Who let the Chihuahuas out?
NFL GameDay 2004 for the PS2 represents an interesting mark in the GameDay franchise. While I wouldn't say that the series has finally come of age, I will say that it has come of adolescence. You remember that kid who was fat all through middle school and then somehow lost thirty pounds over the summer? That's the idea. While certainly not as mature as Madden or as athletic as ESPN, GameDay proves that sometimes dropping a ball is a good thing.
The most noticeable improvement is the brawny on-line component. There are chat-rooms, message boards, tournaments, rankings stats, instant messengers and all sorts of other online goodies that weren't there last Fall. Not only is the SOCOM headset supported for voice-chat, but you can also use it to administer voice commands to your team, even offline. That's right - the headset recognizes over thirty commands. Unfortunately, "throw the damn ball you @%#$!" isn't one of them.
The single-player is still a bit underdeveloped. The usual suspects all make it to the huddle including Preseason, Season, Tournament, Practice, General Manager and Franchise. Essentially nothing has changed here since last year. The General Manager and Franchise modes, usually the bread and butter of any single-player sports game, are too barebones compared to the wealth of details and possibilities in Madden, and the other modes have been unchanged since I was in diapers.
However, much of yesteryear's clumsiness has dissipated and GameDay plays better than ever before. Controls are now truly pressure sensitive (as they are in the ESPN and Madden games) and not quite as gangly and uncoordinated as they used to be. Having said that, GameDay's gameplay still isn't up to speed with either Madden or ESPN. It's a long way from high-school to the pros.
Quarterbacking is handled better than any other aspect of the game, although this is partially due to bad defensive AI. With Michael Vick, for example, I can totally demolish any defense any time by simply rolling out behind a running back and passing him the ball when defenders finally close in'if they ever do. Sometimes Vick just gets to take it thirty or forty yards. The option play might be great in college, but you shouldn't be able to do it this easy in the NFL.
GameDay has always tripped when it comes to running, and this year's game isn't much different. The pressure sensitive controls help, but weird frame-rates and an overall lack of fluidity kind of spoil this aspect of the game.
After a taste of Madden's incredible defensive AI, playing defense in GameDay makes me want to put down the controller and go play for real in the park. There's just no comparison. It's not really bad, per se, so much as static compared to what we see in the other two big NFL games. Defenders don't clog passing lanes nearly as effectively and pass-rushers always seem to get hung up on linemen. This means two things: the CPU offense will score on you more easily, and you can score on the CPU defense really easily, making GameDay a very offensive game. Pun slightly intended.
NFL Gameday 2004 has visited the dermatologist and cleared up a couple blemishes, but the overall countenance isn't that attractive. The main problem is the framerate, which is still a little clunky. However, I don't think this is due to bad programming or weird hardware issues so much as a result of the 989's animation style preference. In 989 games, there's always an element of enhanced quickness to gives the game a more arcadey feel. Unfortunately, this is often taken too far and makes movement jerky and awkward. Visual Concepts employs this tactic as well, but in a far more subtle manner so that the action seems energized as opposed to frantic. I think a revision to this approach, perhaps slowing down the animations and making them more fluid, would give the game the proper look.
The sounds are okay. Dan Fouts and Dick Enberg have always been decent video game commentators and combine to provide the one area in which GameDay does something better than Madden.
NFL GameDay 2004 represents a marked improvement over last year's effort. However, the football game genre is probably the toughest in sports, and small gains are easy to take for granted or dismiss as simply not enough. However, I think the GameDay series is beginning to show signs of life, and I'm actually interested in seeing what next year brings to this awkward but improving series.