Late summer is a very exciting time of year for sports fans, especially football fans. After a long off-season of free agent signings, salary cap casualties and the college draft, fans look forward to their favourite team opening training camp to prepare for the long grind to the Super Bowl. The start of training camp also means a new crop of football titles are released.
I find the process of choosing a new football game every year is very similar to the NFL Draft. Each game is released at roughly the same time with different features to attract gamers based on their likes and dislikes similar to the way players boast their talents to prospective General Managers who looking to select a player that best fits their team. With the draft there are always the one or two players who could be drafted number one while there are the players that are very good talents but may not attract the initial interest. This year, there are two titles worthy of that first pick overall selection, ESPN NFL Football 2K5 and Madden NFL 2005, both of whom contain Xbox Live functionality.
So without further ado, the first overall selection in the Xbox football game selection is ESPN NFL 2K5. I guess that really isnt much of a surprise consider it says the name is mentioned on the link. Well, the mystique surrounding who would go number one gone, lets have a look at why.
This year, the ESPN franchise took the unusual and very aggressive move releasing the game more than a month earlier at more than half the price. These are two huge bonuses for a franchise that has provided a great gridiron experience since it debuted on the Dreamcast. I had been really looking forward to start of the football season so those were two great reasons to get me primed for training camps. Besides being released first and being a sweet deal, I also had some good memories of the game on the Dreamcast and then when it debuted on the Xbox. With new edition, I also liked to see how Sega/Visual Concepts improved upon the game, wondering how they could and this is year is no exception.
ESPN NFL 2K5 is a fantastic looking game with very slick graphics. In fact, these graphics are so slick that sometimes you will have to remind yourself that you are playing the game not watching it on television. The television production experience carries through the entire game. It begins with a digitized Chris Berman in the ESPN studios previewing the days match-up. He will then throw to the referee who is down on the field for the coin toss in the richly detailed stadiums. Each stadium is an exact replica and features hometown fans, which at various cut scenes will let you know how you are doing depending on the score or how the team is playing. The fans can even been seen having a boisterous tailgate party before the game, nice touch.
The lightening in the stadiums is fantastic. As much as I dislike the Dallas Cowboys (send all hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org), the best stadium to play in was Dallas in the twilight. For those who dont know, the Cowboys stadium has a partially covered roof, the middle of the roof is open. While playing in the twilight, the lighting would naturally shift to create some dynamic shadow affects. The stadium lighting, no matter where you playing, also looks as it provides some stellar reflections off of players helmets.
So with rowdy fans and decorated stadiums provide a generous backdrop for the game its time to take the field. The details that were used on the crowds and stadiums were carried over to the players big time. One major difference that I noticed this year how different the players look; the digital players actually resemble the real ones. And its not just the players but the coaches too. John Gruden in Tampa looks identical; Joe Gibbs (he just signed with the Redskins this spring) is sporting his trademark glasses. I was however a little disappointed with the likeness that was given to my beloved New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
I was however impressed with improvement given to the player movement and animations. It didnt matter if you were a linebacker on the prowl getting ready to go after the quarterback or a running back taking charge towards a first down. The movements are very fluid and smooth and extremely realistic. The animations are taken straight from a pro game as well. Plunge ahead and gain that crucial first down with your running back and he will get up, no matter how hard he may be hit and he will provide the exclamation mark but giving the first down gesture. Receivers will do the same thing when they make a big catch over the middle. The defence gets equally excited after a big play so you will often see cornerbacks doing the chest bump or defensive linemen picking up each other and giving a nice play slap.
These animations will be shown right after a replay, which is of the outmost quality. The replays will be shown at a variety of different camera angles including the famous ESPN SkyCam that hovers over the play. Replays can also include a photo of the player who just made the critcal play.
The overall graphics presentation of this game provides such an authentic experience; the only thing you are missing is the obligatory warning that you will get on televised games. You know, the one that rambles on something like duplication of this NFL broadcast in whole or in apart, without the expressed written consent of the National Football League is strictly prohibitedblah blah blah. I know I have spent a lot of time on the graphics but I feel its the most important part of this game as it truly does recreate the NFL experience. Thats something most of the others titles dont offer.
While I was most impressed with the look of the game I did have mixed feelings about the sound. The crowd noise is the typical piped noise that we have grown accustomed to so nothings new there. One element of stadium noise that I had a lot of fun with was the music thanks to the Xbox hard drive. You can create your own stadium music using any music you have copied to hard drive or imported with Music Mixer. You can customize what music plays when you score a touchdown, kick the ball off, halftime, etc. There are around 15 to 20 different instances in the game that you can customize. When you create your own music the reverb effect is added to give it a truly authentic stadium feel.
When you are creating the music you are taken into a mini sound studio of sorts. You select the track you would like to use and you then pick the point in the song you want. You can use the whole song or just snippets. You can then preview the song to make sure its too your liking. The whole process is very quick. Its a nice little customizable feature that your friends and family may find funny when you score a touchdown and 50 Cents In Da Club comes on.
When your favourite tunes are not pumping through the stadium speakers, the players will talk smack at the line by telling the quarterback to watch out or letting the running back know the defence has his number. This isnt bad but all the players sound the same. What is bad however is the quarterback barking out calls from the line of scrimmage. He sounds awful to say the least. The QB sounds like he is calling the play though a megaphone. The voice is poor quality and very scratchy. Whats disappointing about the player voice is Visual Concepts recruited several stars including Tom Brady, Brian Ulracher and Ahman Green to name a few for motion capture. They should have pulled them into the sound studio to record some dialogue.
What isnt poor quality is the game commentary. The in game announcers offer insightful commentary on each play although this does tend to repeat by the time the second half rolls around. It repeats a lot quicker if you start to lay the smackdown on your opponent though. To break the monotony, Suzy Kolber provides team insights at the beginning of the second half. She also offers injury updates; although they sometimes compete with the game calling, which is a tad frustrating when you are trying to find out how long a player is out.
The game looks amazing, sounds ok but plays great. The controls are fairly easy. While the passing may take a few attempts to perfect, the controls are simple enough to pick up and play thanks to the ease of use with the defence or the running game. Although, thankfully the bug for the practically unstoppable running back has been fixed. The AI for the most part is fairly strong except for when you rip off a huge run or pass play. The defence will continue to chase you and rather than dive to make a touchdown saving tackle. As much as anyone would like a quick six points for the score, it does detract a little from the realism that I have been going on about.
For those looking for the ultimate realism experience, first-person football is back. Some other fun additions include ESPN 25th Anniversary Mode that allows you to try and recreate some awesome football moments over the last 25 years. Some of theses moments include The Immaculate Reception and the famous Wide Right missed field goal by the Buffalo Bills when they lost the Super Bowl, I cant remember which time (again thats email@example.com for any hate mail).
You can also go into The Crib. You earn crib credits to buy things team posters, bar lights or even player bobbleheads to decorate your crib. On occasion your Crib phone will ring with D-list celebrities like Steve-O (didnt his 15 minutes expire?), Jamie Kennedy, Camren Electra (what she or any of these other celebrities have to do with football is beyond me) and Funkmaster Flex will challenge you to a game.
If you ever grow tied of beating these celebrities I welcome you to hop on Xbox Live and look for Tenacious K. I will gladly take my beloved New England Patriots and teach you how to play the game of football.