Written by Charlie Sinhaseni on 7/30/2004 for Xbox  
More On: ESPN NFL2K5
When you’re constantly getting beaten down by your main rival you have to resort to some pretty extreme measures in order to remain competitive. Understanding this very concept, the boys at SEGA and Visual Concepts have rededicated themselves to bringing down Electronic Arts and the juggernaut known as Madden. It begins with the bargain bin price tag but it doesn’t end there. Look past the $19.99 sticker price and you have what could very well be the best football game ever made.

The ads all tell you that the game sells for $19.99 but you’d never know that by playing it. Nothing about the game tells you that it should be selling at such a low price. A pricey cover athlete, slick visuals, great gameplay and a feature rich online aspect are just the beginning of this boat and RV show. SEGA owns the ESPN license and it seems like in the year 2004, it’s the first time that they’ve really fully taken advantage of it. All of the interfaces, graphics and tricks that are used in the Sunday Night broadcasts are here in full force along with some of Visual Concepts own unique tricks. What you have is a game that not only plays like the game of football, but looks like it as well.

At the core of the game is the franchise mode. If you’ve played a sports game in recent years you’ll know exactly what you’re getting in to. But the designers decided to take the aspect one step further by allowing you to prepare your athletes before the big dance every Sunday. If you choose to enable the option, you’ll be able to setup workout regiments for all of your players for each day. Do it correctly and you’ll be able to boost their attributes and improve their overall abilities. Work them too hard and you’ll burn them out before the big game. This aspect will probably be overlooked by many people who are in a hurry to get onto the field, but will definitely be appreciated by die-hard fans who know how much preparation goes into each and every game.

Savor this shot Philly fans, because you'll NEVER see TO lay out like this ever again.

Making a return is the First Person Football mode of gameplay which essentially puts you under the helmet of your favorite NFL players. It was included in last year’s game but its execution caused it to be more of a gimmick than a viable gameplay mechanism. In 2K5 it’s still a little difficult to actually play FPF with any kind of consistent success, but it’s still a blast to play. It’s amazing just how well the designers were able to recreate the feeling of being down on the field and in the trenches. To further engulf you, the game removes the commentary track while you’re in this mode so that you can better hear the action as it surrounds you. This innovative mechanism is fun to partake in every so often, let’s just hope that Visual Concepts finds a way to make it a primary gameplay option instead of a sideshow attraction.

I’ve always had some difficulties with the passing game in the NFL2K franchise and it carries over to this version. It just feels like the game was designed with running as the primary option and passing as the secondary option. Linebackers break through the O-line too easy, turning pocket passers into dead meat. To even up the odds a bit QBs have been given some new evasive maneuvers, but they come at a hefty cost. Throwing a lineman off of you will take a good second, leaving you open to another attack. Passing can also be made difficult at-times because the defense is hard to read. When dropping back to pass it’s a little hard to see who’s open and who’s being covered. Sometimes the passing game works well, but most of the time I found myself using it as a second option to the run game.In the past NFL2K’s weakest aspect was its running game. Instead of instilling some sort of momentum-based system the designers went with the old-style turn-table system which allowed players to pivot and turn on a dime. Of course this allowed runners to change directions and juke out defenders without penalty. This year’s game remedies this by introducing momentum into the equation. When a player tries to quickly change his direction he’ll first have to pivot, stop and then start up again. This inclusion seems minimal at first, until you realize that it’s much harder to juke defenders and burst through holes that is.

This doesn’t just affect the ball carriers though; defenders are caught in the tide as well. This is most noticeable on special teams plays where the players run at full sprint and have little control over their bodies. In previous games there wasn’t much of a penalty for misjudging an offensive juke because you could easily recover and continue the chase. Here, getting juked out is much easier because your momentum forces you to shift to one side, causing you to pause for a split second and effectively taking you out of the play.

These two (and only) Browns fans cheer on their team before the game.

Most people I know hate to play defense in sports games but I absolutely love it. There’s nothing better than sacking your opponent and then dancing all over his lifeless body as you laugh in his face. Thanks to some fluid controls you’ll probably find yourself enjoying the defensive aspect of 2K5 as well. The defensive backs in particular are really fun to use, thanks to some intuitive controls. When defending a pass the player has the option of trying to bat it down or trying to go for the big-time interception. Most football games have one defense button and guessing whether they’ll bat it down or try to intercept it is a crapshoot. Here the guesswork is taken out from the game and placed squarely in the hands of the player. Plus, there’s this real satisfying feeling that comes from laying down the boom on the ball carrier. It’s kind of like cracking your knuckles, not only does it have that bone crunching sound, but no matter how man times you do it, it never gets old.

In a move that I’d like to see more of, Visual Concepts designed 2K5 for the Xbox architecture and then dumbed it down for the inferior PS2 hardware. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the kind of guy who generally chooses PS2 titles over Xbox titles, but this line of thinking just make so much more sense sometimes. When developing specifically for the Xbox, designers will get to take advantage of all of the neat little goodies that the PS2 lacks. What you get here is some amazing texture work, fluid animation, gorgeous lighting and players that behave and look strikingly realistic. They’re not the best looking players to ever appear in a sports title (that title belongs to Midway’s NBA Ballers) but they’re downright amazing to look at. Take into account that the game often renders 22 players on the field without the slightest bit of slowdown and you can begin to understand why developers need to start taking more advantage of the Xbox hardware. As a carryover from their excellent work in the World Series franchise, the stadiums here all look absolutely gorgeous and feature exquisite amounts of detail.

Most of the game’s beauty doesn’t come from the neat lighting effects or sharp textures though, far from it actually. NFL2K5’s visuals shine because the designers did so much to engulf the player in the NFL atmosphere. Foremost are the fully rendered crowds which react and behave according to the action on the field. EA does something like this with its NHL franchise but it looks absolutely crude in comparison. What’s most amazing about the crowds are just how entertaining they are to watch. When scoring a huge touchdown with LaDanian Tomlinson the game showed a fan wearing an LT jersey as he turned around and pointed to the back of it. In the waning seconds of a blowout the game cuts to the few stragglers left in the stands, most of which have dozed off. And they’re not even the main attraction here. Visual Concepts beefed up the between-play cutscenes from 40 to a couple of hundred for this year’s game. This includes little things like celebrations, to trash talking to players getting frustrated. Since the sidelines are fully rendered you’ll see tons of interaction between the players that take place off of the playing field. There’s this amazing one where a frustrated player will walk up and kick a cooler of Gatorade (nice licensing) as the other players look on. What’s even more amazing is that the people on the sidelines are the actual players on the team, not just generic stand-ins. We could go on for hours about just how amazing this game looks, but then that means we can’t get to the presentation.When SEGA acquired the ESPN license from Konami everyone expected huge things and until now, those things really haven’t come into fruition. Last year’s game was a good start but this year’s game absolutely blows anything that we’ve seen out of the water. Every single aspect of the ESPN telecast is here. You name it, GamePlan, in-game stats, on-field charts and even that little SkyCam that ESPN stole from the XFL. It’s all here and it’s all executed perfectly. In single-player games you’ll be able to check out all of the sights and scenes without interruption thanks to a little picture-in-picture that plays on the top of the screen while you select your play. This allows you to do things like observe the crowd or check out replays without having to interrupt the flow of the game.

Chris Berman’s back and he’s brought some new tricks with him. For starters, he’s fully rendered now as he introduces each match up while it loads. His half-time and post-game wrap-ups are back with a vengeance and they’re more fluid than ever. Most impressive though is the SportsCenter aspect of the game. In previous years 2K had a weekly wrap-up feature which did a great job of filling in the gamer on the happenings of the week, but it lacked something. Now we know. It lacked presentation; the style, the look and feel of SportsCenter. Well now it’s here and what you get is just simply amazing. In addition to going over scores and stats you’ll get highlights and updates from around the league. Each week you’ll get injury reports to see whose out and how it’ll affect the next match up. Trades don’t go unannounced in this world. Each major trade is displayed, along with analysis from Trey Wingo on the ramifications it’ll have on each team. Players have been dying for something like this. Trust me, once you see it you’ll never know how you managed to live without it. After your game you'll even see a fully rendered Suzy Kolber stand on the sidelines as she interviews the player of the game. Hell, even Mel Kiper Jr. makes an appearance in the game.

HE HATE ME graciously demonstrates what it looks like about two seconds before you get your rear end handed to you.

Before picking up 2K5 I had been playing an exorbitant amount of EA’s MVP Baseball 2004. While I love the game to death there’s one aspect of it that really drives me insane; the commentary. It goes to show how one seemingly tiny aspect can crumble and entire production. Thankfully Visual Concepts games have never had this problem; their commentaries are always engaging and up-to-par with the best that the competition has to offer. You can expect no different here because the commentary track is one of the best around. Dan Stevens does a great job of calling the action on the field, and while Peter O’Keefe can be annoying at times, he at least gives calls that are pertinent to the action on the field. I can’t say for sure whether or not it’s better than Madden 2005’s commentary but if I were a betting man I’d bet the farm on it.

In keeping up with last year’s game, 2K5 features the same Cribs option where you can earn points to upgrade your house. It’s a neat gameplay mechanism as it gives you visual and tangible rewards for punishing your opponents. There’s also a lot here for you to look and check out; a full-on trophy room that charts your triumphs, a “boom-boom” room which can be outfitted with a home theatre system, a juke box that plays your favorite tunes, and my personal favorite, the bobble heads. In a move that shows that the designers had far too much free time on their hands, each of the bobble head dolls can be manipulated and bobbled, just like in real life. Hell, I’d pay $20 for this aspect alone. You mean there’s a football game here too?Speaking of more football, when you’re in your Crib you can answer challenges from celebrity players. By beating the likes of Carmen Electra, Steve-O and David Arquette, you can unlock more goodies to use on your Crib. What’s really neat about this mode is that the designers tried to make it feel like you were playing on the same system as your opponent. Instead of going to the one-player interface where you see the picture-in-picture at the top, they go with the two-player interface where both players pick their plays at the same time. Before the snap you’ll even see your opponent pull back the screen sometimes in order to check your coverage. Some of the celebrities’ comments get repetitive at-times but hey, you’re schooling a celebrity at football. You gotta takes what you can gets sometimes.

If you tune into ESPN from time-to-time you’ve probably seen the ESPN 25 commercials that celebrate the network’s 25th anniversary. 2K5 pays homage to this but instead of showing a bunch of vignettes and inane commercials the guys let you play some of the most historic games from the past few decades. It’s just a thinly veiled way to ad in historical moments in football history, but it’s a damn fine addition that you’ll want to play over and over again.

When you get tired of playing with yourself you can take your game online and play it against the world. Like before you can participate in quick matches with random opponents, complete with stat tracking. I like being able to see the record of other people before I challenge them. I don’t know about you but I think I’d rather beat up on the guy with the 2-18 record than the geek with the 108-2 record. In addition to this you can do the usual online stuff and create your own online leagues. There are plenty of things to do in the online realm that’ll keep you compelled. There's even this amazing aspect which recreates the ESPN homepage to reflect what's happening in your league. You can keep tabs on players thanks to the VIP system which tells players everything they need to know about you. As a major bonus the lag is kept to the bare minimum thanks to the broadband only requirement of the Xbox.

Is ESPN NFL 2K5 a better football game than Madden 2005? I can’t say for sure but if you like, you can wait a few extra weeks and plop down an extra $30 to find out. Why leave it to chance when you can have a sure thing? Don’t let this one slip out of your hands. If you’re a football fan you owe it to yourself to own NFL 2K5. It’s that damn good.
What more can we say? This is about as close as a football game can get to being perfect. It lacks some Madden's great franchise mode elements, but the gameplay and presentation more than make up for the deficiencies. Don't be left out, you simply must own this.

Rating: 9.5 Exquisite

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

About Author

Gaming has been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. I can still recall many a lost nights spent playing Gyromite with that stupid robot contraption for the old NES. While I'm not as old as the rest of the crew around these parts, I still have a solid understanding of the heritage and the history of the video gaming industry.

It's funny, when I see other people reference games like Doom as "old-school" I almost begin to cringe. I bet that half of these supposed "old-school" gamers don't even remember classic games like Rise of the Triad and Commander Keen. How about Halloween Harry? Does anyone even remember the term "shareware" anymore? If you want to know "old-school" just talk to John. He'll tell you all about his favorite Atari game, Custer's Revenge.

It's okay though, ignorance is bliss and what the kids don't know won't hurt them. I'll just simply smile and nod the next time someone tells me that the best entry in the Final Fantasy franchise was Final Fantasy VII.

When I'm not playing games I'm usually busy sleeping through classes at a boring college in Southern Oregon. My current hobbies are: writing songs for punk rock bands that never quite make it, and teasing Bart about... well just teasing Bart in general. I swear the material writes itself when you're around this guy. He gives new meaning to the term "moving punching bag."

As for games, I enjoy all types except those long-winded turn-based strategy games. I send those games to my good pal Tyler, I hear he has a thing for those games that none of us actually have the time to play.

When I'm not busy plowing through a massive pile of video games I spend all of my time trying to keep my cute little girl fed. She eats a ton but damn she's so hot. Does anyone understand the Asian girl weight principal? Like they'll clean out your fridge yet still weigh less than 110 pounds.

Currently I'm playing: THUG, True Crime, Prince of Persia, Project Gotham 2 and Beyond Good & Evil. View Profile

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