys who bought into the PS2 hype. A lot of us never got over that. As far as I'm concerned, Dreamcast kicks PS2 to the curb.

VC's NFL 2K series would continue, and probably reached its zenith with NFL 2K5. Yes, I'm cranky that late hits were taken out of the game, but by all reasonable standards, it's the best football game ever made. Turns out it was too good, and it was EA's turn to screw over VC the say Sony screwed over Dreamcast. EA bought out all the relevant licenses, ESPN and the NFL, which essentially killed off their better rivals. Now Madden is the only game in town. It's still second fiddle to any of the NFL 2K games.

Which brings us back to NFL 2K2, the final season on Dreamcast. It's very different when you collect games for systems that have died. You don't have to sweat out the idea of gambling $30 or $40 on an untested game, especially a sports sequel when you have last year's perfectly fine version in your hands. It's so much easier seven years later, when the game only costs a couple bucks.

I bought a copy of NFL 2K2 for $1.99, which was a steal. 2K1 cost $3.99, still a bargain, which means nothing is lost if I love one season and hate the other. And, once again, I find myself marveling at VC's obsession with the game. I don't think they've ever made a bad year of 2K. Even last year's great disappointment, All-Pro Football 2K9, may turn out to be another forgotten gem.

I could give the long version, where I offer bullet point after bullet point on the changes, and why this final Dreamcast season was the best of the bunch. Or I could just cut to the chase and tell you it's more than worth the two bucks. For those worried that this was a "Madden sequel," with no real changes to offer, you can relax. There are many changes, though most of them are subtle ones. The end result is a smoother, faster, more realistic game of football.

Pity we can't play online anymore.

The football players have been beefed up, and sport larger polygon counts. This was a bit of a surprise, and a pleasant one at that. They're given more shading and lighting as well, which moves a bit away from the angular look of the first two games, though still not the pudgy slobs you get on Madden. The animation continues to amaze, and it seems hundreds more moves have been introduced on top of everything else. It's amazing, really. I'm surprised that no game reviewers ever pointed this out, but perhaps they dont' play much. Most never do.

Overall, it's a smarter game of football. AI is tougher to crack, cheap plays have been removed, the running game allows for a host of bumbs of grooves, and it becomes a lot harder to tackle those slippery running backs. Just as in real life, as today's sorry Vikings loss shows. The "arcade" tag must've stuck in the designers' sides, because it's clear that the move towards a more realistic simulation began with 2K2.

It's still blazing and immediate in that way that Madden will never be, but it's clear that the cheap arcadey moves are gone, replaced by a more strategic grasp of the game. It's better to play linebacker now and wait for the play to come to you, instead of bashing buttons on the D-line. Offense won't succeed with long bombs and slants; you really need to mix things up, lest the computer-controlled players cut you down. You really need to think a bit more about what you're doing.

I still think NFL 2K2 holds up nicely to the later games in the series, just as Dreamcast holds its own against all the consoles that followed. It hasn't been the cutting edge for many a year, so that ego trip is history. All that's left is the pure game itself. And a lot of close finishes and surprise moments. Oh, how I have missed this game.

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