Review: ESPN NFL Football (XB)

Like most people, I inherently fear change.

Now, in the video game world, change is usually the norm, since new systems are always being developed and new games are always being developed to take advantage of increasingly better technology. So, one could argue that NOT changing is, in fact, a sign of change in the video game world.

Ah, but if only human behavior followed that sort of logic. No, we are very basic in our fear of change. Fear of change is what builds brands in this world, and is the only reason Microsoft operating systems are still as widely used as they are. Fear of change is what keeps Wichitans from realizing that Spangles’ french fries are far superior to McDonalds’. Fear of change makes for good business.

What the hell does this have to do with football? I think you know.

As many of my fellow video game fanatics, I have feared change for a number of years now and have remained stuck, in Orwellian lockstep, to the venerable Madden franchise of NFL video games. To be fair, the Madden games are not bad; not even close as this reviewer will tell you. There are some very fine things about them, but does that mean I should eschew the rest, sight unseen? No, I think not.

So, my task this week is to review the recently released ESPN NFL Football 2K4 for the Xbox, just as my colleague Lee Baxley has done for the PS2. For those that don’t already know, despite the new trappings and the hilarious-if-surreal ad campaign, this is not a wholly new franchise but a continuation of Sega’s NFL2Kx series.

To be honest, this isn’t my first experience with a Sega football game. I had the opportunity one Thanksgiving weekend of borrowing a friend’s Dreamcast (Street cred! Street cred!) and playing NFL 2K1 and I remember being quite impressed with that game. The graphics were tight, and once I got used to the play selection screen I actually liked it better than the Madden format. So I looked forward to getting my hands on this game, and that wasn’t even counting the natural curiosity towards First Person FootballTM.

Game: ESPN NFL Football 2K4
Platform: Xbox
Distributor: ESPN Videogames (Sega)
Developer: Visual Concepts
Longest Run With Priest Holmes (so far): 60 yards.

GAMEPLAY

“Yes, we know, it has a season mode, a franchise mode, create-a-whatever mode, exhibition, practice, we know. Just tell us about First Person mode.”

Patience. In due time, gentle reader.

The in-game controls are remarkably Madden-esque, but that’s a good thing. It reduces the learning curve for new users and thus prevents them from getting frustrated with the game. On offense, the controls are pretty standard. I really like the hit defender button when carrying the ball. Video football in general has had a bit of a bias against power runners, so it’s nice to see that rectified somewhat. I actually like the tapping-button sprint. It makes you feel like you’re doing something. And the “charge up” for the “enhanced” special move is nice, and actually better simulates running conditions. You can do your special moves (spins, jukes, charges) at any time, but if you need to pull off a big one you charge up your juke-meter (for lack of a better term) by holding down the sprint button.

Passing is just like Madden, and I found scrambling to be easier with the R trigger. Calling hot routes and putting players in motion is almost exactly the same too. I was able to pick the game up, out of the box, and be successful on offense with my Madden training.

Defense is almost the same, except that the same sprint mechanism applies (i.e. you don’t have to switch sprint buttons between offense and defense). The biggest problem I had on defense was remembering which button was the switch defenders button, also thanks to my training, but this is easily overcomed. D-line moves are more effective here than in”¦.that other game (I’m tired of typing it), but not so much as to be unreasonable.

The Practice modes are nice, including a step-by-step training mode for all of the moves, a la NBA Street V2, that’s a wonderful little tutorial. After you go through it (15 minutes, max) you’ll have absolutely no problems with the “charge” feature or anything else. Also, there’s a notebook-type reference on basic football strategy. Maybe not as interactive as the”¦other game but better for quick reference.

Season mode and Franchise mode are Season mode and Franchise mode. No, you can’t price hot dogs or build stadiums, but who needs to when the football action is that good. I like the options for the fantasy draft and the random starters too. I don’t know why, I’ve never used them, but I like the idea that, when I’ve accomplished everything else in the game, I can hit the ol’ random player button and do it all again.

Okay, now to what you’ve all been waiting for. Is First Person FootballTM worth it?

Oh, HELL yeah!

*Ahem* Now, experience has made me wary of products that seem to rely on gimmicks or new features. Gimmicks have a tendency to lose their appeal rather quickly, and new features have a long and storied history of being buggy as all hell. I was expecting First Person mode to be a gimmick. What I got was a fabulous, and surprisingly enlightening level of gameplay.

The game controls are just like the 3rd person mode, so there is zero confusion as to which button does what. The only difference is perspective, and perspective can make all the difference sometimes. Instead of some top-down, omniscient point of view, you’re stuck in a helmet with a far more limited field of vision. On offensive plays, you take the perspective of the running back on rushing plays, and the quarterback on passing plays until you get the pass off. The view then switches to the intended receiver, whether the pass is complete, incomplete, or intercepted. On defense, just like 3rd person, you can cycle through to whoever you want to control. To help avoid confusion, as you switch players, game time slows down momentarily and you see the player you are switching to from a close 3rd person view which slides into the first person view before control and game speed are restored. The overall effect is like you’re entering the person’s skull, maybe like you’re possessing them. At any rate, you can switch players easily, even mid-play, without confusion.

I take it back; there is one difference in controls, and an important one at that. In First Person mode, the right analog stick turns your head to look around. This isn’t terribly important on rushing plays, but unless you want to throw crossing patterns and tight end ins all day it’s something you’ve got to use on passing plays. On plays where you don’t have the ball, your viewpoint is automatically centered on the ball, no matter where it is on the field.

I’ve been a video football player from way back. All the way back to the Odyssey 2 and I’ve had some memorable games over the years, but nothing I’ve done has inspired the feeling I got the first time I ALMOST broke a kickoff return with Dante Hall. That is, until I broke a 60-yard touchdown run with Priest Holmes, or until I surged through the line with Ryan Sims and laid a brutal sack on Rich Gannon. It’s amazing the effect that the first person perspective has on you. I found it much easier to run successfully since your blockers are right there in front of you, and all you have to do is get their jersey in your face until you’re in the open field.

GRAPHICS

Here’s where I thought I was gong to have to ding this game. In the 3rd person views, things just don’t look quite as smooth as Madden, but there’s a reason for this, and a good reason at that. Remember how jumpy the close-up and between play animations are in”¦.the other game? Now play First Person mode. It is amazing how smoothly each character is animated up close. Pre-play, during play, post-play, everything is wonderfully 3-D modeled. Faces look like faces. Celebrations look spontaneous rather than being a reject from the Abe Lincoln show at Disneyland. Example: When you start a game in First Person mode, the first thing you see is your teammates jumping around you in a pre-game hype session. They’re swinging their arms, your viewpoint is bouncing too, it looks just like your in the huddle with them. The first time I saw that it pumped me up like you wouldn’t imagine.

Collision detection may be just a smidge off of the other game. The periodic wormhole shifting a tackler from one side of the ball carrier to the other, but it doesn’t happen often, and it’s not terribly obnoxious when it does happen. In some cases the C.D. is very good. Example: I was throwing a pass to Tony Gonzales in First Person mode (see a theme here?) and I watched the ball go right between his hands. Not through them, literally; but through them figuratively. I’ve seen balls bounce off of chests and hands too, so I’m willing to forgive the occasional minor causality violation.

(“Causality Violation” was a term coined by my friend, and fellow physics geek, Guy. “*Fweet!* Causality violation: #53, defense. Player was in two places at the same time. 15 yard penalty, automatic first down!”)

There is one problem with the graphics on First Person mode, though; but the strange thing is that it has nothing to do with the game graphics themselves. When you see a 3rd person replay of a First Person mode play, the turns you made in that play are REEEEEALY exaggerated. I would run an up the gut play for 7 yards, check the replay, and it looked like Priest was doing the twist all the way upfield. Now, it didn’t look like that when I was controlling him — I would’ve gotten vertigo from watching the view switch from sideline to sideline — so it’s obviously a little problem in the game control vs. perspective interface that will almost assuredly be taken care of by next year.

Even the occasional novelty close ups of the fans are really well modeled. They have discernable facial features! They have personality! They move with smoothness! They approximate real people!

And the real acid test of the graphics: The cheerleaders look good; faces and otherwise.

As for the rest of the graphics, they too are wonderfully done. The CribTM looks wonderful, and maneuvering through it is a snap. I love the menu graphics, if only because I’m such a big ESPN fan.

SOUND

Good commentary. Excellent music. Realistic in-game sounds. This one is a winner!

“¦

Sorry, I thought I was writing a review for ESPN Gamer for a minute.

The first thing I thought of listening to the commentary was that they’d resurrected the speech pattern from from Joe Montana Sportstalk Football. Actually, it’s not that bad, but sometime it feels like”¦.the breaks between the”¦.words are just a little too”¦.long; only on the situation stuff, though. “Fourth and”¦five,” sorts of things. All-in-all, it’s less annoying than Madden and Michaels, with about the same accuracy of commentary. Right after I scored a touchdown on a 50 yard pass play, the color guy commented that the “nickel-and-dime” offense was working well for my team.

Of course, I absolutely geek out for the ESPN music during the menus; and I know it’s stupid, but I love when you unlock a crib item and the little sportsticker music hits to alert you. The soundtracks have a nice mix; a larger selection than Madden, but without the big name artists. That is, if you count Alien Ant Farm as a big-name artist in the first place.

One thing I really like is Chris Berman voiceovers, especially the fact that you can have him do an edition of NFL Praaaaaame Taaaaaame featuring your games. Another ESPN geek-out moment for me, but it’s those sort of little things that distinguish games, not that this game hasn’t done a good job of distinguishing itself already.

I love the game sounds, especially in 1st person mode. They did an excellent job of recreating what one would hear on the field. One example, if you’re lined up as halfback behind the QB and you hit the hard count button, you see him move as to shout, but you don’t hear him. Yes, the crowd noise changes onfield too, but that’s not the best part. The best part of the 1st person sound is the trash talk. You heard me right, sweet cheeks: trash talk. And it’s player specific. “Hey Green! They call you that because that’s the color of the grass on your back!” Incredible. That’s the sort of little detail that I really love to see.

The other in-game sounds are realistic. Pads hitting, grunts, defensive call outs before the snap, all of there, all of it very well done. Bravo.

FUN FACTOR

When a game is so fun it makes me look for the phone so I can call Cris and tell him about it, you know it’s something special.

Most of the excitement can be attributed to First Person FootballTM, but that’s not a bad thing. Think of all the stuff that had to be tweaked and improved to make it look and sound as good as it does, let alone PLAY as good as it does. The improvements that had to be made to the graphics alone are incredible. Bouncing around in the pre-game huddle, being a part of touchdown celebrations, breaking big plays with nothing in front of you but turf and 30,000 screaming fans, it all makes the feel of this game much more personal than any Madden title to date.

“Sapp can’t mess wit’ you. Sapp too slow.”

And The CribTM, which seems like a really chintzy idea, is actually it’s own unique bit of joy, that’s far more fun and more innocuous than the Madden Cards (ask anyone who’s been a victim of Madden Cards online). I mean, bobbleheads”¦.how cool is that? I think the place is pretty cool, and I’ve only unlocked 18% of what’s possible so far. Like Lee, I’m enjoying the ability to put posters of other games up in my Crib, although I’ve got Virtua Fighter 4 up, myself. (Readers of my column, before you jump me on this, I never said it was a bad game, I just said that they don’t have a capoeirista. I’ve already discussed this matter with Bebito, thank you.)

Bottom line is that this is the one WOW game this football season, and the most fun I’ve had playing video football in years. I’m already looking forward to next year’s version, to see the minor foibles with First Person mode corrected”¦.and maybe even improved.

Ratings
Gameplay: 9.5
Graphics: 9.0
Sound: 9.0
Fun Factor: 9.5