It seems like every year, Visual Concepts' ESPN line of games turns out to be the critics' favorite, and yet, every year, the EA Sports juggernaut still dominates in sales. Regardless of this, VC is not giving up. With its latest NFL title, ESPN NFL 2005, VC believes that--with a far deeper roster of features, improved online and franchise modes, and an upgraded version of the same widely hailed gameplay the company has delivered year in and year out--it can finally put its name up there with EA's Madden franchise. VC hopes to not only be successful critically but also in consumer popularity. So what are all of these new features about? We stopped by Sega's E3 booth to find out.
Let's start with where it all starts: gameplay. Aside from some basic tweaks to the control scheme that involve audibles on the defensive side of the ball (in addition to a few other minor changes here and there), ESPN 2005 plays very much like its most recent predecessor. However, a few key additions have been added, specifically with regard to tackling. VC is highly touting its new "total control tackling" feature, which actually comes into play on both sides of the ball. Offensively, when you're hit, the usual types of jukes and stiff arms will work just fine. However, when being wrap-tackled by a defender, now your player's icon will turn red. The instant the player's icon turns red, if you begin repeatedly tapping the A button on the Xbox or the X button on the PS2, you may be able to break free from a wrap tackle (if done correctly). Defensively, you can now specifically choose whether or not you'd like to hit or wrap-tackle the ball carrier, which is based on the level of pressure you place on the tackle button. Holding it down will execute a more traditional tackle, whereas a simple tap will perform a possibly more effective hit on an opposing player (assuming you time it correctly).
Before we get into all the brand-new features available in ESPN NFL 2005, let's just go over the previous modes that have gotten upgrades. First off, there's the franchise mode. Little stuff, like the addition of signing bonuses for back-loaded contracts and improved trade logic, is present this year, but the biggest new element to this year's franchise mode is the ability to prepare for games. Not just your basic scouting report stuff either, although that is a part of it. Not only can you schedule different kinds of workouts for every position on your roster but also you can dictate how each spends his time in the film room or resting. All of this work will make your player actually show marked improvements in stats for that week, assuming you've assigned this work correctly, for if you don't give a player enough rest or you don't work him out enough, he'll actually lose ability. All the benefits of this work are actually only available for one game, so you'll have to start all over again after Sunday or Monday's game. Of course, all of this is optional. However, for people who really like to take control of their teams, this looks to be a great option.
And then there are the two modes VC introduced last year: the crib and first-person football. First-person football upgrades include the ability to switch between first- and third-person perspectives on the fly. Additionally, there's a new visual-tracking system, whereby quarterbacks can now automatically lock their views onto specific receivers by simply clicking on the right-control-stick button. The Crib has seen the more additions of the two, including a much larger overall crib space, as well as a ton of new unlockables. Additionally, VC has enlisted the services of a few celebrities this year, who will actually call you in your crib from time to time. Each has his or her own specific football teams to play against (made up of real football players, thankfully). The current roster of celebs includes Carmen Electra, Jamie Kennedy, Funkmasta Flex, David Arquette, and Jackass alum Steve-O. (No word on whether or not Gary Coleman was approached for a role as well.) If the whole celebrity thing doesn't quite sound like your cup of tea, VC assures us that the whole thing is pretty understated and is just there to add a little spice to the presentation--and not much else. We'll take VC's word for it.
Perhaps the biggest overhaul ESPN NFL 2005 has seen is an update to the game's online mode. Aside from all the usual online stuff, like basic head-to-head matches and leaderboards, you can now have fully live-rostered leagues and tournaments in both versions of the game. What this means is that all rosters for a league or tournament will be stored server-side, allowing you to make trades, sign free agents, and actually have legitimate, progressive injuries throughout your league or tournament. If you lose your starting quarterback for two games, he's gone. If you want to sign a free agent receiver and keep him there, you can. Trades are looked at by VC administrators to make sure they're fair, so anybody who tries to cut deals to load up their rosters will be brutally rebuffed. Assuming this all comes together in the end, this could be the closest thing to the online franchise mode that football fans have been dreaming about since online console gaming became a reality. Needless to say, we're excited about the prospects.
Of all the new features contained in this year's game, perhaps the most impressive is the all-new VIP profile system. This is essentially a way for the game to make the most complete profile on your style of play possible. It tracks your stats, it tracks your preferred style of offense, it tracks what kind of defensive schemes you tend to gravitate toward, and it tracks how often you blitz your linebackers. It's that detailed. Now, why is this useful to you? Well, more accurately, it's useful to your opponents. You see, you can now take your profile, via a memory card, to a friend's system, or online, and players can keep that profile and use it to study your play habits. They can even load the profile for a CPU match, and the CPU will play just like you, based on the information in your profile. Perhaps more-cautious players might find this a bit off-putting, but, again, it's all optional. So if you don't want online players to have access to such things, you have the option of preventing them from having it. But just think for a moment... What if you uploaded a profile that was the exact opposite of your real method of play? Just think of the possibilities.
One final mode addition to ESPN NFL 2005 is a 25th anniversary mode, where you can actually take part in the defining moments of the 25 greatest NFL games of all time--or, at least, you can take part in what the folks at ESPN deem the 25 greatest NFL games of all time. These 25 games include such moments as the "Immaculate Reception," the Super Bowl XXXIV goal-line stand where the St. Louis Rams kept the Tennessee Titans out of the end zone at the very last second of the game, and even the 4th-and-26 completion that sent the Philadelphia Eagles (who were subsequently knocked out of Super Bowl contention by the Carolina Panthers) past the Green Bay Packers in this past year's NFC divisional playoffs. These 25 contests also include the classic "Ice Bowl" from 1967. You can choose either side in this mode, and then you can choose to either relive history or change it. Unfortunately for all you Raiders fans, the "tuck rule" incident isn't among the games that can be historically changed.
From a presentational angle, ESPN NFL 2005 will continue to ramp up the ESPN style of visuals that have become so prevalent the last couple of years. ESPN's resident "Boomer" Chris Berman returns this year, in addition to sideline reporter Suzie Kolber, SportsCenter anchor Trey Wingo, and NFL draft expert (and eight-week-a-year television personality) Mel Kiper Jr. And they aren't just lending their voices either, since full polygonal versions of all of them will appear in their respective places. Boomer handles commentary for pregames, halftime, and postgame shows, while Suzie interviews players at the end of each of these (with interviews that are bound to be just as insightful as your typical ones). Furthermore, Mel Kiper will bring you full draft analysis during your franchise mode. The game will also feature 200 pregame and in-game cutscenes with arena crowds, which is up from last year's 40. You'll also be able to customize arena music using custom soundtracks on the Xbox, and you can customize specific celebration animations.
In case it isn't apparent at this point, we very much like what we've seen of ESPN NFL 2005 and look forward to more opportunities to play it before its August release date. Expect more coverage of the game in the coming weeks.