It’s football season, which means we have to deal with this year’s onslaught of football titles (we’ve already reviewed Madden 2004
, NFL Fever 2004
, and NFL Gameday 2004
Sega introduced the NFL2K series a few years ago for the Dreamcast and, while it wasn’t perfect, it was a pretty solid competitor to the Madden franchise. Since the first version, the Dreamcast has bitten the dust but Sega has continued to refine the 2K franchise to the point where it has more than caught up with Madden. Last year, Sega partnered with ESPN to utilize their announcers’, logos and look and feel. This year the transformation is complete with the game actually switching names to complete the transformation. The two great ironies is that ESPN uses Madden 2004
for their in-studio analysis and that John Madden now works for ABC, ESPN’s sister sports station.
Ironies aside, Sega has done a good job of adding new features to this year’s version. Besides the tweaks to the graphics and animations, there are a host of significant new features. First off, the integration with the ESPN look and feel is complete. It’s all there from the game intros, to the on screen graphics, to the chimes that let you know when they are displaying the scores from around the league. It’s a very authentic experience and there were a few times when I felt like I was actually watching a game.
Another big addition this year is the First Person football, which puts you behind the facemask. This sounds like a pretty cool feature and it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to viewing an NFL stadium from this perspective. It certainly gives you a good perspective on what it’s like to return a kickoff or face down a full on blitz but I’m not sure you’re going to play games with this mode once the “cool” factor wears off. It would be really nice if you could switch in and out of this mode during the game (I hated it while on offense but love it while on defense) but that’s something that could be implemented for next year. I give credit to Sega for putting together a cool and unique feature but I’m not sure how many people are going to really use it.
The final major addition is “The Crib,” a space that you can decorate with items that you unlock while playing the game. Items are unlocked by playing accomplishments (200+ running game, 70 yard touchdown runs, etc) as well as by how long you are playing. You can unlock everything from sofas to wall art to mini-games and then use them to decorate your digital domicile. At first, I thought it was pretty cheesy and kind of pointless but then I started unlocking stuff and I realized it wasn’t that bad. If you like the Sims and football games, this is your killer feature. The only downside is that while you can create and design your own place it’s hard to come up with a design that doesn’t reek of “Single Bachelor with more money than taste.” ESPN Football 2004
provides some of the best football graphics out there. Players (and coaches) are well designed and rendered. Sega also did a nice job of rendering the stadiums. The grass looks good and it does degrade nicely during the game. There are a lot of nice graphical touches in the game. During day games, you’ll occasionally see clouds or blimps drift overhead casting shadows into the stadium.
The player animations are also excellent and very realistic. Running and passing animations are also top-notch. I was especially impressed with how well the breaking tackles animations are. I really didn’t see any awkward transitions between animations either. Another cool little touch is that you can actually see the officials throw the flags for penalties.
The only thing I really had a problem with is that really big hits are few and far between. You usually got one really nice replay worthy in NFL Fever 2004
but I really can’t remember getting more than one or two in all of the time I played ESPN Football 2004
which is a bit disappointing. There are a lot of little big hits (especially watching Eddie George blow through small cornerbacks) but not a great deal of really memorabl hits.
There were a few other little things that were annoying. Since this is ESPN, you have to have the gratuitous cheerleader shot between quarters. The problem is that the cheerleaders look to be the same model but with different hair and skin color. I realize that cheerleaders are kind of fake in real life but this is a bit extreme. The other annoying thing is that the selection cursor sometimes stays on a little too long when it goes into replays, which sucks because you have these great replays but there’s a selection cursor that pulls you out the game for a minute or two.
The sounds in ESPN Football 2004
are hit and miss. The in game sounds are excellent featuring a lot of nice hitting sounds, trash talk between players, and crowd noise. The game also does an excellent job of incorporating all of the signature ESPN sounds. From the class ESPN music to the chimes that alert you to the score of other games, it’s in the game and it does a lot to enrich the experience. There are also a lot of nice signature sounds for each individual. Unfortunately, that’s as good as it gets, as the rest of the audio work is a bit disappointing.
The announcers lasted about two games before starting to grate on the nerves. You would think they would put a counter in the game to ensure that the same cliché’s aren’t used more than once or twice a game but sadly that’s not the case. Since you can turn them off, it’s not a big deal right? Wrong, you can turn them down but not off which forces you to still go through some of the announcer related activities (such as discussions of penalties, circling key blocks, etc). You can skip through them but it’s still a bit frustrating to do so.
Another annoying audio bit is the stadium background music. There’s not a lot of variety to the music and it’s mostly (c)Rap. You can use your own MP3’s for the music in the Crib so I was a little disappointed that you couldn’t setup your own stadium music as well. The game play is where ESPN Football 2004
really shines. Everything is tight and better than last year. Sega got rid of the old radial play selection scheme and switched to a three-box system. It’s cleaner and easier to navigate. Play calling is just a matter of selecting a package, formation, and then play. You can also pull the left trigger to get a recommended play, if you don’t like the one you can pull the trigger again to see other recommended plays. One thing that would be a nice addition would be a recent plays category like the one in NFL Fever 2004
, it’s a bit of a crutch for those of us too lazy to work your way through the play tree to get to a play but it’s all about convenience right?ESPN Football 2004
does a great job of putting the personalities of the teams in to the games. If you follow the NFL at all, you know what you’re going to get. The Colts are all about Manning and Harrison. Tampa Bay and Baltimore are defense heavy, and the Browns and Bengals are going to suck. It’s all there in the game and it’s nice to see these qualities actually in the game.
Controlling your players is solid and you’re going to use every button on the controller. First time users should be able to pick up the game pretty quickly and then learn how to use the more advanced moves. The game does provide some nice tutorials to show users how to play the game. The only real gripe I had with the control system is that when you are on defense you have to rotate through the defensive players rather than using the D-pad to move through the line-up.
A nice realism touch in ESPN Football 2004
is the ability to challenge plays. I was a bit shocked when the computer actually challenged a spot of a ball and the spot was overturned forcing me into a fourth and short situation. Later on in the game, I thought I had gotten a bad spot, challenged the spot and got the first down. It’s a nice feature and it adds a lot of realism to the game.
The franchise mode is excellent and allows armchair general managers to try their hand at building a Super Bowl caliber team. You have full control over player options and you’ll quickly learn how difficult it is to deal with the NFL’s salary cap. You can start a new franchise or take over one of the existing 32 NFL teams. You can wheel and deal players and sign free agents (either already on the market or unlocked players from The Crib). There’s actually some accountability built into the franchise mode, as well as, you have to accomplish certain things in order to keep your job. It’s not as detailed as Madden (you don’t set concession and ticket prices) but then again do you really want to micromanage your franchise that much?For all of those who like to invite some buddies over to play, Sega has put in a tournament mode into the game. You specify the number of teams and start playing. The final mode is the situation play, where you can set up the situation and see if you can come back in the game. I like this mode but it would have been sweet to include some pre-fab historical situations. It’s a minor thing but I really feel that this is something that could have taken the game to another level.
Of course if you don’t have buddies to come over and play (or if they are lazy slackers), you can fire up Xbox Live and play against competitors from around the world. Not only can you play against people online but also Sega allows you to download updated rosters. This is a pretty nice feature and helps keep the game fresh but it’s not like there’s a lot of turnover in NFL rosters. I tried playing a few games online but didn’t have much luck getting a good game going. The usual Xbox Live setup is there - Optimatch, Find an opponent etc. It’s all good but I did have a few problems getting a good connection. I’m guessing that’s a problem on Time Warner’s end as I’ve had some issues with Xbox Live, as of late. ESPN Football 2004
also lacks an online league setup like XSN Sports for NFL Fever 2004 , 989Sports.com for NFL Gameday, and even EASports online support for the PS2 version of Madden. This is something that will hopefully be rectified in next version.
Overall ESPN Football 2004
is a solid football game that adds a bunch of new features. Unfortunately, some of these features feel a bit incomplete and could use some polish. Next year’s iteration will hopefully perfect these features as well as making the usual group of graphical and sound enhancements.