Reviewed: November 7, 2003
Reviewed by: Travis Young
Released: September 2, 2003
Move over Madden. Step aside Fever. We have a new reigning champion for football this year. Of course I am talking about ESPN NFL Football, the next installment in the ongoing series of sports titles from Sega.
Sega has been delivering great sports titles since the golden days of the Dreamcast. Once they decided to drop the hardware and concentrate on multi-platform software development things have only gotten better. This year they’ve added the ESPN brand name to their sports titles, but rather than relying on those four magic letters to sell the game they have actually infused the game with the very essence of ESPN, the presentation, the style, the music, the commentary. No other sports title has ever achieved this level of authenticity; both in the re-creation of the actual sport and the way millions of fans view it.
I could dazzle you with a bulleted list of features, but suffice to say that just about every aspect of this game has been enhanced and improved upon from last year’s efforts (which weren’t too shabby to begin with). Graphics and sound are vastly improved and the entire presentation has been given the ESPN treatment with menus, display screens, and visual overlays that can (and will) fool the casual observer into thinking you are watching an actual ESPN broadcast.
To enhance the peripheral game experience there are some innovative features like the Crib, a special area that lets you hang out between games, sort of like your own virtual clubhouse where you can view records, manage your unlocked bonus goodies, and even enjoy a dip in the hot tub – Hey! Where are the cheerleaders when you need them?
You can earn all sorts of cool items by completing specific tasks such as achieving statistical goals, and then you can place these items throughout your Crib to personalize the game. The cool thing about this system is that everyone’s Crib will be unique and with only a quick glance you can tell how long and how well a person has been playing the game. Many of the items also come with a game-enhancing counterpart like a cheat or a free agent. The whole thing mirrors the Madden Card system only with a much cooler façade.
When you are tired of actually playing the core football game you can head to the Crib for some Bar Trivia, or how about a rousing gaming of air hockey or paper football. Check out the TV and watch any unlocked movies you have earned. The Crib is perhaps the coolest innovation in a sports title since designers were able to add semi-realistic commentary. Once you experience it you won’t be able to play any game that doesn’t have a similar interface.
Of course the biggest draw, or at least the most hyped feature of ESPN Football is the new first-person view that puts you on the field and in the helmet of your chosen player. This was a hot and cold experience for me. I was really amped to check this mode out but when I did I really didn’t like it…at first. It’s about the same “shock” as switching from chase view to cockpit camera on driving games after you have been playing them from outside the car for several years.
It could be said that traditional football games give you an unfair advantage by allowing you to see things real players could never process. Putting you in the helmet certainly restricts your view but it also creates one of the most realistic aspects of a football game since the genre was born. What could have been easily dismissed as “just another replay view” is actually a very functional playing perspective that offers a stunning realism.
To help ease you into this new mode is the ability to slow down time and allow you to scan the field and make important strategic decisions. Implementing a “bullet-time” system into a sports title was a risky move but Visual Concepts pulled it off brilliantly. It will help you compensate for the limited vision without giving you an unfair advantage over the other team.
ESPN Football offers several game modes including the traditional Practice, Quick Game, Tournament and a surprisingly fleshed out Franchise mode. Football veterans will love all the ESPN goodness infused into the Franchise mode while rookies will enjoy the intuitive interface and email system that walks you through the often complicated process of managing a football team. If you’ve never dabbled in a football franchise mode before then this is the game to learn on – it doesn’t get any better than this.
I’ve been playing the NFL 2K series since it debuted on the Dreamcast and it has had its fair share of ups and downs during its life. There were definitely some hiccups when Sega dropped the Dreamcast and started developing for the other console and NFL 2K3 nearly broke my love affair with the franchise. Thankfully, Visual Concepts has gotten their act together and fixed all of the old problems without adding any new ones.
ESPN NFL Football is a much more polished and balanced gameplay experience that offers a perfect mix of ground and air assaults combined with some of the best AI of any football series. The running game is as close to perfection as I have seen in any game to date, not only in the way the plays unfold but the subtle animations and the way the players interact with each other on the line and after the snap.
Gameplay has been slightly exaggerated with the ability to sprint using a special meter you can power-up to execute some dazzling ground attacks. These turbo charged runs are in no way as over-the-top as you might find in a Blitz title and do not take away from the realism or seriousness of this sports simulation. Gamers who can master the fine combination of the new running moves along with the sprinting abilities will be able to cover massage yardage on the ground and you might even find your punt return average going up this year.
The downside to the enhanced running game is that it is now much harder to chase down the lone runner with a lone defensive player. Almost every tackle seems to be a team effort, but once you realize this and start picking your defensive plays to compensate everything balances out.
One of the newer aspects of football to make it into this game is the ability to challenge the ref’s calls. This has been attempted in other games with little to no success, but in ESPN the refs actually make the occasional “bad call” and if you are observant enough to catch it the ability to challenge their call will certainly pay off.
The interface for picking plays has been totally revamped and is now much more intuitive and follows the conventions of all the other sports titles. These playbooks also allow you to flip the formation, substitute players, and tweak the base play with a few button presses. You now have unprecedented control over your team prior to the snap and audibles are easy to pull off and are now formation specific. A quick touch of a button brings up the routes your receivers will be taking.
Bouncing back and forth between the Xbox and PS2 versions of ESPN Football I have to admit that the controls are actually better on the Dual Shock, mainly because the extra shoulder buttons are just a bit more accessible than the black and white buttons on the Xbox.
The only football game that looks better than ESPN NFL Football on the PS2 is NFL Football on the Xbox and only by the slightest of margins in the subtlest of details. The biggest enhancement to this year’s game is the total ESPN facelift that can easily fool the casual observer into thinking you are watching a real game rather than playing a console title. All of those high-tech CG NFL graphics, logos, and multimedia glitz you see every weekend are now embedded right into the game for a total network presentation.
The menus, the opening segments, replays, halftime reports, post game coverage, its all there and it all looks amazing. It just gives the game that added flair that Madden and Fever and even previous Sega Sports games have been lacking in the past years.
The stadiums all look fantastic with realistic crowds occupying the stands and plenty of activity on the sidelines with coaches, players, cheerleaders, photographers, etc. Being a huge stalker…err..fan of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders I was a bit upset that the cheerleader models are not entirely realistic or even that attractive. Then again, this is a football game and I’d rather the developers put their time and effort into the players and not the scenery.
Players look fantastic, created from some of the best human models ever seen in a sports video game. The bodies are finally designed around realistic proportions and there are no “creepy” eyes or high-gloss helmets. Every last detail from their uniforms and protective gear down to their photo realistic faces will have you convinced you are watching the real game on ESPN.
But it ain’t over yet. Just wait until you see these guys in motion. The animation is truly breathtaking, fluid, and flawless, composed of several individual segments then chained together in seamless perfection. Unlike some other football games I have recently played where the game “forces” the player to meet the ball, everything seems to flow naturally.
Replays are stunning and the computer manages to pick the perfect camera for the coolest coverage. The presentation is also mixed between standard game replays or sometimes it will be presented like a network replay with a statistical analysis. The only thing missing is the Madden Chalkboard…oops, wrong game. The gameplay cameras are just as good with several options to choose from that dictate the perspective, angle, and a fixed zoom level. And don’t forget about that first-person helmet cam – it’s not just for replays even though there is some minor clipping issues that crop up, but nothing too terrible.
When you’ve been playing sports games for the past ten years like me you get kind of jaded, so when a game comes along that sounds as amazing as NFL Football it almost sends a shiver down my spine.
When I say it’s “amazing” I not only mean the quality, but also the content beginning with the broadcast booth staffed by ESPN veteran, Chris Berman. Chris is there for his Halftime Report along with pre and post game analysis. The entire audio presentation just smacks of ESPN goodness.
There is a surprising amount of accuracy maintained throughout the entire game and in some sort of crazy twisted way the game actually seems to “remember” stuff and comment on previous plays later in the game. The way the commentary relates to the ongoing action or when it makes intelligent comments about the previous play during a replay is downright scary at times. You’d swear Chris is sitting on the couch next to you.
There is a lot of original commentary, mostly player and team specific comments which is a double-edged sword. While it gives you a refreshingly original and often insightful commentary track the first few times you play the game, sooner or later you are going to hear the same comments over again.
The atmosphere is reproduced to perfection with amazing crowd sounds that exist on multiple levels. Cheers and boos reflect the ref calls and there is plenty of trash talking between the players that is often funny and even a bit helpful at times. It’s easier to hear the player chatter down on the grass in the first-person view mode.
Music is a mix of signature ESPN theme music that you hear every weekend. Turn this game on and crank it up and watch a dozen guys rush into the room with a case of beer wondering what game they almost missed.
If you love football then you have come to the right place. ESPN NFL Football is going to give you virtually endless replay, not only with the core game modes but the new Challenges will keep you working toward decorating the ultimate Crib.
NFL Football also comes with a very strong online component. While I generally prefer the structured community of Xbox Live over the P2P setup of the PS2 I had no trouble hooking up with other console quarterbacks online. The network code is highly optimized and there was seldom any noticeable lag or other issues while playing online with a cable modem. You can even use a USB headset to enhance your online experience.
The new online League feature allows you to access the ESPN Videogames website, even from your PC so you can check out your league standings. This is a nice feature but not quite as advanced as the new XSN Sports Network that Microsoft has going on with it’s first-party games. The game offers a lobby to hook-up and create or join games but it just seems too basic and not very organized at this time. Even the leader board tracks only simple stats and rankings.
The PS2 version also supports the multitap, so you can setup some impressive multiplayer games consisting of 4-on-4 offline or how about 16-player matches online. One especially nice feature is the connection quality display that shows just how good the connections are for anyone playing in your match. There’s a pretty good group of guys out there playing and not too many “lamers” who drop connection when they start to lose.
SEGA and Visual Concepts have taken the sport of football to the next level. ESPN NFL Football is a near-flawless gameplay experience that not only rivals Madden and Fever but storms past these two former contenders and into the end zone for a clear and decisive victory.
Needless to say, if you aren’t already on your way to the store to pick up this outstanding game what are you waiting for? It doesn’t get any better than this whether you are playing alone, with friends locally, or even with a group of strangers online. This is football at its very finest.