For the past five years, Visual Concepts and Sega (or ESPN Videogames if you want to get technical) have gone all out in their attempt to overtake EA's popular Madden NFL football franchise, with an equal mix of critical acclaim and market apathy despite said critical acclaim. While the series slowly gains more and more fans with their increasingly solid titles (and the change to the ESPN name, one that surely adds name value comparable to John Madden), Madden still dominates ? as shown by the over 5 million copies sold for the 2004 edition alone. This year, however, Sega is not only out to compete with the Madden juggernaut ? they're out to undercut and beat Madden to the punch. While the sudden pushing up of the release to July 20th ? before NFL training camps even open ? is sure to at least give it shelf space that it never had before, it's the price tag that serves as the ?virus' that is attempting to overtake Madden Fever; if not this season, the next. Thanks to an agreement with Take Two and their budget brand Global Star, ESPN NFL 2K5 is sitting pretty at a risky, but price-friendly $19.99. However, just because it's cheap doesn't mean it's a bad game ? on the contrary, as ESPN NFL 2K5 is unquestionably the finest in the series yet, and arguably the best football game ever programmed and burnt onto a DVD disc. If you're a Madden fan, it's implored that you at least give Sega a chance this year ? for $20, what do you have to lose?
NFL 2K5 comes loaded with all the usual traits you'd come to expect from a sports simulation, and then some. Aside from the requisite Franchise mode, ESPN offers the love it/hate it First Person Football (where you play the entire game inside the helmet of the players on your team), an enhanced and improved Crib (which too is love it/hate it depending on who you talk to), and of course, play via Xbox Live (and roster updates to make up for the fact that the real season is a month and a half away and rosters aren't even close to being set yet), ESPN NFL is used as a vehicle to celebrate the 25 years of the sports network with the 25 of the greatest football games ever played, which you too can play in critical stages, a la the College Classics feature from the NCAA Football series. In addition, Sega's new VIP (Virtual Identity Profile, in this case) feature takes your normal player profile to the next level of depth. While it does the normal stuff like track wins, losses, Crib points to spend on items to deck it out with, and all that good stuff, it also tracks how you play. The VIP monitors your style ? how often you pass, how often you run, what's your level of aggressiveness on defense, how often you use the coaches play choice ? and lets you either play against it yourself to see your weaknesses, or let your online buddies download it to their Xbox and play against you even if you're not around. On the other hand, you too can download other VIP's and practice against players?great for learning how a top-ranked player performs before you challenge them to a game.
Both online and Franchise modes also get overhauls ? in the case of Xbox Live, you can organize leagues with 31 other players, or just set up tournaments if you don't want that kind of commitment (after all, this IS online play, and unless you're playing with people you know, who knows how some anonymous person might terrorize your hard work setting it all up). Of course, you can still play traditional exhibition games as well. Franchise mode offers probably the deepest multi-season mode around, though it tackles it differently than Madden did last year with the Owner Mode. In this case, the Weekly Prep is the major difference. Here, you spend an entire week, between each game, making sure your players practice, spend time healing various bumps and bruises, and any other things you'd expect to go on between Sundays. While I'm not personally thrilled with this (it's a great concept but I'd rather just play the actual games), you can turn it on or off, so if you don't want to deal with it, it's possible to. That's probably the strongest suit of the Franchise mode, as it's customizable to the point where you can turn off options that you don't want to use. Thus, it can be as deep or as shallow as you choose it to be. Why, even if you don't want to play a single game, the ESPN Gamecast (which also is playable online, for those who maybe don't have time for a 1-hour football game) lets you simulate games in a controlled environment where you can leap in at anytime, be it to preserve a lead, or make a miraculous comeback. Still, to get the most out of this game, you'll need to actually play it, and not simulate. This is football, with a 16 game season, not a 162 game baseball season ? it's not too hard to play them all.
Year in and year out, Visual Concepts has fine-tuned their football games in terms of on-field play. At first, with NFL 2K on the Dreamcast, the play was extremely fast and not quite as realistic as your usual football simulation. We're not talking as outrageous as NFL Blitz, mind you, but the pace and gameplay lent itself to be ?fun' rather than ?realistic', which they accomplished with ease. However, every year they've tweaked this and with ESPN NFL 2K5, they've got the simulation stuff down pat, without sacrificing what made the franchise great in the first place. One could even argue that ESPN is now even more realistic than Madden, but it's a debatable point and all depends on personal preference. Regardless, Visual Concepts has really worked hard to keep the spirit of NFL 2K alive in a more sim-tastic package. For new players, there's a huge learning curve ? even for veterans, there's a learning curve ? but thanks to the customization of the AI, the learning curve can be lessened slightly, making the game playable to everyone at any skill level.
Offensively, ESPN is all about timing, and using the available skills to your advantage. The running game carries a tough curve, very much akin to how challenging the running game was in the original rendition of this franchise. In short, running is a game of finding the right holes to run into, even if it means going off the path the play originally plotted out. If your offensive line stinks, chances are you won't have many holes, meaning you'll have to improvise and either use fancy moves like stiff arms and jukes to shake off defenders, or take a loss and deal with it. Even if you get holes, quite often the holes will fill up fast against overpowering defenses. In short, the better your tailback and offensive line, the better you perform ? just like real football. The joy about the running game though, is the ?big play' feel ? while you'll usually get 3-4 yards a carry, just like a real running back might, there's always that chance that you'll find a perfect hole, and slide through it for a 10-15 yard gain, if not more. In short, while the running game might get frustrating when you're only getting a few yards here and there, barely making progress, it's the threat of the big play that should keep you trying.
Passing functions mostly the same way, though it's not quite as hard. While defenders are aggressive if you're playing AI, getting the timing down and thinking like a real quarterback might makes all the difference. While in the past, throwing into coverage might result in an occasional interception, but mostly batted passes, the 2K5 rendition means most likely a drive-killing interception. It doesn't happen all the time, but if a defender has the ball in his sights, there's a good chance it's going to land in his possession. Occasionally throwing riskily pays off, but you're still going to get punished if you do it a lot. Instead, you need to really think about where you're tossing the ball, and using the little time available (after all, the defense is looking for dinner while you're in the pocket looking around) to find the open man?even if it's only for a few yards. After all, 4 yards is better than 0 yards, or worse, a turnover. Chances are, patient quarterbacks will fare very, very well, especially if you have talented receivers and a playbook that has plenty of outs, curls, or slant plays (which allow you to better lead your passes if you have open field compared to generic ?hike and chuck' plays).
Playing defense is a little simpler, as you can recover from mistakes, or even just ignore stuff and let the AI handle things. Still, playing defense is (gasp!) fun this year with ESPN NFL 2K5, and that's what makes it fun. The same rules apply that you have to deal with on offense ? computer (and human) players still have to find holes running, quarterbacks need to find the open receiver (though sometimes they'll thread the ball in better than you ever could, and it's tougher to get an interception even with three guys around, unless you do it yourself), etc. However, you can put much more pressure on than any previous entry in the franchise. For years, it took a ton of effort to get past the line and sack a quarterback, even against a crappy offensive line. This year, it's a bit simpler and much more rewarding to sack a QB and take control of a game on defense ? in the past, the game sometimes felt out of your hands until you regained offensive possession. The new ?max tackle' button is supposedly similar to Madden's ?hit stick', but either way it allows to either make a hard hit or just wrap up a player depending on how much pressure you put on them, adding a bit more ?personality' to playing defense.
Still, the AI is tough on higher difficulty levels and really pushes you to the limit. Thankfully, ESPN NFL 2K5 has plenty of tweakable sliders to balance the game out for accessibility. If you're dominant on defense but struggle on offense, you can just adjust the offensive sliders for better blocking, catching, etc, or if you stink on defense but rock on offense, it can go the other way. If you stink at both, or even just excel everywhere?you get the picture. That way, it's easier to actually learn the game and get better, instead of growing frustrated and going back to the less difficult options where you can decimate with little to no skills at all. Or of course, make it extremely difficult if you have something to prove or are just bored. These sliders can also apply to multiplayer ? after all, you need a good O-line to make holes, and the sliders can make or break that. While nothing new, the sliders are still the key to understanding what's a dauntingly tough game for ESPN NFL 2Kx newbies.
But it's not really all that which makes ESPN NFL 2K5 so impressive ? it's how it all adds up for a fun, exciting game. Hits are vicious, the big play threat leads to some nerve-wracking moments in tight games, and crazy innovations like the VIP lets you always have something different to do (even if you don't play online, but by chance have Xbox Live, just download VIP's online and play them if you want a challenge). While the Crib is a truly love it or hate it concept (the ?bling bling' thing is a bit bothersome to many), mixing it in with your on-field performance to unlock some really cool stuff like an NFL trivia machine or a dart board is a great thing, and is a bit more rewarding than the Madden Cards in terms of interactivity. There's even a good batch of ?celebrities' like Carmen Electra (who I'm just sure is a super, super video game player in reality) who have jazzed up VIP's which you can tackle, complete with trash talking. In short, ESPN sort of blends in every facet of the game together into one huge package instead of segregating everything like many other sports games do.
There are some somewhat annoying nitpicks about the game but nothing that actually ruins it. One involves the instant replay ? while it's great that you can challenge a play twice a game (it's made a lot of difference in games I've played), the computer is never, ever wrong when they challenge. In one whole season plus playoffs, every time the computer challenged, it got overturned from the previous ruling. It's a small thing, but the reality is nobody gets every challenge right in real football, so it takes away some of that realism. Just once would I like to see the computer get it wrong (in Madden they actually do get challenges wrong) to round out the experience. The other problem I find is a bit more important, but not too damaging, and that's the massive amount of interceptions. While it's great that bad passing will get you in trouble often, there's still a lot of picks every game. It only really becomes a problem, however, when you throw a perfect pass to a wide-open receiver, only to see a defensive lineman break from his counterpart, leap 5 feet in the air, and take it with one hand. Deserved interceptions I can deal with?but cheese ones? That's a bit too much. Thankfully, again, the slider adjustments can help sort this problem out, though even with INT's turned all the way down, it still happens a lot. But again, it doesn't ruin the game, as it doesn't happen all the time, just at inopportune times.
For the first time, ESPN NFL 2K5 was actually built off Xbox hardware, so it's maximized to take advantage of the powerful system graphically. And hoo boy, it does (though it must be mentioned that the PlayStation 2 version is equally amazing looking, especially given the more outdated hardware). Using many tricks that came to light in Chronicles of Riddick (Normal Mapping), VC has designed the player models to not only look great, but look spookily realistic, from accurate facial renders to details on the uniforms as realistic as ever done. Weather effects are sharp and unique (rainstorms are more like squalls, but it stinks they just don't come along in-game, it runs all game long), and stadium renders are exact copies complete with slow wear on the turf. Awesome animations and zero framerate issues along with it creates a game that looks damn near like the real thing if you squint your eyes. It has to be seen to be believed ? if you thought last year's game looked great, you haven't seen a thing yet.
However, it's arguable that the presentation is what really makes this game amazing visually. Building upon the original ideas of NFL 2K3, the ESPN treatment is fully realized here, with incredible stat overlays, menu presentation, and most notably, the awesome Sportscenter broadcasts that occur between weeks. Here, not only do you have Chris Berman (fully rendered in goofy form), but also ESPN notables Trey Wingo and Mel Kiper Jr. showing off injuries, free agent moves, trades, and upcoming draft picks (and this year, they actually have real faces for the draft picks! Insane, I tell you), along with highlights and info from every game including your own. It's almost possible for a friend or spouse to walk in and actually think you're watching TV and not playing, the presentation is that good. It seriously trumps anything Madden has tried, and ESPN fans will eat it up.
The audio continues this presentation, thanks to Berman, Wingo, and Kiper lending their voices to the game. While they get repetitive after a few games, they do a fine job of doing so, and it creates an in-depth realism to the game. There's also for the first time, post-game interviews, with Suzy Kolber (who of course Joe Namath wants to kiss, and probably slip the tongue too) and a random voice speaking for your player of the game. However?these are very high on the un-intentional comedy scale (The Sports Guy would be proud), due to how utterly bad they are. Kolber obviously isn't good at this, and whoever the got as interviewees spout of clich? after clich? ? but then, they don't say ?you know' every sentence either, so perhaps its an even trade. Most of the other stuff is normal for football games; lots of trash talking, screaming fans (which slowly disappear later in games which are out of control), and stadium music. There's actually a ton of stadium music this year, but Xbox owners have a nice bonus ? the ability to use your custom soundtracks to edit in your own stadium music. It only plays in small snippets, but it furthers the personalization feel that a custom soundtrack is supposed to.