Sega's NFL 2K series is back--and better than ever--with a new name and some seemingly large additions. But while most of the prerelease information and advertising has been focused on these additions--specifically the crib and first-person football--ESPN NFL Football's number one strength is still its incredibly responsive gameplay, which has also seen some significant changes that may, at first, throw longtime fans off. Ultimately, though, the changes made to the tackling and running balance go a long way in helping to make ESPN NFL Football Sega's best football game ever.
ESPN NFL Football features a long list of gameplay modes that include quick game, franchise, season, tournament, practice, first-person football, and online play. The deepest mode in the game is, of course, the franchise mode. This mode allows you to play one season after another and comes complete with a draft and off-season player dealings--like signing and releasing players--all governed by the real rules of the NFL, where trade deadlines and salary caps are the norm. If that's a little too much control for your tastes, you can put the computer in charge of some of the general manager duties. Fans of NFL 2K3 will find that the franchise mode in ESPN NFL Football has been reworked to include a very slick virtual e-mail system that allows you to quickly see what's new in the league and with your team. It's actually really cool since you get e-mails, with feedback, from the team owner about impressive wins or disappointing losses--plus you get injury reports from team doctors who let you know how long injured players will be out. You're even sent virtual e-mails that clue you in on deeper game features, like pregame scouting reports, which give you a heads up on what your next opponent's strengths seem to be. Whatever info the e-mail might include, it's a very helpful tool that not only keeps you informed of what's happening with your team, but also gives you a greater sense of what's going on in the league.
One of the most talked about new features in ESPN NFL Football is a virtual apartment, of sorts, called 'The Crib.' The Crib serves as a showcase for all of the bonus items and awards you win by completing specific objectives. The objectives range from simple accomplishments, like looking at certain things in the game's menu, playing for one hour, and playing for five hours, to big play accomplishments, like returning a punt or kick for 99 yards or completing a game without dropping any passes. With every completed objective, you earn a trophy or item that you can use to decorate your crib. The items range from different-looking furniture, like couches and bar stools, to bobble heads and in-game cheats. You can also find hidden free agents, like Michael Irvin, and posters and soundtracks from old Sega games, like Jet Set Radio and previous NFL 2K games. The idea is that you'll be driven to unlock all of the items so that you can decorate your crib with stuff featuring the colors and logos of your favorite team. The reality is that The Crib is a cool addition and is certainly better than a simple menu that shows you your statistical accomplishments, but it's by no means revolutionary. It's a cosmetic addition that really shouldn't be taken into consideration when deciding if ESPN NFL Football is your type of game.
The other big feature added to this year's game--first-person football--is more than a gimmick. With that said, playing football from a first-person view isn't as much fun as you might think. Sure, punt and kick returns are awesome, and running the ball, in general, is a lot of fun in the first-person view, but it's ultimately not as much fun as playing the game from a regular camera view. The one thing that's important to note is that there are some major gameplay differences when playing ESPN NFL Football in first-person mode versus regular camera mode. For one thing, the right analog stick activates a brief moment of slow motion, when depressed, that kind of helps you get your bearings and allows you to make the right move. The other major difference is that the game gives you a meter at the bottom of the screen, called the threat detector, which shows you where the nearest opponent is to your player. The game's default presentation also changes, cutting out the announcers and only allowing you to see the replay as though you were watching it on the Jumbotron from the field. This setup, in essence, was created to give you a virtual experience of what it's like playing on the field. While the mode is certainly the best attempt at trying to convey what it's like being on the field--as seen from a first-person view--it's simply not as much fun as playing the game in the regular mode of play. It just seems more like a flashy extra. It's fun at first, but most people will become bored with the addition rather quickly.
While Madden is the most realistic-playing football game on the market, ESPN NFL Football is simply the most exciting football game on the planet. You're not only forced to think strategically when picking plays, like Madden, but you also pay or reap the rewards of actually making the right cut when running. You're the hero when throwing the ball with just enough push on the analog stick to lead your receiver so that he catches the pass in-stride and continues downfield for a touchdown. Every play that goes your way happens because you make it. ESPN NFL Football's responsive controls simply give precedence to the action and the skill of the player rather than to the animation or the will of the AI.
The passing in ESPN NFL Football is extremely well-done and features both a basic and an advanced mode. The basic setup is a traditional icon-based passing system that assigns a button to each one of your receivers that, when pressed, throws the pass to that receiver. The only real control you have with this setup is whether or not the pass is a slow, floating lob or a flat, bullet pass. This is determined by how long you hold the button. The advanced passing mode, called maximum passing, gives you a much greater degree of control over the placement of the pass by tying the direction of the pass to the left analog stick. It still works like the basic icon passing mode, in that you press the corresponding button to the receiver you want the ball to go to, but it lets you lead, overthrow, and underthrow your receiver by simply nudging the left analog stick in the direction you'd like the ball to go. This analog-nudging action takes place during the brief moment in time after you press the button to pass the ball and the moment the ball is released from the quarterback's hand. While this may sound insanely hard to do on paper, it's only moderately difficult to execute and becomes second nature over time. What makes it challenging, just like in real football, is that you have to find a receiver and get the ball to him before you get sacked.
Once you do manage to get the hang of maximum passing, the best thing about it is that it's incredibly rewarding--particularly as you switch player control from the quarterback to the receiver as you throw the ball. This, then, increases your chances of catching the ball--as the receiver. The process and mechanics of finding a receiver, "massaging" the ball in the best direction as you throw, and then instantly pressing the switch player button to take control of the receiver--which is quickly followed by the catch button at the exact moment the receiver cradles the ball--is so engaging that it truly is one of the main reasons why ESPN NFL Football is so fun to play.
The running game in ESPN NFL Football is also outstanding, as it really does give the player the power to break tackles by cutting or spinning at the right moment. One of the things that really puts you in total control of your player is the ability to charge up a move, like a stiff arm, hurdle, or dive, or to execute a speed burst. Since the same button activates both of these mechanics, you can hold it down to charge or you can rapidly press it for a burst of speed. You constantly have to make a choice between charging a move and running faster. It may seem odd at first, but experienced players seem to instinctively know which action to execute. The fact that the same button operates both gameplay mechanics is a sign of the game's simple, yet elegant, default control design.
This year the game's running and tackling has become more realistic in the sense that receivers who catch a pass in-stride are now rarely caught by defenders who are lagging a couple of steps behind. Plus, the diving tackle has been reined in a bit, making it even more realistic by rendering it less-effective. In ESPN NFL Football you now have the ability to shift defensive positions, from the line of scrimmage, by selecting a group and pressing a button. You then indicate where you'd like the group to shift. On offense you have the ability to call hot routes for any receiver, from the line, with a few simple button presses. Also new is the ability to challenge plays, which is actually done really well since the computer will let a referee make a bad call every once in awhile. This usually results in bad ball spots, but every once in awhile you'll see something--like a foot that hits an out of bounds line that the ref didn't notice. Having the computer challenge a touchdown you just made or a fumble you picked up is nerve-racking, especially since it can go both ways. The game prevents you from cheating on replays by disabling the ability to challenge a call once you've gone into the instant replay menu. One final change worth noting is the fact that the designers have replaced the radial play selector, used in previous NFL 2K installments, with a more traditional play selection screen.
The AI balance of the computer-controlled teams is very well-done and is extremely representative of the actual preferences and tendencies used by individual teams. For example, the Buccaneers will continue to send Mike Alstott through the middle for as long as you fail to stop him. On the other side of the equation, if you keep on sending one of your backs to one side or stick to the run over the pass, more often than not, you'll find that the AI will pick up your tendencies pretty quickly and shut you down. Veterans of the 2K series will find--after getting used to the new play style--that the changes in tackling and running make the default difficulty level fairly easy. Stepping up the difficulty will quickly align your ability with the ability of the computer. The one thing that may seem odd about the difficulty settings, when you first look at them, is that the category sliders for the individual AI settings show how they can be effectively changed. In short, the game now shows you exactly what effect changing the difficulty level has and allows you to tweak it to your liking. So if you think the defensive backs play too loosely, you can separately tighten them up, and so on.
With ESPN NFL Football's online capabilities, you can simply skip the process of tweaking artificial intelligence all together by competing against human opponents. The online interface for ESPN NFL Football has changed quite a bit and now allows for a great deal of flexibility in finding games and players. One of the big things, right off the bat, is that players are now limited in the amount of time they can pause the game before forfeiting their ability to do so. This effectively prevents someone from winning an online game by forcing another player to quit after pausing the game for hours or days at a time. As far as online performance goes, it plays great, with little or no lag-time during a game between two players who have good connections.
In the graphics department, ESPN NFL Football delivers an incredibly convincing recreation of an actual NFL television broadcast. The player models look extremely realistic in every aspect, such as height, weight, and general proportions. Even the faces of the players on the field are the best and most realistic looking of all the NFL games. You'll still see some players who look better than others, however. For instance, Ronde Barber of the Buccaneers looks perfect, but the game's representation of the Raiders' head coach, Bill Callahan, doesn't look nearly as true-to-life. Most of the other players and coaches have all of their small details just right--like the correct type of visors, facemasks, and even hairstyles.
The stadiums are also extremely detailed, with such nuances as team and player-specific banners. This is in addition to the obvious items, like the pirate ship in Tampa Bay. In the stands, the crowds actually looks better. This is only an illusion, though, as this year the designers of the game have included cut-away shots of small sections of fully rendered 3D fans. These 3D fans are painted with their home team colors and are cheering for their favorite players. Aside from the closeup cut-aways of the 3D fans, the rest of the time the crowd is comprised of the typical allotment of blurry images that look fine at a distance but look like cardboard cutouts up close. The sidelines in the game aren't empty either, as the game also features polygonal cameramen, cheerleaders, coaches, and players. Details, like camera cut-aways of coaches and player reactions on the sidelines, are tied to ESPN-style video transitions between plays and replays. They really help make the game seem as though it's an actual broadcast. In all honesty, though, it's not the transitions or textures that make ESPN NFL Football look convincingly real, but rather, it's the fluid animation of the players. Players running, diving, catching, and especially tackling look incredibly natural, thanks to the extensive motion-captured animations that have been included in ESPN NFL Football. Players grab hold of one another and roll over and on top of one another. Even multiple-player tackles now look realistic. You'll still see your share of arms and legs clipping through one another, but you won't see as many as in previous years.
ESPN NFL Football is available for both the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox this year. Both versions of the game play just fine, and most of the differences are limited to the game's graphics. The Xbox version not only looks cleaner than the PlayStation 2 version, but it also has support for progressive scan and widescreen television sets. While the back of the Xbox version claims the game has 720p support, we were unable to get the game running in anything higher than 480p. Regardless, the progressive scan support is nice, but it doesn't make as big of an improvement here as it does for some other Xbox games. The PlayStation 2 version supports up to eight players as opposed to the Xbox version's four. Finally, the PlayStation 2 version has support for online leagues via a webpage, though this page doesn't appear to actually be up and running at this time.
The audio presentation in ESPN NFL Football is also about as good as it gets, in all aspects, from announcing and sound effects to music. The two-man announcing booth delivery in ESPN NFL Football is one of the most natural, and downright entertaining, performances of any of the NFL games this year. The commentary is not only insightful, but it is also humorous, at times, with tons of lines of dialogue. While very well-done, you will hear some of the same team-specific comments when you're a few games into the season. This occurs most often during specific situations, like when a coach challenges a play--since there is only one piece of recorded dialogue for each of the different outcomes. Also providing voice work this year is Chris Berman, of ESPN, who handles the pregame rundown and halftime show. Berman also voices a weekly wrap up that gives the rundown on the winners and losers of the week. All of Berman's voice work has his special brand of enthusiasm, which fits well into the game. The rest of the game's audio is filled with the sound of helmets crashing together, players chattering, and crowds cheering. It all sounds realistic and quite good--though anyone familiar with previous installments in the series will notice that a lot of the player chatter has been recycled.
In the end, ESPN NFL Football is truly the best playing football game available for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. The responsive controls and gameplay mechanics are better than any other NFL football game available. That said, if you're a fan of the off-the-field options and gameplay modes found in Madden, you might find that ESPN's franchise mode, and other options, come up a bit short on the simulation side of things. Ultimately, though, the two games have pretty different styles that will appeal to different players. Fans of previous NFL 2K games will love ESPN NFL Football, while fans of Madden will probably still go with Madden. If you're on the fence, trying out both games is really the only way to know for sure, though you absolutely can't go wrong if you go straight for ESPN NFL Football.