Comparisons to EA's Madden series always plague Sega's NFL2K series, which has be rebadged as ESPN NFL Football 2K4 this year. Actually, it's quite a compliment to the developers over at Visual Concepts to be compared to that venerable title. But make no mistake about it, Sega and Visual Concepts put their own spin on the genre, and with the groundbreaking NFL 2K on the Dreamcast they've tweaked their way to a title that stands on its own. This year, with the addition of the ESPN license, presentation gets a boost. Throw in a few new features and gameplay updates and you've got a high draft choice of a game.
The thing that strikes you most about ESPN Football is the quality of the animations. They are simply breathtaking. This is the first football game I've played where some of the more subtle features of football are accurately animated. Quarterbacks might get wrapped up by a defensive lineman but somehow escape the grasp of the tackler. Usually in football games I'm so used to going down once the lineman hits my QB that I lose focus. In ESPN, the QB will actually duck out of the tackle and buy a few more seconds to locate a receiver or scramble out of the pocket. The tackling animations of ball carriers is diverse. Wrap tackles bring the ball carrier down realistically. As running backs try to squeeze through the line they'll turn sideways. On the other side of the ball the defense has equally good animations. Lineman attack the offensive line with diverse swim moves, and defensive backs make obvious swat attempts at passes.
While the player models were good, they didn't have the same quality as the animations. I would have preferred more detailed player models. Despite plenty of detail in the players, the flat textures don't convey as much realism. This is particularly true for the stadiums. Fields look more like generic green carpet than actual grass or turf.
Between plays you're often given instant replays of the play. The camera angles used really capture the action well, and it makes for a realistic television style presentation. The halftime show extends this as key plays from scoring drives are recapped.
Sega has always excelled with their audio package. I fondly recall the on-the-field verbal inputs from the players. It really added to the game. Unfortunately through the years, it seems like that element of the game has been toned down. It's still there, but it's just not as good as in the past. Instead, the default sound package gets an updated presentation courtesy of ESPN. Chris Berman's pre-game and halftime analysis are perfect. The audio never skips a beat and the comments are usually appropriate. What isn't as good is the actual game play-by-play. Phrases are disjointed; the play-by-play seems to pause for just a moment until the right words are found by the game. Other elements of the game, such as the barking of plays by the QB, referee calls, stadium music, and fan interaction are done well and provide a great environment. Also, if you don't like the ESPN presentation, you can adjust the audio to give you a customized vantage point. Listen like a fan in the stands or a player on the field. The audio is fully customizable.
Interface/Options : 80
The comparisons to Madden start to creep in with the game options. For the whole football experience, I'd have to give the edge to Madden this year as their franchise mode stepped it up a notch with the owner options. Still, ESPN does an admirable job with their franchise mode. As usual, you control many aspects of the front office from signing and releasing players, negotiating contracts, evaluating contracts, and setting team strategy. Aside from the franchise mode, you get the usual suspects - single game, situation, season, etc. Obviously the principal mode of play will be the franchise. Putting their own spin on Madden Cards, ESPN introduces the “Crib” mode. As you achieve milestones in the game, such as completing passes of certain distances, winning the Super Bowl, or sacking the QB, you unlock trophies, football collectibles, music, and mini-games. Your crib is a set of rooms in your house that you can virtually walk through. Perhaps the biggest addition to the game is playing football in the first person. This mode lets you play with the camera situated inside the helmet. Using the right analog stick you can look around while motion is controlled with the left stick. While I can't imagine playing an entire season in this view, for the occasional game it's a fantastic addition. Playing as a safety you can rove the secondary and spy on the QBs eyes. As a running back you can search for gaps in the line. As QB, it gives you unprecedented views for reading defenses.
The gameplay settings are numerous in ESPN. An additional difficulty level was added. If you typically played the 2K series on pro, you'll notice it's a cakewalk. A bump up to all-pro is necessary just to have a reasonably tough opponent. Head to legend difficulty if you want a real challenge. There are also numerous settings that affect gameplay. You'll need these sliders as the default settings are a mixed bag. Unfortunately, the manual is sparse and goes into no detail of any of these.
Gameplay : 85
The 2K series has its own feel when it comes to football. It has evolved over the years but those familiar with the 2K engine will still recognize an old friend. The tight player control is still there compared to the more sluggish momentum based physics of Madden. Further the basic mechanics are still around with some minor tweaks meant to enhance gameplay. This is both a curse and a blessing.
Passing is easier this year. Completing passes to your receivers is a snap due to fairly sloppy secondary play. The nice thing is the obvious joy of completing more passes. However, I'd gladly give that up for more realistic DB play. Corners often play too loose of coverage, and once the ball is thrown they rarely make a break for the ball. Hitch and hook patterns are most affected by the loose coverage, particularly when the defense is playing with man coverage. One thing I do appreciate is when the defense switches to a zone coverage and a linebacker wanders out to the flats. It's easy pickings for the LB if you force the ball to a wideout. Sticking with the passing game, screen passes are very tough to execute due to ineffective blocking by the linemen and terrific coverage by the linebackers. Rarely can you turn dumps to the running backs into big yardage.
On deeper routes, if your offensive line can keep the defense at bay you'll ultimately find an open receiver due to the lax secondary play. Slot receivers often find themselves wide open in post or flag routes. Likewise, if you find man coverage from the corners and a safety playing too shallow, it's easy to complete passes over the top of the defense. This is especially true when calling an audible out of a running play. What really helps is that receivers rarely drop balls. The combination of weak secondary play and effective receivers often results in passing percentages well above the NFL norm.
The running game is fairly realistic in ESPN, though some backs possess superhuman strength when they bust through the line. Finding holes in the line is the key to an effective running game. While backs will try to shimmy through a small gap in the line, doing so limits their gains. It's most important to follow your blockers. Linemen don't seem to be as effective when asked to pull, which makes traps and sweeps more difficult to execute. On the defensive side of the ball, pulling down some of the uber-backs can be frustrating. Ricky Williams seems to be a real stud in the game, and he'll routinely break tackles left and right. Solo tackles are a rarity, and it hurts the game. For example, if you pick the right defense for the offensive play, you won't necessarily get rewarded. I've had numerous occasions where I've had a blitzing linebacker or defensive end grab the running back on a pitch play. Rather than get dumped for a 3 or 4 yard loss, the back wiggles out of the play without skipping a beat.
The kicking game is woeful in ESPN Football. If you want realism in the kicking game look elsewhere. The same kicking interface that's been in the game since 2K is still used. Kickoffs usually have excessive return yardage, fair catches on punts are a rarity, and the AI has an incredible field goal percentage due in large part to not attempting long kicks and straight as arrow kicks.
My biggest complaint about the game is the lack of fatigue. There is fatigue in the game but players often are completely refreshed before the next snap of the ball. You can hand off to your running back for an entire series and he's always fresh. It makes substitutions unnecessary and really detracts from the simulation aspect of the game.
Replay Value : 85
If you're a goal oriented person, the crib mode in the game will keep you coming back for more. Or if you like to control your team through multiple seasons, the franchise mode is an obvious game mode. Fans of the 2K series will still find plenty to like in ESPN Football. The first person mode is an interesting addition to the game and puts you closer to the game than ever before. Plus, the addition of online play allows you to play against human opponents whenever you want.
Overall : 86
Personal bias will affect your game buying decision. Clearly the two frontrunners in the football field are EA's Madden series and Sega's ESPN Football. Each has subtle differences and neither is the perfect football simulation. If only we could merge the two to get a truly remarkable football game. ESPN's fatigue problems and lazy secondary play detract from the game, but the first person view, running game, and overall presentation show ESPN is a strong contender