I was mad, I'll admit it. When I heard the news that ESPN had bought out Sega Sports, I had felt like Starbucks had bought out my local coffee shop. Formerly known as the NFL 2k series, the string of well reviewed yet poorly sold games needed a big, corporate name to bring revenues up. To me, it felt like David, instead of slinging the rock in between Goliath's eyes, shrugged his shoulders, held his hands up in defeat, and said, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Now, Sega Sports didn't sell out to EA Sports, and I can't laude them for jumping over to a company that can not only provide them name recognition, but commercial time on ABC, Disney and ESPN (they are all owned by the same company), but they definitely lost their underdog status.
So, with a bump in revenue and resources, and a nifty name change, can NFL 2k, err, ESPN NFL Football 2k4 uphold the same level of quality? Can it advance it? Or will it be tossed into the $10 game barrel like ESPN's last football game, NFL Primetime, so did?
Yes, I do prefer ESPN's presentation and graphics over Madden's - this year (I rated Madden at 90). Although the player models and stadiums are a close match, where ESPN earns the push ahead is the player animation. This is especially evident in the player-to-player collision. In Madden, the number of animations is limited and they all seem like the ball carrier merely hit a wall and collapsed to the ground. In ESPN, the collisions seem more realistic in that the number of angles has increased. I see running backs in real life use contact as a springboard for additional yards, and that is done very well in ESPN.
The animations, overall, are simply more lifelike. In watching and playing in games of Madden and ESPN, the animations in Madden seem more robotic or programmed. For example, in the pre-snap mannerisms of the lines, in Madden all the defensive or offensive lineman stand the same. They almost look like the first line of a battlefront in the Revolutionary War they are so uniform. In ESPN, there's variance from the way they stand to pointing at potential blitzers. The result of the animation package is a cleaner, more-realistic looking and playing game. I just absolutely despise the momentum forces on some of the players in Madden.
The player models have lost some of the Frankenstein back and shoulders look of previous games. The stadiums are accurate from the two NFL stadiums I have been in - Edward Jones in St. Louis and Soldier Field in Chicago. The uniform selection is on par with Madden's.
I much prefer ESPN's two fictional play-by-play announcers, along with Chris Berman's pre-game show, over John Madden, Al Michaels, and Melissa Stark. While Michaels and Madden comment more on the obvious-what the down is or what formation-the ESPN announcers actually comment on career, season, and in-game stats on a more continual basis. The problem with them is they can be inaccurate. After one particular run, one of the announcers said he avoided a tackler with a spin move when in actuality it was a straight forward run. This has been the trend in previous games, but I like how the announcers have a conversation throughout the game. They bust jokes and mingle.
Interface/Options : 85
Although lacking behind Madden, I do appreciate ESPN's attempt at innovation with the first-person football. This game mode was hyped and there is a steep learning curve. For some reason, I get headaches when I play games that have a lot of jerkiness and wobbliness. That's why I can't play first-person shooters or many of the real-time games on the computer. My stomach just can't take it. So, you can understand why I wasn't a big fan of the first-person mode. It does seem like a really good idea and you can use it in franchise mode if you wish.
The interface, which attempts to recreate a coach's office, is similar to that of last year. Unfortunately, there are load times to go from roster management to the team schedule. While I appreciate the aesthetics of some of the interface, I want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. The load times don't do that. The Crib was added to catalog all of the things you have unlocked. You can even play some mini-games or listen to some tunes.
Overall, the game modes are fairly standard. You can adjust a number of the sliders and audio options, but what I like most is the ESPN presentation. The game boasted the ESPN presentation last year, but many of the menu screens, stat screens and music were from the mid-1990s. This year, the game received a major face-lift in that area. As I stated above, Berman does the pregame show, which is a nice touch, but the in-game presentation is phenomenal. There are more in-game statistics, picture-in-picture instant replay boxes, and references to career statistics. More than any game I have played on any platform or sport, the presentation in ESPN re-captures the experience of watching it on television.
Gameplay : 93
The biggest weakness here is the defensive back AI, but the overall package is very clean. After playing both of EA's and 989 Sports' football games, the speed adjustment to ESPN was difficult. My mind and reflexes were geared to a more hyper type of football, where as ESPN was more of a methodical pace. What that does for the gameplay personality is give it less of a video game feel and make it more authentic. In Madden and GameDay, you can sometimes tend to feel like you're in the 2-minute drill all day. In ESPN, you don't get that feeling.
However, the laid-back pace does come at the fault of some gameplay areas, which is especially seen when running the ball. There is little shiftiness or agility to the runners, which I can compare to Syphon Filter's Gabe Logan. Basically, it feels like you're constantly running in a narrow hall that you cannot elude. Madden does a pretty damn good job of recreating the stop-and-start aspect of football, but they overdo it. In ESPN, they under-do it to the expense of not getting an accurate feel of the talents of a Priest Holmes or Marshall Faulk. That's not to say running the ball is ineffective, it's not, it's almost too effective. The YAC, or yards after contact, are collected like the Cincinnati Bengals collect losses. In some confrontations, running backs shed three, four or maybe even five legitimate tackles before falling after a 25-yard gain. The ability to shed defenders decreases some as you bump up the difficulty level, but it's still a little overdone. Top running backs like Holmes or Faulk can easily rack up 200+ yards in even a 5-minute quarter game.
So, what does ESPN do right?
First off, it has the best collision detection of any football game on the market. In Madden, defenders and ball carriers tend to be magnetic toward each other. In ESPN, the system is more flexible. If you are in the range of being tackled, you'll be tackled, otherwise you won't get the rubberband feeling you sometimes get when you're running down the field.
The recreation of the pocket is also very authentic, especially on the higher difficulty levels. I hate how in Madden you get maybe two or three seconds on every play, regardless of the number of pass rushers and regardless of the quality of the offensive line. In ESPN, you get a nice variety. Sometimes you'll get sacked quicker than David Carr, but other times you'll be able to stand in there for a good five or six seconds. The passing game also has a much better feel to it than Madden, especially NCAA. You can put some considerable loft and touch on the ball. I think the number and type of ball arches you can have when throwing a pass is a lot more than what EA offers. There's sidearm throws and it seems you can lead the receiver a lot more than in Madden. I really appreciated that.
The game also awards strategy and not quick thumbs. For example in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jerome Bettis ran successfully up the middle for four straight plays. As a result, the Bus needed a break and his backup, the lightning-quick Amos Zeruoe entered the game. Expecting another run up the middle, I blitzed by middle linebacker, but I only watched as the Steelers chose a sweep play where blazing speed is needed to turn the corner. On successive plays and series, I was able to call plays that exploited Bettis's lack of speed and Zeruoe's lack of size, and I went on to win the game. ESPN does a fantastic job of giving you the satisfaction or frustration of calling the right or wrong play. If you blitz on third and long, do you run the risk of having the CPU call a draw or screen play? Should you pass on 2nd and 5 or should you run it? Although I'm sure there are money plays, I haven't come across many yet.
On the field, ESPN does a great job of portraying what a real game is like. I know it sounds rudimentary, but Madden has developed a niche in the higher scoring battles. Their gameplay is catchy and rewards the risk taking gamblers. For a more cerebral gamer, ESPN is a more fulfilling experience.
Replay Value : 89
ESPN doesn't have the off-field goodies that Madden does. Although an online mode is available, the numbers of gamers is not comparable to that of Madden. One time I logged on during a Wednesday night, which I would think is a premium night since it does not interfere with the weekend, and I was shocked that only five people were online. Otherwise, the franchise mode is cool (packed with the ESPN presentation are little game-by-game round ups by Berman...sweet!) and worthwhile, but it doesn't have the same charm as Madden, which has mini-games along with exhibitions games as outlets to improve your players' attributes.
The interface for the franchise, partly because of the load-up times, aren't as resourceful or as quick as Madden. Also, since there is no ESPN College Football, you can't import classes in like you can do with Gamebreaker and GameDay and NCAA and Madden. The main staying power for this game is its gameplay because if you love it, you'll play it for a while.
Overall : 93
I've come to the conclusion, after hearing how NFL or ESPN was going to butt heads with Madden for the genre's top dog, that it's really comparing apples and oranges. It's like deciding between Coke and Pepsi. I love both games, with ESPN being a better gameplay game and Madden holding the edge with game modes and options. But, graphically, the two are similar and so is the replay value. ESPN still hasn't hit mainstream, but it's coming close. It will be interesting to see if over the next three years ESPN makes a dent in Madden's fan base or sales, but in terms of quality, ESPN is looking Madden at eye level.