ESPN NFL 2K5
A good friend once said to me that you should always keep things simple, especially if you know nothing about the matter at hand. All I really know about American Football is there seems to be an advert break every few seconds, the players run into each other from squat positions after said break, one guy runs back a bit with the ball before throwing it to another guy 30 feet in front of him, who gets mauled into the ground before the next ad break. Itís not my cup of tea, I’d rather watch paint dry (or the cheerleaders, to be fair) than the average game of NFL. Even the Superbowl this year failed to attract my attention away from a football match I’d recorded onto DVD from Sky a few days before, Accrington Stanley versus another similarly obscure Conference side.
The games surrounding the NFL really do attract my attention, though not nearly enough as PES4. Something about randomly selecting a tactic from the playbook beforehand (I found that the one with the most arrows usually suffices in confusing the opposition as well as myself), passing back to the bloke who does the throwing and waiting until the opposition are literally on top of you before releasing one of those slow-motion super-Hollywood throws to the guy running for his ‘momma into the endzone is strangely satisfying, even without a belly full of Guinness.
Browsing the net, I get the impression that maybe things aren’t that different on the other side of the pond that they call the Atlantic Ocean. Madden seems to be the all singing, all dancing full licensed fat reducing grilling machine only without Georgy Foreman’s name on it, developed by the same people who obviously have no idea as to what constitutes to a football game (FIFA). ESPN on the other hand raises a few questions when confronted by licensing, the graphics aren’t as big-budgeted as the EA boys over there, and perhaps attention to detail is looked at through a pair of binoculars and not the Hubble Space Telescope. The Americanised Pro Evolution Soccer, if you will. I think you can see where this is going.
For the purpose of this review, I rented out the latest Madden offering, and to be frank, this here ESPN title literally pisses all over EA. But what would I know? Iím just a skinny limey with bad teeth. Apparently.
One thing I really cant get my head round is the amount of features packed in here which have no direct contact with the gameplay; The Crib, for example, is something that should instantly be kicked over here to Britain and implemented into every single Football game that lands on our shelves. As you progress through the game, winning various challenges and trophies and stuff you unlock catalogs and earn points. Come into The Crib and you can furnish your very own pad with team-embroided items. Remember the novelty of Football team badge bed linen? Go to sleep with Eric Cantona sticking in one in the corner at Old Trafford on your bed sheet whilst resting your head on the club badge. In here there’s lamps with the appropriate shades, table mats etc along with a trivia machine. This is purely insane yet very compelling; just the thought of having my own virtual pad in which hang signed photos of Johnny Haynes and George Cohen along with George Best as my personal drunk colleague sends me into dreamland. You can also unlock various cheats and clips of film through the catalogs such as interviews with players, coaches, teams and developers. Amazing. Why was it only Codemasters, developer and publisher of the infamously average Club Football series who thought of offering a slimmed down version of this in unlockable cards?
Venturing into the Features section, there’s tons more that you can chop and change within this game. Roster manager, team and player creators, historic teams etc are usually expected unless you hail from the EA camp, but the option to change player celebrations? Madness! The option to change stadium music? Where the hell did they think all of this up? And stats! Oh my dear god, this is statistics-mad heaven! Find out your 3rd and 4th down percentage, there’s a passing chart, a rushing and passing yard comparison graph and a red zone efficiency table. Know what that means? No, nor do I, but it’s pretty cool having them there anyway.
And then the game modes - crikey, they never left a damned thing out here, did they? Franchise mode, which is a fancy name for ’season’, has all the usual trimming such as the largely confusing (for me, at least) drafting. First Person Football is one of the best viewpoints in a sports game Iíve ever come across since witnessing first hand the sensational split-screen multiplayer fest on Libero Grande back in the PSOne days. ESPN 25th Anniversary lets you go back in time to specific match dates and events and allows you to try and overcome the odds- much like the old historic mode back in one of them FIFA’s where you had ten minutes match time to score two goals as Manchester United against Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final. I love stuff like this, nothing like a bit of nostalgia here and there. Thereís a practice mode with my name written all over it as well as the bog standard tournament option which pits you against other teams in knock-out format. My personal favourite, despite close contention from the fantastic First Person Football and Anniversary modes, is Situation, otherwise known as Exhibition. The difference here is you can choose when to drop in to play, not just in quarters but in overtime, the score, time remaining, current down etc right down to how many yards from the endzone you are. I’ve been dreaming of stuff like this since I ever got involved with Football, and that’s not the American type. We Europeans are starved of such greatness.
Once out on the pitch, it becomes clear that ESPN really is the PES of the American Football world as gameplay really does take centre stage over the graphics. Don’t get me wrong; it’s clear to see who’s who out there, where the ball is etc, but there’s no gloss or shine such as in the Madden titles. Itís the lack of attention to detail which spoils it- the playing surface is perhaps the dullest shade of green you’ll ever see, the crowd is blurred and repeat animations after a very short time, and any other human that isn’t involved directly in the game lack the finish of the players. They resemble more of that of the Sims than NFL players, which is a real shame and really stands out as a glaring fault.
Otherwise, Iím struggling to find a fault. I’ve already mentioned that I don’t understand the concept of the sport, and that randomly selecting a play and then holding back the ball until the opportune moment is the basis of my play. Thereís not really any way to describe how great the gameplay here is other than “fun”, because that’s what it is. Players seem to jump for the ball convincingly, buckling under the strain of body armour, throwing the ball has that lovely direct quality to it and moving is pretty easy too; my downside was defending, and Iím sure that it’s no fault of the game, I just need to be more eagle eyed. Intercepting isn’t as easy as it looks and quite often I find myself just driving forward to try and clatter into the guy holding the ball before he throws it. But it’s so God damn fun.
I also own NFL Street, made by the ‘evil’ opposition, and whilst I prefer the simplicity of EA Big’s title, ESPN has got me hooked on the professional side of football, if not only to fill up my virtual house full of football clobber. If you like your football serious but simple, then ESPN NFL 2005 is quite simply a match made in heaven for you. And that’s coming from a soccer crazed Brit.
Nine out of ten