Over the last decade and a half, the name synonymous with anything of quality when it comes to the world of sports is ESPN. Last year, with the help of developer Visual Concepts, the company broke new ground with its line of ESPN Videogames. The first title out the gate to launch this new partnership was ESPN NFL Football. How does the game stack up against the competition? Read on to find out.
For those of you who don’t already know, ESPN NFL Football is an evolved version of Visual Concepts’ NFL 2K series from the Dreamcast days, and the core of the gameplay has grown along with it. Fans of football will be happy to know that ESPN is one of the better football games out this year when it comes to enjoying a realistic experience on the field. Quarterbacks actually have to execute their drop steps in order to get passes off; running backs have to wait for their fullbacks and linemen to open up holes; and receivers must fight off any opposing secondarys. On defense, the linemen need to play their gap assignments or look to have a big play up the field. Linebackers and secondarys are smart in their assignments and will usually hold down their zone coverage.
I can’t put my finger on it, but something about playing this game just feels right. For the more casual player – don’t let all the football talk scare you away! This game is great ?pick up and play’ material that will get you hooked in moments. However, for all of its good stuff, there are some bad points in ESPN NFL Football that must be addressed in the gameplay area, specifically the insane amount of broken tackles. If you don’t adjust your difficulty sliders correctly, any no-name running back can break off some big gains and have a 500-yard game – which is ridiculous. Broken tackles aside, this game plays great. When you think that you’re man enough, log onto Xbox Live to test your skills against the world. Online play won’t be a problem either, as the experience is lag free for the most part.
The graphics in ESPN are some of the best seen in a sports game this year. For those graphically minded people amongst you, the Xbox version is the superior looking version, but not by much. On the field, the player models are appropriately sized according to their position, and they look the part. You’ll be able to tell the difference between linemen and wide receivers this time around, so look out for the big hogs up front doing the dirty work. Speaking of dirty work, you’ll also notice the vast amount of animation that Visual Concepts have added into the game. You might have to play a few games to notice them all, but the tackling and running animations appear to have received some serious attention during the off season. The watchful eye will notice the defensive back animations and gang tackles that add some much needed polish to the title. As the game goes on, field conditions will deteriorate and start to appear worn down. Up in the sky, ESPN’s blimp and passing clouds will drift over the field of play for some very nice shading effects across the stadium. Off the field, players will be able to watch fans in the stands rooting or booing for their home teams and those crowd models also look good. You won’t find much wrong with the appearance of this one.
From the moment you turn this game on, you’ll know it’s an ESPN title thanks to all of the Sportscenter music playing throughout the menu screens. If those aren’t to your liking, then you’re able to change them to some hip-hop and techno inspired songs (once you’ve unlocked them). On the field, the sounds of the game are also authentic ESPN. You’ll hear the Sunday Night Football theme hit your speakers the moment the game starts. For people with the high tech setups, the Xbox version fully supports Dolby Digital sound, so expect to hear some rich sound that really sets the atmosphere. Another exclusive Xbox feature is custom soundtracks, where you’ll be able to add your own favorite music to the mix. The actions on the field sound great too, as you’ll know immediately when you’ve made that big hit on a quarterback or you’re at the opening kickoff of a home game.
Thanks to an improved franchise mode, fans of building their own football dynasties will be in for a treat. Last year, Visual Concepts introduced the email system, which kept players ?in the know’ regarding all NFL incidents via the media, as well as team owners commenting on performance. This time around, that system has been improved upon and you’ll be able to gather more news on your virtual desktop. News such as team scouting reports, injury updates, and ESPN’s very own power ranking system (think college football top25 but with a decidedly NFL twist).
Another treat is the presence of ESPN’s weekly recap show, NFL Primetime. After each completed week, you’ll be able to review all of the past week’s game scores and even some highlights of them are thrown into the mix, too. This feature alone adds some value to the franchise mode because it makes you actually think you’re watching an authentic ESPN broadcast.
One major thing that hurts the franchise mode, though, is the unrealistic amount of tackles amounted by linebackers in the simulated games. I know Lavar Arrington is one of the better linebackers in the NFL, but there’s no way he should be coming out with 230 tackles in a season. It also ends up hurting stats for other positions on defense, too; so stat freaks aren?t going to particularly enjoy that. Let’s hope Visual Concepts fix this for any future installments. In the off-season, you have to manage player contracts and even have the option of talking players out of retirement. So, if you don’t think Jerry Rice should hang it up just yet, you have a say in trying to woo him into staying.
After that, you have the Combine, where you scout players for the upcoming draft. During this time you can also look at an ESPN mock draft to get an idea of who will be the best person to pick when it’s time to choose. One small complaint here is that, around week 8 of the season, you can start looking at the rookies in the draft. That’s all well and good, but it also has their combine numbers there, too. (???) This is another obvious glitch that needs to be addressed in next year’s version. Following that you have the draft, which is one of the more pleasant features of the game. While the draft is under way, you’ll have every piece of required information at your fingertips. Heck, there’s even a PDA that suggests the best picks for you, but if you did your scouting right that won’t be needed. With all those things done, you should be ready to challenge for the top spot for seasons to come.