At least there's no half-time show.
NFL Xtreme, the latest title to be released under the 989 Studios flag, brings back arcade style football. In a gaming world brimming with more hardcore simulations than ever before, pure action based sports games seem to be making a comeback. Have you played Hot Shots Golf yet?
First off, this isn't the game you're thinking of. If you've been to an arcade in the past couple of months (and I know you have), you've probably seen people pumping quarters into a cool looking football game called NFL Blitz (PSX version soon to be released by Midway) - sort of the gridiron version of NBA Jam. This game looks pretty fun, right? Well, this ain't it. In fact, NFL Xtreme is more like a watered down version of the aforementioned arcade success, and while it's full of action, it's full of other stuff as well.
The idea is simple: take an overly complex game (American football), burn the rule book, trim down each team to 5 on 5, and let 'em beat each other up like civilized behemoths. The result is a high scoring, high flying, and highly implausible version of lawn moshing.
In most football games, you can control any player on the field. Well, someone realized that nobody ever wants to control the center. Or any of the guards. In fact, why not get rid of the whole offensive line, and for that matter, why not ditch the whole defensive line as well. Let's just play with the fun guys - the running backs, the quarterbacks, the wide receivers. And for the sake of competition, leave in the cornerbacks, the safeties, and the linebackers. Now every play can make the highlight reel!
The gameplay is pretty straightforward - you pick plays and try to score touchdowns. However, certain things are different. For one, first downs are not every 10 yards - they can be found at preset markers on the field (approximately every 20 yards). Forward momentum is moot - the ball is downed wherever the player ends up. There's no out of bounds, every player is an eligible receiver, and any tackle is a legal tackle.
Aside from these differences, the game is played just like any other football video game (989 Studios were the ones who made NFL Gameday). You have an assortment of moves to juke opponents, from the standard spin move to the more advanced jump flip (!). Passing is made simple via the icon system. Unlike the passing windows from the Madden series, each receiver is designated a PSX icon (Square, Triangle, Circle, or X). The icon system can also be used on defense for quick switching.
The graphics are mixed. While the game features all the big stars, you wouldn't guess it from their polygonal counterparts. Though they move with grace and realism, they only resemble the real-life players in terms of size. The big fatsos are big, while the smaller guys are a tad smaller. I hate to nit-pick, but why is Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in the history of the game, so....white? And his face is obscured by his helmet, so we never get to see if it's actually him. Face texture mapping is all the rage: just check out NBA Shootout '98 or NBA Live '98. If these games can do it, why can't all licensed sports games? Hmmm....
The sound is pretty bad, though crushing hits certainly sound crushing. The majority of the sound is either low quality, redundant music or low quality, redundant speech. The first time I heard, "This is my house!" after a tackle, I was impressed. The 40th time, however, left me with the urge to forcibly yank out my eardrums. The announcer is lame as well, pretty much on par with the NBA Jam guy (though at least that guy was excited).
The bread and butter of any sports game is the gameplay, and NFL Xtreme does score a few points here. This is a pretty fun game. When you get past the glitches, it's a nice way to kill some time. The high scores and fast action is a nice breather from simulation style football gaming. However, there are some rather significant problems here as well.
In a game with such a strong emphasis on action, tackling, late hits, and no rules, you'd figure there would be some sort of health gauge. Nope. No health gauges. No health bars means no way to track how beat up your players are, which is key in a game with so much beating. Losing key players is common, though seemingly arbitrary. Hard hits don't lead to more injuries. It seems like a roll of the dice. Also, the late-hits are really lame. You press a button, you hit the guy, and that's that. You don't actually get to control a post-play pounding ala Mutant League Football (will someone please remake that game!!??)
The AI could use some work as well. By the second week of my first season (in other words, my second game), I was scoring over 100 points while holding my opponent to under 50. Not a challenge. I upped the difficulty, which thankfully made it more difficult. But if the only challenge is on the hardest setting, doesn't that sort of render the settings useless? The balance as a whole is a bit silly. I know that Barry Sanders is supposed to kick ass, but I quickly learned an easy way to pick up about 20 yards with every run. That's 5 plays for a TD. Every time. Yeesh.
NFL Xtreme is filled with attitude - too much, in fact. While the 50+ touchdown dances, various taunts, and numerous flexing/trash talking animations are quite sassy, they don't last. A good game is built on gameplay, not flashy antics. Fewer bells and whistles and more attention to the game itself would have helped.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but excessive flattery is the worst form of insult. NFL Xtreme just feels like a rip-off of the upcoming NFL Blitz. While it's not for me to say which came first (games take years to develop, remember), it is for me to say which one looks better. This is not the one. A weekend rental, perhaps.