Head-to-Head: Madden NFL 2005 vs. ESPN NFL 2K5

Now that both major gridiron games are out, which one is the better game? We break down both Madden and ESPN NFL and analyze their strengths and weaknesses in this head-to-head feature!

By Alex Navarro
Design by Collin Oguro

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Year after year after year, the battle between licensed football games is typically one of the most knock-down-drag-out battles you'll ever see. Sega Sports' ESPN NFL and EA's Madden NFL are usually the top dogs in the battle, but then a funny thing happened this year. Not only are they the top dogs again, but they're the only dogs. Yes, as it just so happened, Microsoft, 989, and Midway declined to enter the football fracas this year, leaving only the two heaviest hitters to battle it out. And with ESPN NFL 2K5 retailing for a mere $20, the fight between the behemoths of the football game market is fiercer than ever. Price points aside, however, the question that still begs to be answered is: Which one is the one to get?

In this feature, we will be pitting the many aspects of Madden NFL 2005 and ESPN NFL 2K5 against each other to find out in which ways each game is superior. Which one has the best franchise mode? Which one has the best graphics? Which one offers truly superior gameplay? And which one is, hands down, the one game to own this year? By the end of this feature, you'll know more about this year's football games than you ever particularly wanted to.

As an aside, we should note that if you own a GameCube, GBA, or PC and you specifically want to play football on one of these three platforms, the decision has pretty much been made for you, because you can only get Madden on these three systems. However, if you own an Xbox or a PS2, then read on.

Gameplay: Offense

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This is perhaps the area that both ESPN and Madden have seen the least amount of improvement in when compared to their predecessors. But, hey, this doesn't mean they still aren't different.

The passing game is somewhat easier in this year's edition of ESPN NFL
WR option routes are one of the few tweaks made on the offense in this year's Madden.

ESPN

The area of ESPN's offensive game that has seen the most adjustment is its running game. Gone are the days of those runners who could simply cut directions at will. Now, a bit of the Madden-styled momentum (but just a bit) has been thrown into the mix, making it tougher for your ball carrier to simply stop and start when trying to dodge defenders. It definitely feels much more like a real running game, and it makes rushing the ball far more satisfying. As for the passing game, developer Visual Concepts has continued to work on allowing fewer dropped passes. Yes, dropped passes still occur but with far less frequency than in recent years. The flip side to this is that the passing game can be a lot easier now, especially if you're a reasonably experienced player. A boost in difficulty can definitely fix this, however. There is one mechanical change to the offensive game, so now quarterbacks have the ability to specifically dodge sacks by tapping the right analog stick. This works well for athletic QBs, but your typical stationary pocket passers are still going to get drilled 90 percent of the time.

Madden

Most of the changes made to Madden's offense are based on presnap functionality. A new formation shift feature has made its way into the game, letting you move players wherever you'd like without actually changing the play. This isn't just simple motion, mind you. This allows you to shift players all over the place in a quick and concise fashion, and it works quite well. Another addition is the new option route system. Essentially, option routes are curl routes that feature two dotted directional routes attached to them. If your receiver determines that the defensive coverage is such that he could probably run in either direction after hitting the curl on the route, he will. The basic feel of the offensive game hasn't really shifted much in this year's Madden, with only the running game feeling slightly different (and easier than it has been in the past). In fact, if it weren't for the formation shift and option routes, we'd swear they just stuck Madden NFL 2004's offense in there with a new coat of paint.

Which is better?

The couple of mechanical changes made to Madden's offensive game are cool and everything, and Madden does feature a slightly better sense of speed--as far as speed bursts go--but as a whole, we prefer how ESPN's offense plays. It just feels more natural and realistic to play offense in ESPN, and while both games can be quite easy at times, Madden feels a little too easy--even with bumped-up difficulty levels. Again, neither offense has shown much in the way of differentiation from its respective predecessor, but ESPN takes this comparison simply because it's just more fun to play.

Winner: ESPN NFL 2K5

Gameplay: Defense

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The defensive game was Madden's biggest focus this year, though ESPN saw some changes to its defense as well. So which game allows the least points?

ESPN now lets you explicitly wrap up the ball carrier.
Individual defensive assignments are configurable on the fly in this year's Madden.

ESPN

The biggest change seen in this year's game is the ability to adjust defensive backs and linebackers, presnap. By holding down either the right or left trigger buttons and pressing the right analog stick in a specific direction, you can adjust their coverage schemes based on where receivers are stacked, based on how much pressure you want to put on them, and so on. You can also make individual players blitz, though the process required for selecting their specific icons and then selecting the blitz is a tad convoluted. Also, seemingly to balance out the new sack-dodging move on the offensive side of the ball, it's a little easier to get to the quarterback now when playing on defense. The sack numbers can get a little silly on the default difficulty, but by boosting it up, you'll get back to more-realistic sack stats. ESPN also features a pressure-sensitive tackling button, which, when pressed down, will cause you to perform a hard wrap-tackle. Meanwhile, a simple tap will result in more of a shove or shoulder charge. It's better than the old "just-run-at-the-guy-and-hope-for-the-best" tackling of old. That's for sure.

Madden

Apparently every iota of effort put into this year's Madden has been used to make the defensive game more configurable and more fun. Let's start with the hit stick. When you've got a ball carrier lined up, by tapping the right analog stick, you can deliver a pretty sizable hit--especially if you've built up a good head of steam. Yes, it's kind of gimmicky, but it's also a lot of fun. You can also set up individual defensive hot routes this year. By highlighting a player and then tapping the right analog stick in a specific direction, you can put a player into deeper zone coverage, set him up as a QB spy, set up a flat zone cover, or make him blitz. You can also do the same stuff as in ESPN, with the linebacker and defensive back alignment shifts, but you can also do the same with the defensive linemen, changing their attack designs without actually even moving them from their set line positions. Finally, EA has also finally added defensive locks to keep specific corners on individual receivers to prevent horrible mismatches.

While all of these presnap changes you can make sound cool, do they actually work in a concise and easy-to-use manner? Absolutely, yes. After a couple of games, you should be able to grind out as many changes as you need before the snap, provided your opponent isn't in a permanent hurry-up offense. The controls are fully intuitive and get you the desired effect nearly every time, if you know what you're doing.

Which is better?

ESPN feels good on defense, and the new tackling button is nice. However, the amount of configuration options available to you before the snap in Madden is completely ludicrous--and it's totally awesome. The same goes for the hit stick; it's a better tackling mechanism than what's found in ESPN, and it just feels really, really solid. This might have been a slightly unfair fight, since EA did devote a fair portion of its development resources to making the defensive game a whole new animal this year. Regardless, all that effort definitely paid off. Madden takes the defensive player of the year award.

Winner: Madden NFL 2005

Gameplay: Special Teams

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While it may not be as significant as the offensive and defensive gameplay, the kicking game is still important to a solid football package. This year, both games have their ups and downs when it comes to kicking the pigskin.

The drifting arrow in ESPN's kicking game hasn't changed.
Madden's kick meter has been revamped this year.

ESPN

ESPN NFL 2K5 is pretty much untouched when it comes to its kicking game. It still uses the same love-it-or-hate-it moving arrow kick meter, and trying to return a punt or kickoff for better-than-average yardage is still quite tough, thanks to the congestion that tends to culminate on the field. The one thing you might notice is a slight improvement when it comes to the subtle differences between kickers' abilities (based on ratings). Other than this, it's basically the same setup.

Madden

Madden NFL 2005 features a new-ish kick meter, and it's similar to the love-it-or-hate-it meter in ESPN. It's basically a three-button-press meter, where you start off by pressing the button once to send the meter upward. You then hit the button again to peak the meter for kick strength. Once that's done, the meter will go back down, and you'll want to try to hit the bottom peak for accuracy. The timing of it is rougher, depending on the kick's difficulty and your kicker's skill, and it can be a royal pain if the difficulty is high or your kicker just sucks. As far as kick and punt returns go, the field during punt returns and kick returns seems a little less thick in terms of player congestion, and blocking seems more effective than it was in the past. It actually is possible to break a big one now and then.

Which is better?

While we generally prefer the less-crammed field Madden presents you with when returning punts and kicks, we just aren't sold on that new kick meter. It's a little too snappy and random for our tastes, as far as its timing goes. ESPN's just feels more-solid and time-tested. Ultimately, being able to kick properly is more of a dire need than being able to return kicks more realistically.

Winner: ESPN NFL 2K5

Gameplay: AI

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While we've said before that both games can be easy at times, there's plenty of depth to both games' respective artificial intelligences. Here's what we think of both.

Each coach in ESPN NFL, such as Dennis Erickson, has his own playcalling tendencies.
Passes get batted down quite a bit in Madden 2005.

ESPN

ESPN NFL 2K5 is not a gigantic leap forward for the series in terms of artificial intelligence, but it does make some key improvements. Most of these improvements relate to the coaching profiles that have been added. Every NFL coach has his own profile in the game, and each matches up quite accurately to his real-life style of playcalling. If a coach is known for going into a hurry-up offense when things are down, it'll happen. If a coach prefers to cram the ball down the defense's throat via a north-south running game, he'll demand it. Some specific players even have their own little quirks built in, such as Peyton Manning's penchant for calling audibles at the line.

The general player AI on both sides of the ball is very good. Periodically you'll see players lining up slightly out of position defensively, and sometimes receivers will just botch their routes badly, but this occurs no more often than you'd typically see in the NFL. It also seems as though AI blocking has gotten mostly better, and it's also better about picking up outside blitzes (which is all dependent on how good your line is as a whole, of course).

Madden

With all the presnap defensive alignment changes you can make now, it would only seem logical that the AI would also take advantage of these new features. For the most part, it really seems like it does, because the CPU definitely tends to recognize when something is wrong on defense. The defensive AI definitely tends to behave much more like a real defense, though it does seem as though it is just a tad too focused on batting down passes rather than using other means to prevent receptions. The remaining components of Madden's AI are also pretty high quality, but a couple of little glitches, such as fullbacks that tend to get hung up on offensive linemen and occasional offensive line blocking snafus, do detract a bit from the game. There also isn't any coaching variety to speak of when playing the game, so you tend to see roughly the same sort of games across the board, save for the difficulty of each team based on its player ratings.

Which is better?

In all honesty, both games are pretty much on an even keel as far as AI goes. Each has slight, little problems to speak of, but both also make up for these problems in spades. The coaching profiles might have given ESPN the edge, but Madden's wholly superb defensive AI helps it catch back up. We're calling this one a rare tie.

Winner: Everybody!

Features: Franchise Mode

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As the years go by, the popularity of the franchise mode steadily increases. Now, number crunching and team management aren't just for nerdy PC text-based management sim fans anymore! So, who crunches the numbers better?

The draft AI in ESPN NFL isn't quite as smart as it should be.
Trades have to fit in the context of the salary cap in Madden NFL 2005.

ESPN

ESPN NFL 2K5 has definitely seen the biggest leap of the two games in terms of franchise mode quality. The inclusion of signing bonuses and contract structuring has really added a huge amount of depth to salary cap management. AI-controlled teams behave far more realistically now, stocking up on free agents in the offseason and cutting them during training camp and the preseason. The trade logic is better in that teams are no longer more eager to make trades when you add their low-round picks into the mix, and they're less inclined to give up young talents for older players. Teams are still a little weird about how they choose to stock their rosters, though, because they will tend to stock up on positions they're already fairly well set in. Basically, teams tend to draft and sign free agents a little too heavily based on player ratings rather than on player needs.

There's also a whole new game preparation mode where you can try to emulate how teams really prepare from week to week. Everything from how much time your quarterbacks spend in the tape room to how you decide to treat an injured player can be laid out in your preparation design, and if you do it well, your players' stats will benefit from it. The only problem with the mode is that it isn't especially intuitive from the get-go, and it takes a lot of trial and error to learn how to use properly (with an emphasis on the "error"). Nowhere does the game do an especially great job of explaining any good strategies for this mode, so it's totally up to you to figure out what's beneficial and what isn't. The good news is, though, that you can just skip it if you don't care to get this in-depth with your team management.

Madden

The big, new addition to Madden's franchise mode this year is the storyline central feature. Designed to give you more insight into the morale and personalities of the players of the NFL, storyline central features everything from position battles during training camp to a player's satisfaction with his amount of playing time. Here, you can read local and national newspapers to see what the media's picking up on, and you can read e-mails from players, agents, and your staff. Finally, you can check out the EA Sports Radio Show, hosted by Tony Bruno, to get some additional notes from around the league. The Tony Bruno stuff is actually pretty cool, even though it's just pieced together from fully canned dialogue. It still manages to maintain a fairly realistic quality to it, and it does point out some good league goings-on from time to time.

Morale is also tied in to more than just the stuff listed in storyline central. Each and every player now has multiple interests when it comes to a team. When signing free agents, a player may not be interested in your team because of its location and subsequent weather, or he may prefer to play on a grass field at home rather than on turf. The draft also factors into player morale now, because the starters for positions on your team that might be up for grabs are typically adversely affected by the possibility of incoming competition. So, for example, if you're the Raiders, and you want to finally replace that overrated hack of a QB Rich Gannon (and know that Kerry Collins isn't the answer either), you can draft a QB in the first round of the draft. This, in turn, is likely to cause Richie's morale to nose-dive, unless he's so ridiculously overconfident that he can't see the writing on the wall.

Speaking of that yearly player-harvesting event, the franchise mode also features an all-new draft system. You can scout up to 15 players, and you can actually gauge how well you drafted by observing and listening to reactions from the crowd after you've made your picks. Wise draft picks, as well as poor ones, affect all that morale stuff we just mentioned above. That's about it in terms of new features, but there's also all the returning stuff, such as the inclusion of the minicamp mode (which is a training camp of sorts), and the always micromanagement-friendly owner mode. You put all of this together, and you've got a pretty amazing package.

The more AI-focused stuff in Madden's franchise is pretty top quality too. Trades make perfect sense, more often than not, and teams tend to pick up players based on what they need. The one slight irritation is that trading tends to be a little harder than it needs to be, and most teams tend to view a high-round pick as not worth very much at all. Otherwise, the game behaves very, very well.

Which is better?

ESPN does have a couple of things we like better than Madden, such as the new contract structuring system and the fact that the free agent signing period actually appears when it's supposed to--that is, before the draft. Otherwise, however, for as much of a leap forward as ESPN's franchise mode has made this year, Madden still had a pretty big lead on them as of last year, and that lead continues to this day. The storyline stuff, mixed with the new draft and already stellar features from last year's game, make it the ace number one of the bunch. If you're a franchise nut, Madden is where it's at.

Winner: Madden NFL 2005

Features: Online

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Online play has quickly become one of the most touted features for football games, year in and year out. Both EA and Sega stepped up their online games this year, but which one stepped it up the most?

ESPN's league system allows you to track stats and standings online via custom web sites.
You can check out other players' profiles and analyze their tendencies in Madden NFL 2005.

ESPN

The big shift in online for ESPN this year is a complete overhaul of the league system. Last year's leagues were pretty bare-bones, but this year's are really quite something. Aside from the ability to track stats and results from a pretty-slick-looking, ESPN-themed Web page, the game hosts live rosters for the purpose of tracking injuries and allowing for trades between teams. Going back to the Web site stuff for a second... Did we mention how slick these features are? You can get full play-by-plays for each game, look up all the player stats you'd expect to see on a real NFL stat-tracking site, and get your message board on with your fellow league members. You've also got the choice between full seasons or simple tournaments for your leagues. It's all really, really cool stuff.

Outside of the leagues, you've got all the usual head-to-head-play stuff, as well as a built-in ESPN messaging system and the ability to download an opponent's user profile in hopes of using it to train against him (more on that on the next page). Since the game launched, it has had its share of issues online, but things seem to be running pretty smoothly now. And for the record, we haven't had a single problem getting into a game online since the most recent fixes went up, nor have we experienced any game glitches.

Madden

Madden is supposedly going to have its own premium pass league system at some point, but as it stands, none of it is currently up and running. Furthermore, it won't have live rosters. It will have most of ESPN's other league features, however. More premium pass stuff includes some exclusive leaderboards, a customizable sports ticker, and so on. But to access any of it, you'll have to enter a credit card number and sign up for the crazy premium service (although it's supposedly still free). Outside of standard head-to-head play (of which there is plenty), you can also play one of Madden's minigames online (more on that on the next page), as well as check out profiles of other users online to familiarize yourself with their play styles and tendencies (not available via download, though). Also worth noting is the fact that Madden is on Xbox Live for the first time this year, and whatever rookie mistakes might have been made in last month's NCAA Football 2005 appear to be absent for Madden. The game plays great over Live.

Which is better?

Despite whatever technical issues may have existed for ESPN (which, again, we never really encountered), the fact remains that ESPN has the best available list of online features available today. All of EA's league stuff is untested and theoretical until it launches "near the beginning of the season," and what ESPN has in terms of leagues is just cooler, features-wise. And while EA's premium stuff sounds cool, it doesn't seem cool enough to really warrant the extra hassle of giving them a credit card number. We'll see when it goes up, but for right now, ESPN is most definitely where the online business is at.

Winner: ESPN NFL 2K5

Features: All the other random nonsense

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ESPN has its VIP profiles and first-person football, while Madden has its minigames and create-a-fan. Which should you actually care about?

Phillip Buchanon strikes a pose--just one of the many custom celebrations in ESPN NFL.
You can make some nutty looking characters with Madden's create-a-fan.

ESPN

At first glance, ESPN would seem to be the clear-cut winner in this category, simply due to how much extra stuff there is in the game. For starters, there's the new VIP profile system, which is just about the coolest thing ever put into a football game. Once you create your profile in the game, it immediately begins tracking exactly how you play. If you're a sad-sack loner, you can just play against your own profile and watch the game creepily emulate your style of play. Or, if you prefer the more social route, you can download other people's profiles online, and, in turn, they can do the same for you. This is an awesome feature if you're into the whole concept of scouting.

Other new features include a celebration editor that allows you to set up your own special touchdown celebrations and a stadium music editor for the Xbox that gives you the ability to make any music on your hard drive play in clips during specific scenarios. This is supercool. There's also a glorified situation mode called the ESPN 25th Anniversary mode, where you can play out unique scenarios from classic games, like the Immaculate Reception or the Heidi Bowl. It's a neat idea, but it's not particularly well executed, especially since you can't really play out the same kind of fantastic stuff that happened in those scenarios. Rather, you're presented with a fairly glib, generalized objective.

And then there's the old stuff that makes a return, like first-person football and the crib. Both features are as love-it-or-hate-it as they were last year--especially FPF, which has barely changed at all. The crib, at least, has more stuff to unlock now, though the inclusion of the whole "celebrity" feature--where you can challenge menial celebrities to games--is utterly stupid. Maybe if they'd included some classic coaches or players as profiles, we might be in business. But with a roster that looks like the reject list from The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn, you're unlikely to be impressed by this feature.

Madden

There are really only two notable mode additions to Madden's basic package this year. The first is a minigame mode where you can play a couple of fun, little games called rushing attack and two-minute drill. Rushing attack is actually just the old rushing attack minicamp exercise but with two players and a score that's kept based on touchdowns scored and tackles made against your opponent. The two-minute drill puts you in the last two minutes of a game and instructs you to score as many times as possible before those two minutes are up. Then you switch to defense, where you must try to prevent your opponent from scoring. Both of these games are cool, though they're a tad unremarkable, because they aren't really anything more than a silly distraction.

The other addition made is the new create-a-fan mode, which is similarly juvenile but fun regardless. Ever wanted to create a complete psychopath to dress up in sophomoric team-color-themed outfits to root for your favorite squad? Now you can. There's a pretty nice wealth of ways to make your lunatic fans, and you can gussy them up pretty crazily. However, there isn't any way to program their animations or do anything neat with them in cutscenes, so, really, all they'll do is just play out the same couple of generic in-game cutscenes over and over again. This is kind of sad, actually, considering how much customization there is in the game already.

The PS2 version of Madden also contains some extra features in the special Collector's Edition, including a few classic Madden titles, some trivia, a bunch of random videos, and something similar to ESPN's 25th Anniversary mode that sucks just about as much as ESPN's mode. While these are nice features to have around, the PS2 Collector's Edition costs about 10 bucks more than the usual one, and none of its features are really worth the money. The classic games aren't worth more than a couple of plays, the trivia gets old, and, again, the classic situation mode is dumb.

That about sums up the Madden NFL 2005 other features list. There are obviously the returning aspects, like minicamp and all the Madden challenge stuff, but none of it has really changed at all.

Which is better?

The basic fact of the matter is that ESPN just has better, more-interesting side features. Yeah, first-person football is still kind of lame, and the crib isn't going to bring in any new fans, but the VIP profile system is just too cool to pass up, and the ability to create your own stadium music on the Xbox version is way cooler than it even seems like it should be. Madden's new features are nice, but they aren't nice enough to quite take the proverbial taco.

Winner: ESPN NFL 2K5

Presentation

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Sega has continued to ramp up its ESPN-styled TV broadcast-style of presentation, whereas EA has added Tony Bruno to the mix. So which one gives you the best presentational feel when you play it?

ESPN NFL offers interesting camera angles on replays, giving it an even more TV-like look and feel.
Storyline central, with real-life newspapers, adds to the overall ambience of Madden NFL 2005.

ESPN

If you've been a fan of Sega's football games for a while, you'll know that since Sega picked up the ESPN license, the developer has slowly but steadily packed more and more of the ESPN look and feel into the game over time. ESPN NFL 2K5 is easily the most polished, ESPN-looking game to date, with a whole host of stuff that just makes the game look and feel really slick. For starters, furthering the addition of football loudmouth Chris Berman to last year's game, Boomer is back this year, along with Suzie Kolber, Trey Wingo and Mel Kiper Jr. Furthermore, now both Boomer and Kolber have polygonal representations of themselves in the game! Boomer shows up before the game to give you a preview of the matchup, and Kolber appears at the end, interviewing the player of the game. Yeah, the lip-syncing is bad, and a polygonal Suzie Kolber can be just plain creepy at times, but it's still pretty neat to have Kolber and Boomer in there.

Though ESPN NFL has always had slick menus and replays, this year's game still manages to bump that aspect up quite a bit. The replays are way better this year, with more camera angles and a feature that actually lets you watch a replay now while picking your next play. All the in-game menus have been polished up, and they just look superb. Also, the in-game menus and overlays continue to present a very TV-like experience.

Madden

Madden NFL 2005 is also a pretty slick-looking game, presentation-wise, though perhaps not quite as much as ESPN. The menus in the game all look very, very good. They're easy to navigate, nicely designed, and quite easy on the eyes, graphically. The additions of Tony Bruno and licensed newspapers in the franchise mode also provide a very nice pair of touches that give the franchise mode a little more in the way of realism. The in-game stat overlays and such aren't really that great and don't pop up very frequently. Additionally, the replays always just seem to look a little bit off--like the camera is either moving too fast or it's just that dumb rotating-camera bullet-time effect the game uses.

Which is better?

If it isn't obvious already, we like ESPN's presentation a lot better. Madden has some nice stuff, but it's nowhere near what ESPN has jammed into its presentational package. So much of the game feels like a real ESPN TV broadcast that it's impossible not to like it.

Winner: ESPN NFL 2K5

Graphics

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Does ESPN continue to be the best-looking football game on the market? Or did Madden finally fix those mutant-looking player models? We compare and contrast.

ESPN NFL is easily the better looking football game this year.
Ty Law's a little beefy--we're not totally enamored with Madden's player models.

ESPN

We're not even going to beat around the bush on this one: ESPN is the best-looking football game ever made. Period. Hands down. 100 percent. 120 percent, even.

Let's just start with the player models, which are uncanny in how much they look like their real-life counterparts. The body builds are near-perfect, and the faces are freaky in just how realistic they look. Then there's the animation... Oh, the sweet, sweet animation. Everything from brutal, run-stuffing gang tackles to simple leg trips looks brilliant. Everybody moves realistically, and rarely will you see anything less than what looks exactly like a real football game. Then you've got the stadiums, which continue to be the best-looking professional arenas in football gaming. This even includes the wide array of crowd cutscenes that you'll see in the game, all of which are very cool.

What more needs to be said? The game looks absolutely incredible.

Madden

So, is Madden the other best-looking football game ever made? Unfortunately, no. In fact, Madden really doesn't look especially better than last year's Madden title. The players still have that sort of goofy, generic look to them, without much of anything in the way of facial detail (save for the topmost players). The animation is definitely better than last year's game, especially in the realm of tackling. Some of the hits you can deliver with the hit stick are utterly brutal. You might also notice a couple of new catching animations and what have you, but some stuff, such as the basic running and jogging animations, still look a bit off. Again, like ESPN, the stadiums here are pretty high quality, though the cutscenes aren't nearly as impressive as the competition's are.

Which is better?

Did you or did you not just read the above text? Specifically, did you read the part where we said ESPN NFL 2K5 was the best-looking football game ever made? Did you miss that? Were you reading a different feature all of a sudden?

Winner: ESPN NFL 2K5. Duh.

Sound

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Which is the least-grating commentary team? Al Michaels and John Madden? Or those random ESPN guys? And why exactly is Franz Ferdinand in a football game? These questions shall be answered...and pretty much only these questions. Seriously, what else would you ask about in a sound category?

ESPN NFL on the Xbox lets you do some basic tweaking to the soundtrack.
The inclusion of the Tony Bruno Show in Madden gives some additional flavor to the game.

ESPN

If you're going into your football game purchase plan this year with the hope of hearing drastically better commentary than last year's games, you're going to be sorely disappointed. Starting with ESPN... About 80 percent of the commentary in ESPN NFL 2K5 appears to have been recycled from last year's title, and it's actually more repetitive than it was. The good news is that the other voice work from the real-life ESPN personalities is much better. The dialogue itself can be a bit one-dimensional, but it's cool to hear Boomer talk about the game's big plays during the halftime show and get the skinny on the draft straight from Mel Kiper Jr. (aka the most insidious-looking draft expert ever to walk the earth).

The remaining components of ESPN's sound are also pretty great. Excellent sound effects permeate much of the in-game action, and all of the usual ESPN music is front and center, along with some generic soundtrack stuff thrown in for the crib mode. You can also access custom soundtracks on the Xbox, and, again, you can use the stadium music editor to play whatever music you'd like to during a game.

Madden

John Madden needs to either completely change his personality or stop providing commentary. In Madden NFL 2005, he is actually even worse than he ever has been before, managing to be even more obvious in his statements and even less useful. Al Michaels is only slightly better, but at least he keeps the play-by-play reasonably useful. All told, the commentary is entirely forgettable.

As far as music goes, once again EA has trotted out its EA Trax program with a whole bunch of bands that don't quite fit into a football game. Franz Ferdinand? The Hives? Faith No More? Yeah, they're great bands that we like a lot, but what the heck are they doing in Madden?

Finally, there is a pretty nice array of sound effects in Madden NFL 2005, but there's nothing that especially stands out. It ultimately seems like the developers at EA kind of sleepwalked their ways through the sound design for this year's game.

Which is better?

Neither game is especially wonderful in the sound category this year, but ESPN does have some components that are appreciably better than Madden. The sound effects are generally better, the custom music options on the Xbox are extremely cool, and all of the ESPN personality dialogue just adds to the package nicely. ESPN takes it.

Winner: ESPN NFL 2K5

The Conclusion

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If you were to ask us point-blank what football game you should buy this year, our answer would be "both." With ESPN being a mere $20 and Madden still offering an excellent game of football, we think this is the year that everybody should try both games to truly see where their loyalties lie. Now then, if your response to this statement is, "Nice try, Richie Rich, but I don't have $70 to spend on two football games. Now quit the crap, and tell me which one I should get!" Our answer would be: ESPN NFL 2K5.

The reasons for this are plentiful. Aside from our contention that there has never been a better-looking football game than this one, ESPN NFL 2K5 also has more than enough depth in both gameplay and features to make it a stellar package. The new ESPN presentational components, the few gameplay additions to the running game and defense, and the übercool online league system simply make ESPN impossible to pass up. This answer doesn't even take into account the fact that this outstanding package can be purchased for the kind of money you'd typically spend on a crappy budget game. How can you go wrong with a deal like this?

With this said, there are a couple of things that Madden does do better. If your sole interest is in having the best franchise mode and you don't particularly care about gameplay or graphics or any of that craziness, then Madden may be the way to go. Additionally, if you really prefer a good, defensive game of football, then Madden has ESPN beaten in that category as well. But, beyond these couple of scant categories, ESPN is really the way to go pretty much across every other conceivable area. While defense may typically win championships, it doesn't win our crown for the best football game of 2004. ESPN NFL 2K5 does that.

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