The ESPN NFL franchise currently stands at an interesting crossroads. On the one hand, two of the game's major competitors, NFL Fever and NFL GameDay, will not be released this year. However, the 2005 NFL season will mark the first time that the juggernaut Madden franchise will be playable over Xbox Live. While ESPN NFL will almost certainly gain from the absence of the former two titles, EA's improved presence on the Xbox means that ESPN NFL's developer, Visual Concepts, can't afford to rest on its laurels. We recently had the opportunity to play early versions of ESPN NFL 2005 on both the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox to find out how this year's game will stack up against the competition.
One of the first improvements we noted was the added emphasis Visual Concepts has placed on presentation. We were quite pleased to see that a game that already had a tremendous amount of polish in this area was refined to an even greater degree. Prior to a match, you'll receive a quick pregame analysis from a digitally animated Chris Berman instead of just a disembodied voice-over as in the previous iteration of the game. Of course, you can expect to hear plenty of Berman witticisms, such as his penchant for nicknaming players--like "Marshall, Marshall, Marshall" for the St. Louis Rams' running back Marshall Faulk. This feature is even better during halftime and postgame presentations, because here you'll be treated to a SportsCenter-like recap of the half, with Berman narrating. On the Xbox, these recaps come complete with impressive full-video replays of significant plays, like long touchdown runs, interceptions, and fourth-down stops. However, the PlayStation 2 version seems to be limited to showing still frames of these plays for now. ESPN NFL sideline reporter Suzy Kolber handles postgame interview duties with the Player of the Game. As with the digital Berman, you'll see a polygonal representation of Suzy standing on the field as she interviews the day's hero.
Within a match, you'll notice the addition of a live window in the corner as you make your play call. In most cases, this window merely shows your team in the huddle awaiting the call, but in many cases, you'll be able to see a replay of the last snap in this window. If the game defaults you to a full-screen replay, canceling out of that replay merely shrinks the video down to that corner screen so you can still watch while browsing your playbook for the next down. It's a subtle tweak, but it's rather nice to still be able to admire that last, long first-down run as you pick out your next play. The best part is that this feature works the same way on both platforms.
ESPN NFL 2005's graphics are already looking fantastic, from an animation standpoint. As in last year's version, there's a seemingly limitless number of tackle animations. You'll see ball carriers pancaked flat on their backs when hit squarely by down linemen, wrapped up and thrown down by linebackers, rolled over the top by pursuing defensive backs, and tripped up by the ankles when caught from behind. You'll also see wide receivers make all kinds of different catches, from daring grabs over the middle, to over-the-shoulder catches on fades, to ankle-top grabs of poorly thrown balls. Perhaps most enjoyable is watching replays of defensive backs making interceptions. It's quite satisfying to see a free safety squatting down in his zone and then making a break on a ball thrown his way.
Visual Concepts has also done a great job at capturing the idiosyncratic motions of various players. Former MVP QB Rich Gannon uncorks a lot of sidearm deliveries, and even rookie signal-caller Philip Rivers' unusual throwing motion has been mimicked in the game. The player models seem to be a bit uneven at this early stage, though. The reflection maps on helmets and added shading on player uniforms are a nice touch, but most of the faces in the game aren't quite as lifelike as they could be. Even ESPN hosts Berman and Kolber have a slightly mannequin-like quality to them that will hopefully be improved before the game ships. The scaling between beefy linemen and small defensive backs is also a bit rough at this point. As it stands now, it's a bit difficult to tell that 375lb defensive tackle Ted Washington really does weigh twice as much as the cornerbacks who play alongside him. Hopefully, these issues will be addressed in the next few months before the game ships.
The actual gameplay in ESPN NFL 2005 seems to be as solid as ever. Assuming you can make good playcalls, you can have plenty of success either running or passing the ball on offense. Prior to the snap, you'll hear plenty of trash talk and banter across the line, usually directed at the best offensive player. Against the Bengals, that would be Chad Johnson. As a result, DBs yell, "I'm locking you up, Chad!" Sometimes the trash talk is more generalized, so you'll hear, "You gotta come stronger than that!" or "Play's coming this way, right?"
You'll still have all your requisite moves and jukes as the ball carrier, such as stiff arms, spins, speed bursts, and the ability to lower your shoulder for that extra few yards. Attempting to change directions sharply also slows you down, so you're encouraged to be efficient rather than cut back against the grain just for the sake of it. The passing game should also feel familiar to veterans of last year's game, since you still have control over the speed and vector of your passes, as well as the amount of lead you give your receivers. One thing we did notice is that tackle-breaking seems a little too easy in this early build, so just about any ball carrier with a head of steam can power through or slip from the grasp of at least one tackler. However, with months left in the development cycle, it's assured that this factor will be tweaked back and forth.
On the defensive side of the ball, Visual Concepts is touting total control tackling, which lets you choose whether you want to lay a hit on or wrap up the ball carrier. From our playtesting, it seems as though this is controlled in large part by your speed at the time you make contact with the ball carrier and how squarely you contact him. It's possible to make simple tackles by just running into the opponent, but on some occasions, your player will just bounce off the offensive player without attempting any sort of tackle, which can be a bit frustrating. However, making a solid hit on the ball carrier is still quite satisfying.
The "crib" feature also makes a return in ESPN NFL 2005, and it's pretty similar to last year's version. As a result, accomplishments you make on the field--like long touchdown runs, big returns, and not turning the ball over--result in crib points that you can use to unlock goodies. These include player posters, special furniture, videos for your entertainment center, and more. You'll also have a trophy room where your special accomplishments are recorded. While last year's crib appeared to be a mansion, this year's seems to be a San Francisco penthouse, because the window overlooks the famous SF skyline, which includes the Transamerica Pyramid. Depending on the time of day, you'll get a daytime or nighttime shot of the city from your crib's window.
This year's crib also includes a working phone. In ESPN NFL 2005, celebrities such as Jamie Kennedy, Carmen Electra, and Funkmasta Flex will call you from time to time to challenge you to a game. Each of these celebs has his or her own all-star team and VIP profile. In our playtesting, we got a couple of calls from Flex, who has quite a stacked team. His offense includes Terrell Owens, Torry Holt, Jerry Rice, Donovan McNabb, and LaDainian Tomlinson. On defense, Flex's Funkmastas include the likes of Warren Sapp, Ty Law, and LaVar Arrington. Obviously, playing against these teams with just a regular NFL team is quite a challenge. Within the game, your celebrity opponent will constantly banter with you, trash talk if he or she is winning, and complain when the tide turns in your favor. Little windows with still shots of the selected celeb pop up whenever he or she speaks.
Perhaps a more significant addition to the game than the group of celebrities is the inclusion of an ESPN 25th Anniversary feature. This game mode includes a list of 25 great moments from NFL history that ranges from the infamous "Heidi" bowl, where an amazing last-minute comeback by the Raiders was preempted by the movie Heidi, to more recent games, such as Super Bowl XXXIV, where the Tennessee Titans came up a yard short of tying the St. Louis Rams. You'll actually be able to participate in these greatest moments, which range from whole games to just single plays. The reenactment of "The Catch," for example, puts you in charge of the San Francisco 49ers in a third down situation on the six-yard line with under a minute left in the game. Whereas Joe Montana threw his famous TD pass to Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone in real life, we had Clark run an out pattern along the goal line instead. We then hit him in the front of the end zone. For the moment, true player names and numbers seem to be left out of these reenactments.
Rounding out the list of significant additions to the game are the added options in franchise mode, specifically with regard to pregame scouting and preparation. If you want, you can unlock a menu of pregame preparations for an opponent, complete with scouting reports on your team and their team's relative strengths and weaknesses, head-to-head matchups to identify problem areas and points to exploit, and other options. On a day-by-day basis, from Monday through Saturday, you can put your individual players and coaches through routines to prep for the upcoming game. For example, you can have your quarterbacks study film of coverages on Monday while your running backs ride exercise bikes to improve stamina. You can have your defensive linemen lift weights for added strength while your cornerbacks hit the film room to study formations and patterns. Team meetings can be used to encourage or to chew out your players. Depending on your choices, your players can improve or degrade in skill and stamina before each game. Make the right choices, and you can reduce the degree of any skill deficiencies you may have leading into a game. All this practice is time-consuming, but, thankfully, it's also optional.
Overall, ESPN NFL 2005 seems to be coming along pretty well, and the new additions and tweaks, particularly in the presentation department, will likely do a lot to freshen up the series. At this point, the Xbox version is looking a bit more polished than the PS2 version. We also like the Xbox's full-video treatment in halftime and postgame shows a lot better than the PS2's still shots. There's still more than two months to go before the game ships this August, so we're looking forward to seeing how ESPN NFL 2005 progresses between now and then.