Review: ESPN NFL Football (PS2)

ESPN NFL Football 2K4
Genre: Sports (Football)
Platform: Playstation 2
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 9/3/03

Early on in the lifespan of the Dreamcast, Sega decided to get into an area where they had previously never ventured seriously. They wanted to make sports games. Even though the road ahead of them was not always an easy one, Sega was successful at this venture, and though the Dreamcast was abandoned, they continued on with their various sports series, which included NHL 2Kx, NBA 2Kx, and NFL 2Kx, where x = the year number of course.

Everything wasn’t all peachy keen in Segaland though, and despite the fact that some of their games were superior to all others, they were still getting soundly trounced by their largest rival, Electronic Arts, which has been the name in sports gaming for many years. One of their biggest disappointments was the performance of the NFL 2Kx franchise against the most popular football game of all time, Madden NFL football. The name recognition alone had doomed Sega in the past, and their sales got to be so low on the Gamecube, that they announced that they would no longer produce sports games for the system.

So, with their titles being beaten every year by Electronic Arts and the future looking bleak, what does Sega do? They get the undisputed leader in sports on board, and start over from scratch. They add ESPN to the title, give it an ESPN style, add ESPN commentary, and add new innovative ideas to make it a more unique experience. The true test will be the performance. The first guinea pig is ESPN NFL Football, and its only true opponent will be Madden 2004. Sega seems to be unconcerned that Madden 2004 was released 2 weeks before ESPN Football, but do they have reason to be that confident? That’s what we’ll examine in this review.

Gameplay
The game plays as a football game should. At its core, you call the plays and execute them by either attempting to make a touchdown or trying to stop the opposing team from doing the same. But it is much deeper than that, of course.

On every down, you call a play, whether you are on offense or defense. There are a wide variety of plays to be called in many different formations. Once you have chosen your designated play, you execute said play. There is also an option to have the coach pick the play for you, which is a nice thing for people like myself.

When on offense, you and run the ball or pass it by pressing the face button assigned to a specific receiver. When a running back or receiver is running with the ball, they can do stiff arms, spins and dives to avoid getting tackled. The quarterback can also do pump fakes to improve his chances, as well as scrambling if you have to (or want to for that matter). Defensive members have their own repertoire of moves, including swimming, spinning or ripping for the defensive line, and attempting interceptions for the linebackers and defensive backs. And if it looks like a play isn’t going your way, you can call audibles and hot routes on offense, or do line, linebacker, and defensive back adjustments when on defense. All of this is pretty much standard and should be in any game nowadays.

There are quite a few game modes available to you, so I’ll go over them now. At the top of the menu is Quick Game, which is just a simple game between two teams. You can pick any team that is currently in the NFL, and there are even quite a few historical teams thrown in to the mix as well. The unfortunate drawback is that none of the players’ names from the historical teams show up, but you can put the correct names in if you want. The Quick Game always starts out as the Raiders vs. the Buccaneers, since they were in the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, if you want to play a succession of Quick Games, you’ll have to pick your teams every time. Anyway, for my first game, I got lazy and left the Raiders on as my opponent, but went with the Dolphins as my team. It may be that the Dolphins are just good, but it seemed to me that the learning curve was fairly low and I was able to be successful just by doing the most simple of moves. The most important moves I used were the dash (tapping the X button rapidly) on offense, and the spin (R2) on defense. I find it much harder to screw up a defensive play if I control a defensive lineman, so that’s the route I took. I was able to defeat the Raiders, but not by too large a margin.

Next on the list is one of the big selling points of the game: First Person Football. They even have the term copyrighted. When this aspect of the game was announced, I made a prediction on it. I said if it was good, then soon every other company would copy it. But I also said that it could just as easily be poorly executed and forgotten to the annals of time. And in all honesty, it turned out better than I thought it would. Basically, your control scheme works the same, except instead of seeing it from a top down perspective, you see the game from the eyes of the player. This very limited viewpoint gives you a good idea just how difficult it must be to be a player in the NFL. On running plays, you play as the running back for the entire play. On passing plays, you start out as the quarterback, and then it switches to the receiver if and when the pass is complete. You play the kicker or punter on the plays they come out for, and you play the returner when you are being kicked or punted to.

The execution of this is very, very good, because when tackled, your head will move all around and eventually hit the grass. Running plays become your friend in this mode because they are much, much easier to execute than passing plays. You are the quarterback, you have a very limited field of vision and the only way for you to actually see who you’re throwing to is by actually moving your head (Right Analog) and hoping that you can find an open receiver. Good luck doing all this with the defensive line breathing down your neck. This mode is also unique because since it focuses more on you being in the game, you don’t hear any commentary and the on field sounds are cranked way up. So this mode right here is to all the naysayers who think that football games are becoming too much like television broadcasts. Sega wanted to please all the fans with this release, and you can’t get more f*cking hardcore than First Person Football. Hell, I played as the Dolphins vs. the Dallas Cowboys and ended up shutting them out and getting 56 points in the process! And boy was that fun.

The rest of the features are all pretty much standard fare with football games these days. You have the franchise mode, which allows you to pick a team and play them to the Super Bowl or however long you want to play them. This area has a very nice presentation, because rather than be all menu driven, it actually seems like you go through your office to access everything, since you are the coach and all. You can check your email for messages from the owner, and also to see the schedule of games (which is how you actually start a game). Also, your stats are on the computer. On your desk is also the play book, injury reports, roster, depth chart, everything. Though it’s a standard mode of play in football games, the presentation is both excellent and unique. The other modes of play include season (like franchise, but simplified), tournament (which is just a bracket tournament) and situation (which is just a mode of play where you can choose which down it’s on, where on the field, how much time is left, etc).

All in all, these are all features you’d expect in a football game. Though most of the different player moves aren’t really necessary, they are mainly there for someone who wants complete control. But that’s to say that you don’t need them to fully enjoy the game. Either way, the game plays like a football game, and the controls are intuitively laid out so you don’t have to do much thinking either way.

Graphics
If there’s one thing that football games have been improving upon in recent years, it’s graphics. The designers keep trying harder and harder to make the players look as lifelike as possible. Sega wanted to do that as well, and for the most part, have succeeded. The players are all modeled extremely well, and look very close to their human counterparts. You will occasionally see the players without their helmets, and their heads look good as well. They may not totally resemble who they are, but they are still well designed. The coaches also look very good. If there was a problem I saw as far as actual design went, it would have to be the cheerleaders. They look like women, but they all look like the same woman with different skin tones. I know it’s not important, but I need to find a flaw somewhere.

Ok, sure, the graphics aren’t perfect. Take for example, movement. It’s to be expected that the movement will be a little awkward in any title like this. Admittedly, it really isn’t that bad. The only times that there were really bad problems is on replays, where they slow it down a bit and it becomes very robotic, and also just at random points in the game. Take for example when I was blowing past some defenders with Ricky Williams and had an open field to score the touchdown. I was running along the sideline going straight forward, and Williams starts twitching left and right like he was drunk. Also, one time on my created team, a Quarterback dropped back and curled to the right, stopped and looked for a receiver. My Linebacker that was chasing him (not controlled by me mind you) just stopped and stared at the QB. This probably isn’t so much a graphical flaw, but I’ll put it in here anyway.

Another point of contention amongst other football fans involves everything off the field. First and foremost is the stadium. Well, I have to say that the stadiums were beautifully recreated and even have the smaller details, like the pirate ship in Tampa Bay. Though the crowd doesn’t look totally realistic, they still look more three-dimensional than I’ve seen in a game of this type. And occasionally, it will cut to a close-up of the crowd, which is pretty nice. Sometimes you’ll see the typical fans with the face paint and team shirts, and sometimes you’ll see 4 guys with your team name (abbreviated of course) painted on their chests. For the Dolphins, it was “FINS” and for my created team, they had “ESPN”. Each NFL stadium also has signs created by the fans that say “Go Ricky!” and stuff like that. It’s the little details like this that make the game really stand out.

Finally, we have the presentation. Since they do want to give the feel of watching a game on TV, the game has a very ESPN feel, which is definitely a good thing. Keep in mind that I haven’t watched football on TV in a while, but the presentation definitely has the ESPN style to it. For example, when you’re on the main menu, you’re essentially on the Sportscenter set. The game itself starts off with a Pregame show, the 1st Half, a Halftime Show, and then 2nd Half. There is no Postgame show, which is somewhat disappointing. In addition, it would be kind of cool if you could watch a Sportscenter show after every game week, that details the big plays and stuff like that, but it’s understandable since they only show one scene of full motion video as part of the game (Chris Berman introducing the game itself, and it was surprisingly low quality), but they could have just modeled two Sportscenter characters and had them talk about it, but I guess that would be too much work. It’s something to hope for next year, I suppose.

Sound
As is to be expected, the game’s sound aspects primarily focus on the commentary. The biggest name in the game is Chris “Boomer” Berman, who actually doesn’t do much. He hosts the pregame and halftime shows, which are really small and don’t add much other than the presentation. The real commentators are Dan Stephens and Peter O’Keefe, and it definitely does not disappoint. An incredible amount of dialogue was recorded, and it flows together very nicely. The commentators have definite chemistry and they even occasionally throw in some silly humor. Some things they say will be heard quite often, but a lot of it won’t be heard much at all. The only complaint I have is that occasionally what they say is completely wrong, typically regarding receptions. Take for example one time when I had 3 defensive backs covering one receiver and the receiver misses the pass, but the announcers say that he was wide open and should have caught it. Huh? Despite small things like this, the commentary is actually better than any other I’ve heard, and I very rarely turn it off.

The rest of the sounds are really exactly what you’d expect from a football game. On the field, you can hear the players calling the snaps and audibles, and you will even hear a lot of trash talk, which is really nice. The crowd noises sound canned, but are never really that noticeable unless you score or get intercepted or something to that effect. There is even a PA system that you hear that announces the results of plays to the crowd. Again, it’s a small thing, but it really adds to the realism, especially when playing First Person Football, which has no commentary.

Lastly, there is the music, of which there isn’t a whole lot. To the best of my knowledge, there is no licensed music in the game, but some of the stadium music sounds like songs I’ve heard before (a possible rendition of “Lose Yourself” by Eminem). You can unlock soundtracks that have various different tracks, but all are by Sega or ESPN and none were all that great, but none were bad either. Personally, I think it’s probably better that there wasn’t licensed music simply because a lot of licensed music that is put in to games sucks.

Fun Factor
When you really get down and look at it, football is football. Every year, most games that come out are very similar, but each one has its own catch to get you to want to play it over and over. For example, Madden 2004 had the Madden Challenges and the Trading Cards you could buy. ESPN Football has The Crib. Yea, yea, you’ve read all about it and it sounds stupid, right? Wrong. The Crib is probably the number one reason I’m still playing the game. And I’ll explain what it’s all about right here.

The Crib is essentially your house. It’s got a bar, a hot tub, a living room, an entertainment room and a game room. When you move in, it has a few things, but not that much. Immediately, you can change the floor and wall styles to whatever you choose, but you can’t do anything else until you complete some milestones. Some of these are really easy (complete a 30 yard pass, for example) and some are very difficult (complete a 99 yard pass). The milestones are broken down into different categories. There are Single Game milestones, like running for a certain amount of yards or intercepting the ball a certain amount of times during a game. There are other milestones, like the aforementioned completing a certain yard pass, as well as running ones too. There are time-based milestones, where you simply have to play the game for a certain amount of hours, but you can’t cheat and leave it on over night! It can tell if you’re actually playing, so if you aren’t, it shuts its timer down until you do something. There are Primetime milestones such as having the same player run and receive for 150 yards each, and there’s also one where your quarter back has to pass for 250 yards and run for 100 yards. There are career milestones, which count up how many yards you’ve received and run, as well as wins, interceptions, and sacks in every game you play, and once you get enough (which is typically a lot, and gets even higher), you complete the milestone. Lastly, there are menu milestones, which are the easiest to achieve. You simply have to view certain movies or play (and sometimes win) certain games, and you get it. It will take quite a bit of game time to complete all of the milestones, and that’s what really makes the game fun. You can achieve them in almost any mode, as long as you follow the set criteria, which is all explained in detail in the game.

By now, you’re probably wondering what the point of doing all these milestones. That’s where The Crib itself comes in to play. Not only do you have a nifty trophy case that showcases all the milestones you have completed, but there is even more. After you complete a milestone, you will gain one item in the crib and one bonus item. The regular items are typically furniture and things of that nature. You can get new couches, chairs, end tables, and even a new entertainment center. Some of the best things you can get are stuff for your team of choosing. You can get posters, standees, game balls, pennants, and even specialized furniture that you can change to any team you want. One of the coolest and most unique items you can win as regular items are team bobbleheads. In your bar area, there is an alcove that stores all these lovelies, and you can get one for every team, each picking one of the best players from that team. Whenever you select one, it will even show a close-up that rotates, and of course, the head bobbles. Not only is this unique, but it’s also utterly pointless! And that’s why it’s so great! Does the game NEED these bobbleheads? No, but it does make it more interesting.

And last but certainly not least is the bonus items you can get along with the regular items. Some are pretty mundane, like the posters that feature Sega games. My wall has Skies of Arcadia on it. Just the fact that the game has that makes me a happy camper. The vast majority of the bonus items you get are soundtracks, which can be played on your jukebox. There are a whole ton of these, and some of them come from previous Sega games as well. You can make a playlist of songs that it will play on all the menus, as well. Another bonus item is movies that you can view on your entertainment center, such as old NFL 2K/1/2/3 movies. But that’s not all the bonuses, oh no sir. There is also the minigames that you can unlock, including paper football, NFL trivia and air hockey. Again, these things have no purpose, but are just fun. Sadly, I haven’t unlocked air hockey yet, which means that I’ll probably have to play for a lot longer to get it. But easily the coolest bonus is the Free Agents. Not only can you unlock some great NFL players from the past, like Michael Irvin, Walter Payton and Lawrence Taylor, but you can also unlock classic Sega characters. That’s right, you can add f*cking Sega characters to your team. They even have Beat from Jet Set Radio!! Now, I haven’t played for THAT long, but I’ll be willing to bet that there are other characters to be unlocked, say for example a blue hedgehog, or perhaps even a young martial artist who heads to Hong Kong to avenge his father. Keep in mind that these free agents are available only in modes other than Franchise or Season, so sadly you can’t make a team up of godly free agents (and yes, all are godly) and take them to the Super Bowl. I tried already. I made the 411 Kliq. I have all the best writers from the site on the team as badass players, and it makes it a lot of fun.

So while this is a football game, it adds a lot of extra elements that are designed to make it more fun and make you want to play longer. The Crib is totally unnecessary, but the milestones give you goals to set and make the replay value a lot higher. Plus you get all the cool bonuses. So while not everybody may enjoy these features, I think they add so much more to a game that is simply football.

Ratings
Gameplay: 9
Graphics: 9
Sound: 9
Fun Factor: 9.5

Short Attention Span Summary
I think it goes without saying at this point that this is the finest football game ever created. It looks, feels and plays like football from a television standpoint, as well as a realistic standpoint. The First Person Football and The Crib are two innovative ideas that were pulled off flawlessly, and you can bet that someone else is going to try to copy them. If you like football games, and you don’t own this one, then you’re missing out. If you haven’t played a football game in a while, then this is the perfect time to start again. You won’t regret it.