ESPN NFL Football
System: X-Box
Publisher: Sega 
Developer: Visual Concepts
Released: September 2003
Genre: Sports (Football)
Memory Unit, Custom Soundtracks, X-Box Live online play, Communicator Headset

Review Written: October 8, 2003

This is one freaking long football review, and it is solely aimed at hardcore football gamers, so if you’re here expecting a quick read then get the hell out. There are no witty metaphors to be found here, they just throw off the readers anyways… a fat girl waving her smell trophy. So with that in mind, grab a drink and get ready to enjoy the most in-depth review for ESPN NFL Football you’ll find on the entire web!

Something funny happened during last year’s annual pigskin gaming wars. I overrated a game. My initial impressions with Sega’s NFL 2K3 were so great that it got one of the highest scores that I ever handed out to a football game. However, perspective sat in, and I continually grew frustrated at the title’s two main notable flaws: The enormous rate of dropped passes, and the pathetic running game. I got so aggravated that I recently got rid of my copy of 2K3 for good, and changed my mind for the game of choice that year going to Madden NFL 2003.

To make sure I didn’t make the same error twice, I made sure to give plenty of play time to this year’s game, the newly renamed ESPN NFL Football. According my user file, I got nearly 30 games completed and over 30 hours clocked into the game itself. So did the developers at Visual Concepts fix everything for the better? You’re damn right they did!

The weird thing is it seems Sega changes the gameplay to cater towards the crowd each year. Fans complained about the lack of a running game in the inaugural NFL 2K, so Sega added the juke move and made the running game more user friendly in 2K1 and 2K2. Then the fans complained about the running game being too easy, so in last year’s game they beefed up running defensive AI so good that a measly 6 yard run would be the equivalent to a 30 yard run in its competitors. Well, we whined about it this year, so guess what? Yep, the running game is back to acceptable standards. It’s much more realistic this year than it has ever been. So if you’re rushing with Ricky Williams on the Dolphins with their stellar O-Line, expect plenty of big plays. If you’re running with the washed-up Emmit Smith and the Cardinal’s not-so-great O-Line, then expect a turn for the worse.

Sega added a slew of new offensive and defensive moves that dramatically help gameplay. The main new ball carrier technique is the “charge” system. Instead of holding up a meter and filling it up over and over for turbo boosts in 2K3, all you have to do now is constantly tap the A button for extra speed. The better alternative is holding the A button to fill up your “charge” meter, then before you make contact with a defender that when you press one of the buttons to do your juke/stiff arm/spin/stutter-step, the charge will make it about 50% more effective. There’s also a new “shoulder charge” move mapped to the Y button, and if you use that when fully charged the results are very great when running up the middle, which before was a huge problem in 2K3.

If you feel your buddies are going to take advantage of this in multiplayer matches, then don’t fret, the defenders can charge up for a tackle to make them leap an extra yard or two. Speaking of tackling, the defensive men don’t dive eight yards like they always have before, Visual Concepts finally toned down that aspect and made tacklers dive a more realistic range (although not as incredibly short as in Madden) when trying to reach out for a tackle. There are also new defensive swim and club moves to break past blocks with ease instead of relying on dumb luck as in years past. If there is only one thing I had to nitpick at in the entire gameplay system, it is that it can take a bit of learning for when to time your defenders to raise up to attempt an interception, and if you miss it, there’s a good chance the receiver will smoke you and run all the way for a touchdown.

One of the bigger complaints for Sega’s gridiron title is that it never had a challenge system, something Madden has had for its fourth straight year since the 2001 game. You can stop holding your breath now, Sega finally decided to throw in a challenge system this year where you can have the refs take another look at the play (via instant replay) in hopes of overturning a bad call. It actually works out pretty good, where you can pick from a list of what was challengeable, and if you call it at the right moments, then they usually work out in your favor. For the diehard fans, yes, booth challenges do occur in the final two minutes of the halves.

The other main gripe which lasted throughout each and every one of the past four 2K games were the playcalling menus. While superior for single player matches, they usually gave things away in multi player match-ups. Well I can assure all of you that Sega finally changed things for the better, and adopted a more standard, Madden-like play selection screen. The real kicker is that the playbook’s design actually looks bigger and is much easier on the eyes than Madden’s scheme.

Something that EA Sports has usually prevailed in is being able to add a major new mode of play each year. Sega wasn’t so kind in the past couple of years, with no real notable extra modes being added in 2K2 or 2K3. However, there are not one, but two vital additions to ESPN NFL Football. Starting off is the major new mode of play dubbed “First Person Football (FPF).” While the first person view has been done before in previous football games like Quarterback Attack on the 3DO, and Madden Football 64, it was either un-polished eye candy, or played so poorly that the unique view didn’t make the difference. FPF plays out incredibly well, the commentators are disabled and it actually feels like you’re there right on the field. All that can be heard is the teammates chattering amongst themselves, and the PA announcer. My adrenaline skyrocketed when I was a blitzing linebacker and picked up the sack for my team in FPF. The developers add all the extra tools to make FPF fully playable and user friendly. Some of the handy additions are motion arrows that indicate which way defenders are creeping up on the ball carrier and a temporary slow motion effect so receivers can be read when the QB is in the pocket. This is such a pulse-pounding experience that no one should miss out on it.

The other major addition to ESPN NFL Football is the reward system dubbed, “The Crib.” This has also been something Sega’s game has been dying for, and is their answer to EA’s “Madden Cards” reward system. How it works is you’ll be breaking records during games here and there with achievements like 80-yard runs, or 55-yard field goals and the like. Even entering extra modes like Practice and Situation unlocks stuff too. Whenever one of these events happen, a little message will pop up on the screen saying you unlocked something for your Crib. You then go to your Crib, which can be decked out in much of your team’s favorite memorabilia as you desire, and all of the broken records accomplished will be tracked in your trophy case. Lots of other stuff can be unlocked such as ESPN commercials and promos to be watched on your entertainment center, mini-games like trivia, air-hockey and paper football, and a full 32-player assortment of player “bobbleheads.” Sega is promising over hundreds of unlockable items from the Crib, and the whole layout and presentation of it is a more satisfying and enjoyable experience than the “Madden Cards” system in EA’s game.

One thing Sega seems to always be tweaking is the Franchise mode in each year’s game. Last year they added the whole scouting combine presentation; this year they integrate a new e-mail system. I remember one of the vital aspects of Franchise modes is toying around in the many menus to keep up to date with the latest NFL trades, injuries, etc. Sega’s solution this year is this email system which will provide “links” to menus like depth charts or power rankings that are relevant to the email message. I can safely this does make things a heck of a lot better than before, and Visual Concepts connected with what they’re shooting for with this e-mail system for me.

I’ve already rambled on and on about the major additions/changes to this year’s game, but there is just so much more to mention about ESPN NFL Football’s other repertoire of options and modes that I’ll try to sum it up in this paragraph as quickly as possible. All the standard modes from before are here like Quick Start, Scrimmage, Practice, Tournaments, Situation, and single Season play. There is new tutorial lessons added which will help everyone get the hang of the many new gameplay changes implemented in this year’s game. There’s also a full NFL dictionary included that will get you up to date on common football terms and jargon. Online play is back for a second season on Xbox with many of the great online features in 2K3 such as leaderboards, win-loss record tracking, and real time voice chat. I loved playing in the online leagues introduced in this year’s NFL Fever 2004, and I am disappointed that Sega added online leagues in just the PS2 version this year and skimped out on the Xbox users.

The graphics for ESPN NFL Football have come a long way since setting the new standard for this generation back on the Dreamcast launch in September 1999. And considering that the developers at Visual Concepts have tweaked the graphics engine from the very first NFL 2K every year and still manage to keep it the most visually impressive pigskin game on the market is quite a feat. The player models are impeccable. When the camera cuts away between plays to players on the sidelines without their helmets they look damn near identical to their real life counterparts. A lot of work this year has also went into the coach character models. They all look marvelous, and the developers threw in a few more great animations for them this year with key challenge animations where the coach vigorously throws down the red challenge flag to make sure he gets the officials’ attention. It is little touches like those that make an impact on the gameplay experience.

Other new animations you’ll notice are plenty of cut-scenes of the sidelines in-between plays. You’ll see teammates giving each other high-fives after watching a huge play finish up, or look down and whimper in disgust after their team gave up an interception or a sack. Also new are little cut-scenes of actual fans in the stadium, and the 3D models have about the same amount of detail as the coaches in the game. Just like the players on the sidelines, you’ll see them cheering or booing after major plays. Cheerleaders also have a little more focused on this year, as the developers give a nod to Tecmo and incorporate the “bounciness” into them as the camera cuts away to them doing cartwheels after random big plays. On an interesting side note, the new attention on cheerleaders brings back good memories of the ill-fated XFL league a couple years ago. There are loads of new tackle animations implemented in gameplay as well, the most noteworthy ones are the numerous amount of gang tackles that look spectacular and put the ones in Madden to shame. One more remarkable touch is that you’ll notice turf being kicked up from the playing field due to the player’s spiked cleats, just a stunning effect that deserves major props to the developers.

Last year, Sega acquire the ESPN license to their video games, but got it rather late in the development cycle. So even though it was amazing with what they managed to muster out of it the few months it was available for use in NFL 2K3’s development cycle, you could clearly tell a lot more could’ve been done if they had the proper amount of time. Well Sega had all the time they needed this year, and that ESPN integration is noticeable everywhere! The stat overlays, menus, and stat sheets all have that patented Sports Center look to them. The transitions to instant replays are also well done, and the instant replays themselves outshine the competition by a mile. The NFL Countdown and halftime shows (hosted by Chris “he could go all the way” Berman) are also very polished and again outdo what its competitors bring to the plate. The weekly season/franchise wrap-up actually seems like you’re right there watching sports center. Besides giving scores of the other games that happened that day during the wrap-up, there are also a few highlights of key plays from those contests with continuous commentary from Berman throughout it.

The only part to nitpick about the visuals is the amount of clipping noticeable in FPF mode, and the stale referee character models. The clipping I can forgive as it’s not as dreadfully bad as I thought it would have been, and I quickly managed to get by it. Those ref models are butt-ugly; I don’t think they have been tweaked for the last few versions of the game. Even with those minor gripes, this is still an outstanding job overall as ESPN NFL Football blows away its opponents in graphics in almost all departments.

The audio department shines all over just like the graphics do. There is plenty of player chatter heard on the field, especially in FPF mode. There are even player specific taunts from the defenders like, “I’m coming to get you Bledsoe!” The rest of the sound effects for tackling, kicking, and the whoosh of the football being thrown in the air all sound the same from past titles, and are all still just as effective.

Unlike its competitors, ESPN NFL Football didn’t hop on the “let’s round up a dozen licensed songs from bands for our soundtrack” bandwagon, and instead uses various ESPN theme songs that are played while browsing menus. However, the Jukebox option in the Crib let’s you customize the play-list to also include songs from soundtracks from the PA library, or from other historic Sega games. And yes, this year Sega gives us the ability to add our own custom soundtracks to the mix too. However, one little bug to the jukebox is that if your have over 225 tracks burned to your Xbox hard drive you won’t be able to create your own play-list.

One thing the 2K football titles have always been acclaimed for was their outstanding commentary, and this year the tradition continues as the hired voice actors that go by the personas of Dan Stevens and Peter ‘O Keefe return to the booth to deliver more lines of commentary than any other gridiron game to date. They sound the most convincing than any of the other titles, as Keefe’s humorous metaphors will give you a much-needed laugh here and there, and their extensive rundown of instant replays is still top-notch. The only problems with them is that they never get back to you with injury reports (maybe it’s time to bring back their sideline reporter), and they sometimes fall behind on the action by a play or two if you decide to skip all the post-play cut scenes.

The replay value of ESPN NFL Football is unbelievable. If it weren't for EA adding the Owner Mode options this year to its game, the Franchise mode here would be nearly up to par with the one in Madden, so all you hardcore football fans can spend countless days in that mode. Then there is a bunch of stuff you can try to edit and create like players, teams, and playbooks if you get tired of the default selection that is available. The new FPF mode is a breathtaking experience that can be enjoyed numerous times. Online play is always available if there are none of your friends around to duke it out with. Finally, if you’re just tired of playing too many games, than kicking back in the Crib is the perfect thing to do. I swear, this is the best unlock system to ever grace a sports game.


Graphics: 9.7
Sound: 9.8
Gameplay: 9.5
Replay Value: 9.5

Overall: 9.6

The ultimate football game has finally arrived! I always had a feeling Sega was holding out on the 2K franchise the past couple of years, and sure enough they threw in all the goodies this year. This gets my pick of football game of choice for the 2004 season of gridiron games, and I’m not going to think twice on it either. For all you “Maddenites” that won’t stray away from each yearly EA offering it’s about time to wake up and smell the coffee and give Sega’s game a shot. Sega’s game outclasses Madden NFL 2004 in all areas (with the sole exception that is better in Madden is its freakishly in-depth Franchise/Owner Mode) and is just simply more fun to play. You are not a true football gamer if you don’t own ESPN NFL Football, so there!

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