Yes, ESPN NFL 2K5 is actually coming out next week, a full two weeks before EA's Madden juggernaut steamrolls onto store shelves. This, coupled with the recent massive retail price drop of the game to a mere $20, has managed to worry the series' fans as much as it has excited them. Sure, cheap, early football is nice in theory--but, what's the catch? Will the quality of the game suddenly take a nosedive like the Vikings defense in the last regular game of last year's season? That question was certainly weighing on our minds lately, but now that we've had a little time to spend with our final review copy of the game, many of our fears have been assuaged. So far, we're very pleased with what we've played.
Defensively, you can now make linebacker and defensive back shifts by pressing either the right or left trigger on the Xbox, or R1 or L1 buttons on the PS2, and by moving the right control stick either side to side or up and down. By doing this, you can have, for example, your DBs press receivers harder, have linebackers spread out more across the field, and so on. Tackling is a much more effective portion of the defensive game this year. You'll see far fewer randomly broken tackles. We did take note of a whole lot of batted balls across the games we played, seemingly in place of some of the more rampant interception-fests you might have experienced in previous games. Interceptions still happen often, but in a far more realistic light, and now it is also less frequent to see a corner or a safety get a great position on the ball, only to see it bobble out of his hands for no discernable reason.
Where we had a few problems with ESPN NFL 2K5 so far was in regard to certain "money plays" we kept running into. Specifically, we often found ourselves with one or two out routes that would almost always lead to a wide-open receiver (provided he was of a decent rating of any sort). Eventually the defense would start to catch on to what we were doing, but we were still able to complete about 50 percent of our passes using effectively the same route over and over (though not necessarily the same play)--more than enough to get a first down frequently.
Defensively, we also found ourselves sacking the quarterback perhaps a bit too often. Offensive lines definitely have their varying degrees of difficulty, depending on how they're rated, and the same goes for D-lines, but even against a top line (such as the Chiefs or the Eagles), we were able to get five or six sacks a game in some cases, even without the benefit of a big-time, star-filled defensive front four. For what it's worth, one way that sacks can now be countered in the game is with a right-analog-stick-based move whereby while flicking the stick and controlling a QB, you can do a duck or dodge move to keep a defender from taking you down. However, while we found this move reasonably effective when using it ourselves, it seemed as though the computer-controlled QBs simply weren't any good at making use of it. Granted, most of the games we played were against pocket-anchored QBs like Kurt Warner or Drew Bledsoe, but even against Daunte Culpepper, he was only able to avoid one sack against our less-than-stellar defense, taking four total.
The last thing we noted was the kicking game--specifically punts and onside kicks. Perhaps it was just the teams we were playing, but it seemed just a tad too easy to boom a massive punt 50 or 60 yards down the field. We've only had one game where an onside kick came up, but in actuality, three of them came up--all of which were collected by the kicking team. We've tried to go in and re-create the same level of success kicking the ball ourselves, but thus far we have come up short, so it seems as though perhaps the AI is just extremely adept at onside kicks. We'll be sure to keep playing and see if this holds true as time goes on.
The one aspect of the game we've taken no issue with whatsoever is the graphics. Hands down, this is the best-looking football game we've ever seen. The player models are utterly phenomenal, showing off excellent detail from top to bottom. Certain player faces don't look a whole lot like their real-life counterparts, but the ones that do are absolutely perfect. Animation-wise, ESPN NFL 2K5 is unbelievable. The new tacking animations are stunningly realistic, with everything from last-ditch leg tackles to huge hits delivered with wicked speed, all looking absolutely amazing. Even little details, like the way safeties jump up to snag an interception or the way Philip Rivers delivers a sidearm pass, all look wonderful. The same can be said for the new aspects of the ESPN presentation that have been added. Polygonal representations of Chris Berman and Suzie Kolber make their appearances in the game, and aside from some pretty bad lip-synching, they look good, and their dialogue is pretty much what you would want from them, with Boomer delivering his trademark nicknames for the top players and Suzie asking her infamously uninteresting questions to the player of the game at the end of each game. The new menu overlays are excellent, and, frankly, the whole experience during a game just feels like a quality television production.
There's still a whole lot for us to see in ESPN NFL 2K5. We've just barely scratched a single season in the franchise mode, and we have yet to experience online play or the new 25th-anniversary mode. While we've definitely noticed a few annoying quirks, none of them have been annoying enough to prevent us from enjoying our time with the game. We're having a blast with it at this point, and honestly, we're still not entirely sure why this game is going to cost just $20, since it still seems more than competent enough to compete right alongside the big boys at EA. But hey, a deal's a deal, and barring any major problems discovered between now and our review, it seems like football fans are going to be getting an incredible one. Be sure to check back with us early next week for our full review of ESPN NFL 2K5.