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
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
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
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.
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.