Like in last year's game, online play remains the brightest spot in NFL GameDay 2004. Its wealth of features includes everything from tournaments to built-in message boards and e-mail. That being said, the gameplay falls considerably short and is still behind the competition. Unfortunately, GameDay exhibits bouts of outrageously bad AI and displays little quirks that make it seem as though the game is simulating incompetent high school football players as opposed to seasoned professionals.
These problems are almost immediately obvious within the first few minutes of starting a game. Even on the highest difficulty setting, it's not totally uncommon to move outside the pocket as the quarterback and stand there for a good 10 seconds before a defender ever comes close to making a tackle. This enables you to survey the field and wait for an open receiver. Of course, that shouldn't be too difficult since the defensive backs occasionally don't bother picking up open receivers anyway--especially if they come out of the backfield. In addition, the 10 seconds you have to throw the ball allows plenty of time for the receivers to get a good 25 yards down the field, but, not surprisingly, it's still relatively easy to complete these passes. Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the passing game occurs when you throw to a receiver who's facing the line of scrimmage. When the player catches the ball, he automatically runs two yards or so back toward the line of scrimmage before turning around to run in the proper direction. This momentum feature makes sense when players are running toward the sidelines, or just running, period, but in this case, the receiver is stationary but still runs in the wrong direction.
Other interesting quirks can be found in the running game. When running the ball to the outside, once the ball carrier gets a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage, the defensive backs will stay in pass coverage and run in the opposite direction. Normally, this wouldn't be such a big deal, since cornerbacks and safeties are usually focused on coverage, but it just happens far too often for it to not be an issue. Otherwise, the running game is actually pretty solid--thanks to some smart offensive line blocking.
There are some problems with the defense--especially those associated with the passing game--since the defensive back AI just acts ridiculously stupid at points; but it is decent. Defensive backs do a reasonable job of picking up receivers in zone defenses, and linebackers can't really cheat since they have trouble breaking through the offensive line.
NFL GameDay 2004 is pretty standard in its mode selection. There are preseason, season, general manager, tournament, practice, and franchise management options. The general manager mode essentially functions as the game's franchise mode in which you can take a team through numerous seasons in hopes of winning a Super Bowl, or, at the very least, building a dynasty. The general manager mode lets you perform all of the basic actions like trading players, signing free agents, drafting new players, managing playbooks, and viewing statistics to get a glimpse at who the top players are. There's nothing particularly special about the general manager mode since it doesn't really offer anything new that other football games, or even previous versions of GameDay, don't also offer.
As mentioned, what really sets GameDay apart from the opposition is its online play, which is impressive due to the amount of features it offers and not necessarily because of the gameplay. There are message boards where you can talk with other players. You can also send e-mail to other players by using your online nickname, and 989 Sports can even give you feedback on the game. The online mode also offers tournaments as well as a wealth of stat tracking. If GameDay is your only football option, then you'll probably spend most of your time in the online game.
Much has also been made of the fact that NFL GameDay supports the USB headset, not only for talking to other players, but for actually calling and manipulating plays--such as sending men in motion or hiking the ball. While this may sound really cool, it doesn't work that well. Add this to the fact that most of the options you can call are just as easily executed using the PlayStation 2 controller, and it makes the USB headset more of a novelty than anything else. It's also worth pointing out that sometimes the game doesn't completely recognize some of the commands unless you speak very clearly--when you don't, the game will suddenly jump into the pause menu.
NFL GameDay 2004 looks better than its predecessor, which isn't saying much when you consider that last year's game didn't look all that great to begin with. The player models are much more detailed and representative of their real-life counterparts. The stadiums look good, and there's actually a surprising level of detail on the sidelines--you'll see players sitting on benches, and, of course, there are cheerleaders. However, there are some odd frame rate problems that usually appear right after the snap. What happens is that the game will suddenly slow down, and this has a slight effect on the timing of running plays since you have to make cuts to avoid linebackers.
Conversely, the sound is pretty solid. The commentary team is headed up by Dick Enberg and Dan Fouts. While Dan Fouts provides the usual assortment of idiotic lines--like the ones he would say in an actual NFL game--the commentary actually flows pretty well and doesn't sound like a bunch of spliced sound clips. Other than that, the game has the usual assortment of rock 'n' roll music from a variety of artists, including Papa Roach.
There's no question that NFL GameDay 2004 improves upon its predecessor, and the online play continues to keep pace with the competition, but the game falls short in practically every other area. The AI makes some ridiculous mistakes--far too often--and the passing game is just far too unbalanced for any football fan to take seriously. There are simply better football games on the market, so there's really no point investing time in GameDay unless it's your only option.