Playin' like a pro.
Behind the dark veil of our starry firmament ticks the great clock of destiny and certitude, to which is set the tempo of all natural phenomena: the sun rising and setting, the Domino's pizza guy showing up one second before it would have been free, the Raiders choking in a crucial game. It's a big clock, and it's dependable.
That's also a good way to describe the 2K football game from Visual Concepts. Year after year, the series inches closer to getting a piece of Madden's pie, a slow but determined drive downfield. While the most recent cycle of 2K football is being called ESPN NFL Football, it moves to the beat of the same awesome drum as its predecessors.
However, the two big features new to ESPN NFL Football are surprisingly lackluster. Although it is obvious the requisite amount of Visual Concepts love went into First-Person mode and The Crib, both modes seem extraneous and a little forced.
First-Person mode lets you hop into the helmet after hiking the ball to get down and dirty on the field. You can use a neat slow-motion effect to get a better view of things before you get nailed, and a 'threat' meter gives you an idea of how soon that will happen. These are cool details, but they don't change the fact that you can't see enough and wind up feeling limited by a point-of-view that simply doesn't work well for football games. It's not nearly as fun as the normal third-person view. Perhaps if they renamed it "Michael Irvin" mode and let you do a bunch of coke before pimpin' some hoes, First-Person mode would be more interesting.
When it comes to acting like a pimp, look no further than The Crib, which is basically a trophy room. Each profile gets a virtual crib to fill with furniture and decorations given to you upon completing various challenges (returning a punt for a TD, shutting out an opposing team, etc.) Then, after you've filled your Crib with tons of stuff, you can show your friends your amazing accomplishment and let them bask in the glory of your greatness.
Yeah, right. While it sounds kinda neat, it's just window dressing and isn't really a new mode of play so much a new way to feel virtually cool. A few of the unlockables are actually useful (such as some little mini-games like an air hockey table), but most of the time you're just getting a new sofa or something.
The rest of the modes are fairly ubiquitous and include Franchise, Season, Tournament and Practice. Unfortunately, ESPN's single-player modes don't really stack up with those in Madden 2004. The Franchise mode is well done and realistic, allowing you to do all the things you usually do with minimal difficulty, but Madden took things so much farther this year with its outstanding Owner mode.
Then again, ESPN Football's gameplay is very solid. Maximum Passing is an intuitive take on the passing scheme and places an even greater emphasis on (and grants greater rewards for) good timing than the Madden games. The running game is slightly superior as well, with a streamlined control scheme and a handy charge-meter for jukes and spins. The game has a distinctly more arcadey feel than Madden, but to me that serves as something of an advantage.
The tight control of ESPN Football is complimented by its outstanding animations. Dive tackles, one-handed catches, hurdles - everything looks good. However, it would have been nice if Visual Concepts had added more new gameplay mechanics. As opposed to spending so much time on First-Person football, I think they could have given defensive play mechanics in general more thought. For example, defensive linemen really should learn how to shove.
What ESPN Football really needs is to crush the competition in one area, and clearly the gameplay is its best feature. The more risks they take with the running and passing, the better this series will be. They're on a good path, at least.
And despite the two underwhelming new additions of First-person and The Crib, ESPN Football goes the distance with its online play, adding tons of replay value to a game bursting with playability. Logging on and kicking other people's asses in this game is a unique thrill thanks to the depth and responsiveness of the controls; when you bust open a big play your opponent knows you did it, not some twist of the computer AI. Xbox owners in particular should be excited about the online play of ESPN Football because the Xbox version of Madden 2004 is not online.
Regardless of your system, ESPN Football looks great. The players look sharp and crisp on the field and the animations are simply out of sight. The stadiums are nicely detailed and the fans actually wear their team's paraphernalia. As usual, the Xbox version looks a bit better than the PS2 version, but it still maintains a solid framerate so the animations look just as good. The game looks eerily life-like.
ESPN Football sounds fine with solid commentary and decent effects, but I'd like to hear even more crowd noise in some situations. Clearly, a noisy stadium can wreak havoc on a visiting team's offensive procedures (just look at the Raiders) – how about some false starts associated with crowd noise and maybe even some preventative measures a QB could take? Just a suggestion.
Ultimately ESPN Football is a very good game, but not good enough this season to beat Madden…unless you own an Xbox and are dying to play online. If ESPN wants to compete with an EA Franchise that has made some serious leaps and bounds this year, they're going to have to buckle down in the off-season, tighten up their offense and maybe learn some new plays on defense.