Madden has always had competitors. In the early 16-bit days, it was Sega and their Joe Montana/NFL series that battled it out every year with EA's juggernaut. The 32-Bit era brought in Sony and their franchise, NFL Gameday. Then the Dreamcast hit the market on 9-9-99 and launched with a revolutionary football game that has caused EA grief ever since. Now the latest version of Visual Concept's series, ESPN NFL 2K5, is here with a measly $20 price tag. Needless to say, this is the best $20 you can spend on the market today.
Sega has gone all out this year in the presentation department, but the gameplay has only received minor tweaks in various areas. The running game has been toned down for the better, the passing game has been improved to eliminate the ridiculous number of dropped passes from last year, and runners can no longer turn on a dime. Your DB's can be adjusted on the fly if necessary as can your defensive line and you can now select your end zone celebration after a touchdown.
If you have been under the Madden influence for the past five years, you will not just pick this game up and run with it. It will take an adjustment period (and probably the games decent training mode) to get you going. It is necessary to give the game some time to adjust as 2K5 moves faster and is arguably more challenging when on even difficulty levels (Note: Adjust the difficulty immediately if you have experience with this series. The default is far too forgiving).
The feature set remains largely the same. "The Crib" has been expanded upon with countless new items and a new celebrity feature. This allows you to walk into your crib and answer the phone to accept a challenge from people like Carmen Electra, Steve-O, and Funkmaster Flex. Winning against their unfairly overpowered super-teams gives you points and can unlock more items. However, the horrendously annoying voice-overs during the game from the "stars" is so annoying, making it through a game will be a test of patience. Of course, you can ignore this all together and head on-line for full X-Box Live support.
First-person football has been tweaked to make it more accessible, but trying to see your receivers is still difficult. The running game is still a blast however. Thankfully, you can switch out of this mode with a quick press of the left analog stick to pull the camera back to the classic view most people will be used to.
The franchise mode has of course been expanded upon, but with slightly mixed results. The new option, called weekly prep, is novel, but it's grinding length and infinite menus just make you want to get to the game itself. You can set up various training schedules for each position, make your players watch game films, and even have them take more alternative routes like yoga. This will take at least a half-hour and there is nothing interactive about it since you just wade through text. Thankfully, you can turn this off before you begin your franchise, so this is not a big deal.
Visual Concepts has added the ability to offer signing bonuses to your draft picks or free agents, a nice way to avoid salary cap trouble. Players can be placed on the injured reserves should the dreaded season ending injury happen. You'll also receive E-mail from the higher-ups each week, giving you information on how badly you played and information from around the league just like last year.
You can even participate in some of last year's games with the ESPN 25th Anniversary mode. This will drop you into memorable clutch situations like the Heidi Bowl, The Catch, The Drive, and more. There are, of course, 25 in total. You can also create your own scenario as well.
But, even with all of this new stuff, the V.I.P. system is by far the most revolutionary part of the game. By setting up a V.I.P. file, the game will track the way you play and record it. Save this to a memory card or your hard drive and you can play against a "ghost" team of yourself (to see what areas of improvement are necessary) or give your card to a friend and have them take you on without you even being there. What's so amazing is that this feature works with stunning accuracy. I tend to run to the weak side more than anywhere else and after playing a game against myself with this system, the computer copied my style perfectly. It even ran some of the plays I tend to run on a regular basis. Really impressive and this is a feature that must be tried out.
Now, what separates ESPN from the other football game on the market this year is the simply awe-inspiring presentation. Remember in Madden 97 on the PS One how Jim Brown was "in the studio" each week, full-motion video style? Take that same concept and multiply it times ten. A virtual Chris Berman opens each game and introduces Sportscenter each week. He will also meet you at the half and post game. Suzie Kolber will actually interview the player of the game in real-time once the final second has ticked off the clock and the cinemas during the game are just unbeatable. VC has claimed that 200 of them have been crammed onto the disc and that statement certainly has merit. Fans tailgate, find their seats, players kick over coolers after a bad play, the cart comes out for really nasty injuries, coaches yell at players after a bad set, etc. It's endless and though it is just eye-candy, it really adds to the overall feel of the game.
Though not built from the ground up, the graphics engine here is by far the best ever conceived in a football game. Every detail is simply beautiful here. The bump-mapping used on the players gives the graphics additional depth and about 80% of the player faces are accurate. New animations have been added, but some have been used since the series' inaugural edition and probably should be retired. Also, the virtual Chris Berman and player interviews have no lip-synching whatsoever, but for a first time attempt, credit is still due in large. The game also runs in 480p so HDTV owners will definitely have the opportunity to appreciate the finer details.
Peter O'Keefe and Dan Stevens return again as the best video game play-by-play guys in the business, but maybe it is time to introduce some real ESPN announcers to the series. Regardless, these two guys spout off banter between plays, joke with each other, and call the game flawlessly, rarely falling behind. Sideline chatter is nice too though you won't actually learn anything by listening in. The 5.1 surround support included here is also phenomenal and you will be reminded of it every game, at the half, by the announcers. But, what good is sound if you can't control it? 2K5 lets you actually control your stadium music by clipping your songs from the hard drive and blasting them through the stadium speakers for specific plays, of course selected by you. This is a feature more sports games should immediately copy.
If you're brand loyal to the Madden series, it's time to snap out of it. Sega along with Visual Concepts have crafted not only the best looking, sounding, awe-inspiring, feature filled football game of all time, but the best playing one as well. It's even crazier that this game is only $20. DO NOT let the price fool you into thinking this is bargain basement junk. This is a title that should be in your collection immediately with no excuses.
Final note: PS2 owners need a hard drive for the full experience. Halftime and post-game highlights will be reduced to still pics without it. Slowdown is also a small issue and the graphics have been knocked down a notch, but it never effects gameplay signifigantly. Otherwise, the games are pretty much identical.