System: X-Box
Publisher: Sega/Global Star (Take-Two)
Developer: Visual Concepts
Released: July 2004
Genre: Football
Capabilities: Memory
Unit, Custom Soundtracks, X-Box Live Online Multi-Player, Communicator Headset, Friends List, Downloadable Content, Leaderboards, Live Aware

Review Written: August 29, 2004

As many of you may already know, Sega took some dramatic measures this year in order to compete with the football franchise goliath that is Madden. First off, they teamed up with Take-2 to help distribute the game so they can market the title at a budget price point of $20, which is a full $30 savings over Madden. Second, they released the game three weeks ahead of EA’s giant in hopes of getting a good jump on sales over them. Sega is doing this because last year history repeated itself a second year in a row as a majority of the media gave Sega the nod as the better football game, but Madden still outsold it by its usual several million copies. With ESPN NFL 2K5, Sega proves they are still the #1 rated football game on the market, and at $19.99 this title will go down in history as one of the greatest bargains of all time.

2K5 boasts several new gameplay enhancements this year on both sides of the ball. On offense one of the things that will be noticed right off the bat is players now cannot simply be running in one direction and automatically cut across the field the opposite direction instantaneously. There is now a momentarily pause while the player adjusts his bodyweight to run in an entirely new direction. This takes a while to get use to as it was easy to manipulate the running game in last year’s title, however after several games I was in the swing of things and had a completely different focus on how to manage my running game.

Another important addition to offensive gameplay is the QB-evade button. If a defensive player looks ready to lay out a big hit on your QB, than a correctly timed flick of the right analog stick will have the QB evading a potential big time sack. This is a little bit more difficult to use because you have to be very precise when pressing it in order to break the tackle. The last notable offensive feature is the ability to try and battle for a couple additional yards as a defender is in the midst of tackling you by mashing the A button for all its worth.

There are some notable additions on the defensive side of the ball, with a majority of them being new pre-snap adjustments. Before the snap, you now have the ability to move the defensive backs away or towards the line of scrimmage a couple extra yards, which is an important tool to get defenders ready to anticipate a deep pass. Besides shifting the defensive line as usual, linebackers can now be shifted to the left or right too. Another vital pre-snap feature is selecting any of the linebackers or safeties and giving them the ability to double team any receiver, which comes in handy when trying to shutdown big time targets such as Randy Moss or Marvin Harrison. Finally, before the snap you can also decide weather or not to blitz any of the players by selecting them and giving a quick press of the X button. The only new notable post-snap defensive feature in 2K5 is ‘Maximum Tackling’ where a simple press of the tackle button delivers a quick hit or holding it down yields a more powerful wrap tackle.

That sounds like a lot of new gameplay enhancements to digest, and a lot of the new pre-snap defensive commands helped improved my game a bit once I had a good grasp on them after a handful games. I recommend going through the tutorials and spending a good half hour to an hour in the practice mode before hopping into a game so you can be fully prepared.

The computer is a little too easy to manhandle on the ‘Pro’ difficulty and bumping it up to ‘All-Pro’ is where I find them to be a good challenge. Of course, you can always tinker the sliders in each AI department until they meet your desire. If there is only one thing I would like 2K5 to implement in its gameplay from the Madden franchise, it would be some of its post-snap Playmaker controls. I can’t stress how great it was to have receivers change their routes towards the QB while I’m scrambling out of the pocket, and a feature like that is just dying to be had in 2K5.

For gameplay modes, the only real new addition this year is ESPN 25th Anniversary, which is more or less a decked out Situation mode where it recreates 25 of the greatest moments in NFL history, and it gives the player the honor of recreating these classic moments, or changing history for the better. For example, you can recreate the Oilers and the 49ers legendary playoff comebacks, or you can change the outcome by taking control of the Titans against the Rams in the final seconds of the Super Bowl and have the Titans actually make it into the end zone this time to give them the Super Bowl win they deserved.

Asides from one big addition, Franchise mode remains very similar to how it was in 2K4, the email setup is still in tact and remains a very easy way to track all the happenings around the league without the cumbersome menu micromanagement that you’re use to in other football titles. The draft still works the same as before, and the only real problem I have with Franchise mode as a whole is that the computer will make some questionable trades. While it doesn’t have the in-depth Storyline Central and Owner mode additions that Madden boasts, it is still an enjoyable Franchise mode in its own right.

The big addition in Franchise mode this year is the ‘Weekly Prep’ option that involves a lot of trial and error to properly use. It has you running the day-to-day operations of your team by setting how much time the players should practice, watch film, etc. I found this addition really challenging to properly manage because if you work your players too hard, they’ll end up dropping a few points in their player ratings. However, after the fourth or fifth week into my season I was finally getting a good prep formula down to increase a majority of my player ratings. Weather or not you want to spend a good several hours troubleshooting like me is up to you. Mercifully, the Weekly Prep is optional for people who don’t want to spend an extra 30-45 minutes in menus each week of the season.

First Person Football (FPF) is back for another year, and aside from a couple little tweaks, it remains mostly the same love-it-or-hate it mode as before. There is now the ability to switch out to a third person view whenever you see fit, and you can actually hear the QB calling out the play that was just picked while the team is in a huddle. Just like last year, you might play it once or twice and leave it as that, or if you’re like me you’ll break out after every dozen or so games for a nice change of atmosphere.

Rounding out the rest of the gameplay modes is the usual suspects. There’s the standard quick play round so you can get right into a match against a friend or computer. Then we have the usual practice, tutorial, and scrimmage options so you can hone your skills and perfect your game. Situation mode is back so you can create whatever scenario you want or recreate a classic match up that wasn’t included in the 25th Anniversary mode. Finally, you can also create tournaments for up to 32 teams. Unfortunately, Sega did remove the offline Season mode this year, which is kind of disappointing for people who just want to play a single season and not have to worry about all the off-season hoopla that Franchise mode brings to the plate.

2K5 got a dramatic boost for online play. There is still all the expected Xbox Live feature like Quick Match, OptiMatch, Leaderboards, downloadable roster updates, and live voice chat, but new to this year are online tournaments and seasons. The seasons are even more fun to play online because you can manage them from your PC as well much like you could in last year’s XSN sports titles. Most important of all, there are actual living rosters where if a player gets a major injury in one game, expect him to be out for the next few weeks. Trades and Free Agent pick-ups can also be acquired too during online seasons, which make things just that much more exciting.

One of the biggest new additions in 2K5 is the VIP user profile system. It may look like your average win-loss profile system at first, but then you notice it keeps tabs on a heck of a lot more stats than normal, such as which direction you run/pass the most, how often you use zone/man coverage, etc. Anyways the point of this is that this all can be applied to the computer AI, so let’s say your best friend isn’t there for his daily whooping, you can still go against the computer and have it be controlled by their VIP. Amazingly, VIP AI actually mimics some of my friends more non-traditional behavior like moving defensive ends back and forth constantly before the snap, and going for it on fourth down on all the wrong occasions. There’s even an option to compete against your very own VIP for the quintessential challenge. What’s even better about this is that you can download online VIP’s from any player online weather it be someone on your friends list or one of the top ranked players on the leaderboard to get a feel for how some of the top dogs play.

All the great customization features from last year’s game are still intact such as the ability to create a team, players, and playbooks. The create-a-player isn’t as in-depth as I would like it to be and there are not that many facial options either, and the stadium editor for create-a-team is not as in-depth as the one in Madden. However, one area that truly stands out is the brand new Stadium Music editor. This allows the user to pick what tunes they want to play after first downs, sacks, touchdowns, etc. It gives you the ability to pick out exactly what part of the song to play too to set up the perfect moment. This isn’t limited to 2K5’s soundtrack either, God bless Sega for letting us use custom soundtracks in this feature. I already spent quite a few hours in this mode alone picking out my favorite tracks to play after key moments, and I assure you will do just the same

Speaking of customization, ‘The Crib’ returns for a second year and it is now more customizable than ever. If you’re not familiar with the Crib from last years game it is basically a condo that can be decked out in as much team memorabilia as possible. There are also some mini-games that are a nice diversion in the forms of Ice Hockey, Paper Football, Darts, and Trivia. Instead of getting random items unlocked for achieving various goals like in 2K4, ‘Crib Credits’ are now accumulated and can be used to purchase the items you want instead. Another new feature to The Crib this year is celebrity challenges from five Hollywood names in the forms of Steve-O, Carmen Elecktra, Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, and Funkmaster Flex. They’ll sporadically challenge you to a match with their own team of all-stars where they talk trash at you with random one-liners throughout the game. While this sounds like a good idea on paper, these celebrities have no place in a football game, and their commentary gets awfully annoying, real quick. On the other hand, playing against them is completely optional, and you can’t blame the developers at Visual Concept for trying something new with the genre.

After last year’s superb effort, I didn’t think they could top the spectacular job on the ESPN presentation, but Visual Concepts managed to outdo themselves again. First off, Chris Berman’s halftime and post-game shows have highlights of the top plays in their entirety (no more snapshots!) along with Berman’s own running commentary, and it actually seems like a recap off of SportsCenter. The weekly SportsCenter wrap-ups in Franchise mode also got a big boost as now Trey Wingo reports in with the latest trades and injury reports and Mel Kiper Jr. chimes in twice a season about his top prospects for the upcoming draft. They also got some great new overlays this year, I especially like the in-depth breakdown of the passing and running charts the most.

Graphically speaking, 2K5 is the best looking football game ever made, period. To top off the already near-perfect player models from last year, the developers implemented the new ‘Triple-Pass’ rendering technology so the players sport the most realistic looking uniforms to ever grace a football game to date. My jaw literally dropped in awe during the post-play cut-scenes on how close most of the player’s faces are to their real life counterparts. Almost all the big name players are faithfully digitized in 2K5. The stadiums look just as perfect, detailed down to each miniscule detail. The animation is also another thing to marvel at, there are a lot of vicious gang tackles, and plenty of little things the developers paid attention to like turf getting kicked up from the field.

I have to admit I’m a little disappointed at the commentary this year. Its quality is still top notch as the hired voice actors that go by the personas of Dan Stevens and Peter ‘O Keefe actually sound like they have some emotion for the game. However, a lot of their comments are recycled from last year’s game and it was hard to recognize any new snippets recorded for gameplay commentary. I’m surprised at how good the ESPN personalities sound this year, especially with Chris Berman. Kiper and Wingo also sound pretty decent and not as robotic as I expected, regrettably I cannot say the same thing about Kolber, but she actually sounds just as light-headed and ignorant in here real telecasts than she does here in 2K5. Besides Suzy’s post-game interviews, she also chimes in with weather and some much-needed injury updates the 2K series has omitted ever since its second installment.

Almost all the sound effects from last year’s release are recycled and it still sounds like the great game of football I know and love. Yes, there are even taunts from the defense before the snap to make sure the QB knows they’re going to get hurt. The same ESPN themes make up the menu music, but thankfully custom soundtracks are supported so we don’t end up going psychotic over those mind-numbing techno beats that seem to never end.

If you managed to read every paragraph this far, then by golly, I salute you…we’re almost done, but first the burning question. Was Sega’s enormous price drop and early release date enough to outdo Madden this year? Unfortunately, it probably won’t be, yes the 2K series will probably have its best selling year in its history, but the millions of Madden drones will still drench on to its outdated, stale game only for the fact that Madden has been around longer and their unwillingness to give the competition a try.

Like I even need to tell you which game is better, but in case you don’t get the point:

ESPN NFL 2K5 = best football game ever!

Score: 10/10

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