Reviewed: August 23, 2004
Reviewed by: Travis Young
Released: July 20, 2004
Thereís nothing like a friendly little rivalry between game studios to benefit the evolution of a franchise, and this year ESPN is hell-bent on not only annihilating the competition, but dominating the sports genre across all consoles for all sports.
The first game in their 2005 sports lineup is ESPN NFL 2K5, and not only is it the best football game in their own personal history of the franchise, itís the best football game of the year. Thatís right, step aside Madden 2005. You might have Xbox Live (a year too late) and some killer defense this year, but NFL 2K5 gives you the best overall package, both in gameplay, presentation, and price.
At only $19 (and you can find it for $15) youíll be able to pick up Segaís hat trick (NFL, NBA, NHL), all for the cost of a single sports title from those other publishers. And even if money isnít an issue, youíll still be getting the best game for the best price.
Back again this year is the Crib, a special area where you can hang out between games, your own virtual penthouse if you will, that you can decorate with countless furnishings from various catalogs you unlock during gameplay. View records, play movies, check out your bobble head collection or take your friends on a tour through your trophy room. The game room is also back with all of your favorite mini-games, air-hockey, trivia, and a new dart game with 301 and Cricket.
Rather than arbitrarily unlocking Crib items, this year everything is based on Crib Credits, an elaborate point system that rewards excellence in gameplay and achieving certain milestones. Almost everything you do from kicking a 40yd FG to completing a 50yd TD pass or running back a kickoff will earn you points. Likewise, fumbles, sacks, and INTís will deduct points. You can earn hundreds of points each game and are even rewarded points for each hour you play NFL 2K5.
You can then spend those credits in your Crib where you are free to buy and place items as you see fit. The cool thing about this system is that everyoneís 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.
The biggest feature to hit any sports game ever is the new VIP (Virtual Identity Profile) system making its grand debut in NFL 2K5. The concept is so simple I canít believe somebody hasnít done it before and if every developer of sports games isnít doing something similar next year their games will be casually dismissed. In a nutshell, the VIP system is your own personal AI profile. Not only does it log your default team and playbook, it keeps an ongoing statistical record of how you play the game along with your Crib Credit tally and apartment customizations.
Basically, the more you play the more the computer learns how you play and can recreate an AI based on your VIP. Are you seeing the potential yet? Whenever you have friends over you can have them create their own VIP file then, even when they arenít there, you can still play like they were with the computer simulating their actions based on past trends. The VIP tracks your running and passing game as well as which sides of the field you favor. It maintains a list of your favorite plays and player preferences and so much more. Ready for the ultimate challenge Ė play your own VIP and it will appear that the computer is reading your mind.
Naturally, Sega has provided a lengthy list of VIP files that you can choose from including coaches from all over the league as well as a few celebrities like Carmen Electra, Steve-O, and Jamie Kennedy. There is even an option to download new VIP files via Xbox Live, although as of this review there arenít any. I can definitely see the potential for some major NFL players, and perhaps coaches, to record their VIP and make it available for you to download.
FirstPerson Football is back, and while that unique perspective was an interesting diversion last year, there is just too much other good stuff to occupy your time. Still, if you want the ultimate in realism, at least from a QB perspective, then definitely check this mode out. There are a few subtle tweaks that make this even better than it was last year.
ESPN 2K5 offers several game modes including the traditional Practice, Quick Game, Tournament and a new and improved Franchise mode. Last yearís game was a great introduction into the Franchise gameplay, especially for novices, and while 2K5 remains just as accessible, there are plenty of enhancements to keep the hardcore fans appeased.
For those of you who like to micromanage every aspect of your team, you now have the option to train each week prior to game day. You can choose how much time your players spend in the gym, watching videos, and even what type of pre-game speech you will be delivering. This is an excellent concept that will reward your knowledge of the upcoming opposing teamís abilities by allowing you to fine-tune your players with an almost RPG-like accuracy.
Keeping things simple, yet powerful, the free agent, contract negotiations, and off-season management elements have been enhanced giving you more options in an easier-to-manipulate interface. Screens are intuitive and updated in real-time to show your cash flow over several seasons, so when it comes time to offer that signing bonus you wonít be violating your salary cap.
Online action is huge this year with the addition of League Play that allows you to setup your own online seasons and tournaments then track the stats online via any web browser. Massive statistical information is logged and a real-time scoreboard is always ready for browsing. If you just want to jump in for a quick game you still have OptiMatch or you can create or search for a game to suit a variety of personal preferences. There is even an option to download your opponentís VIP file. It just doesnít get any better than this.
The new 25th Anniversary Mode will be a big hit with older gamers who want to relive, replay, and possible rewrite those legendary plays from football history. Itís a concept that is becoming more and more popular with sports games and ESPN manages to dig into the history books for some excellent trips down memory lane.
Sega has delivered the content, but how about that gameplay? While there are a few very minor nagging issues, most of NFL 2K5 is pure perfection, a balanced game of running and passing, offense and defense, and excellent AI that gets even better when you substitute your favorite VIP.
Obviously targeted for novices, the out-of-the-box game is admittedly a cakewalk and experienced players will want to head straight for the All-Pro difficulty setting. Pro offers a moderate challenge, especially if the teams are mismatched in favor of the computer, but you are always free to go into the game options and tweak numerous sliders and toggles.
Ask anyone who has ever played me online or off and they will tell you I prefer an air attack when playing offense. NFL 2K5ís passing game is better than ever but their running game has been tweaked to the point where once I tried it my 80-20 preference for the pass play quickly shifted to about a 60-40 split. Perhaps some of that was due to the enhanced defense that was picking off more passes than I was used to.
Iíve never had this much fun with a running game as I have with NFL 2K5. With one-button presses for jukes, stiff-arm, and spin moves, you can create some elaborate runs that weave through the defensive line. Even so, the defense is bigger and better than ever with aggressive AI that will swarm the guy with the ball, break lines, and get some surprising sacks.
Physics have never been better and your players actually have momentum that prevents them from reversing on a dime. If you spin or juke you lose a tremendous amount of your speed. Physics play a huge part in the tackles that can unfold in near-countless ways. All of the animations flow together so smoothly and instantly; the response of the player to your controls has never been better, whether you are pushing off a tackle or doing a diving roll for a low incoming pass.
The playbooks are excellent, again color-coded for passing and running plays, and you can pick from any book in the league. The game will also keep track of your favorite plays and you can quickly access those from a Favorites sub-section in the playbook. If you are ever unsure of what play to pick you can click a button to show you the ďCoachís PickĒ, but you are always free to ignore the advice. Audibles are just a button-press away if you want to mix things up at the line.
ESPN 2K5, much like this yearís Madden, has seen a huge improvement in defense. Maximum Tackle gives you unprecedented freedom in choosing how you hit your man. There are also new pre-snap setups that allow you to change individual DB and LB strategies so you can blitz the QB or double-up on a receiver.
After the snap, expect some aggressive AI that will sneak through your lines and force an early pass, pick off your pass or swat them to the ground, and dive for fumbles. There seems to be an abundance of batted balls this year but not as many interceptions. Youíll see two or three guys bobbling the ball down field only to have it fall to the ground, incomplete.
ESPN 2K5 packs a double whammy when it comes to visuals. Weíll start with the important stuff, namely gameplay graphics. The players in this yearís game are undeniably the best ever, both in their construction and their texture and lighting. Each player is realistically matched to their real-life counterpart, not only in facial textures, but in height and weight, which directly translates to speed and agility.
All of the animations are brilliantly mo-capped and chained together with seamless perfection so whether you are running, jumping, spinning, or performing any of the bone-crunching tackles, every movement combines to create animation that will have you believing you are watching an ESPN broadcast. Stadiums look fantastic as do the crowds of fans. Natural grass will wear down to brown dirt on heavy traffic areas as grass stains players' pants. Snow accumulates on the field then wears away during play and rain will reduce visibility and make the ball more slippery causing increased fumbles and incompletes.
Realistic facial textures border on photo-realistic and when combined with some of the best fabric textures (yes you can see wrinkles in the jerseys), and self-shadowing lighting, you have the most realistic looking football ever seen on a console. Lighting also plays an increasingly important part of the gameplay when it comes to environmental lighting, not so much during indoor games, but now the outdoor games feature various times of day. Sunset games can cast long dark shadows across the field that actual makes the game tougher to play.
Then we have all the superfluous material that fleshes out the presentation value of the NFL experience. The cheerleaders, while not terribly important to gameplay, have been greatly improved upon from the trolls dancing on the sidelines last year. Then you have countless between-play animations, fans cheering, doing the wave, holding up signs with actual player names and number, players saying ďHi MomĒ into the camera or talking on the phone, and more.
As of this review I have played 44 games and I am still seeing new stuff. Sometimes youíll see tailgaters partying in the parking lot or people coming in through the stands. Once, I even saw security escorting a couple of guys from the bleachers who were stealing seats. Then you have all sorts of wonderful post-play and end zone celebrations. There is even a celebration editor that allows you to queue up your favorite dances then bust a celebratory move after a righteous score.
Last but certainly not least is the ESPN presentation factor. Chris Berman is back for his trademark pre-game, halftime, and post-game reports. During the game you get all of the TV-style presentation with animated charts and diagrams showing rushing and passing performance, replays with chalk lines, player profile cards, and loads of extra graphical touches. In single-player games the gameplay window will shrink down so you can still see replays and the team huddling up while you pick your plays. This is great for keeping you connected with the game the entire time.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of ESPN 2K5 is the halftime and post-game show that recaps the events from the previous half with surreal detail. Every significant play is stored on the Xbox hard drive and when combined with the absolute best and most accurate play-by-play commentary from Chris, you will feel like you are watching him on ESPN rather than your Xbox. I canít begin to imagine the programming required to create this dynamically flowing commentary.
The sound package mirrors the visuals in quality and presentation. After 60 hours Iím still hearing new music, partly because I purchased some music in my Crib but also due to the fact that each stadium has its own selection of music. As long as you travel for a few away games you will always hear some great new tunes.
You can also add your own music, create custom soundtracks, and assign tracks to certain events like a TD celebration or a certain tune after a sack. I canít imagine ever needing to do this, as the included music is sports-tacular, with thumping techno, hip-hop, and even some NFL stadium rock.
Sound effects are wonderful, accurate, and perfectly placed. The Xbox version features a rich Dolby Digital mix with powerful base and excellent spatial effects. The circular calibration meter allows you to position your listening position in a sphere of sound for optimum effect.
Speech rounds out the fantastic audio presentation. There is a large and varied assortment of trash talk as players form up on the line. Admittedly, if you play with the same team over and over you will hear some repeats, but most of the lines are hilarious and delivered with typical NFL bravado.
Commentary is downright scary in its accuracy, both during the game and the lengthy halftime and post shows. Players are always called out by name and the announcers will always chime in with their own personal advice when you are trying to convert on 4th down rather than take an easy FG, or go for it rather than punt when you are deep in your own territory. There are a few buggy calls where the guys in the booth confuse a first down for a TD, but NFL 2K5 is the uncontested champ in commentary.
If you love football and you love a great bargain then you have come to the right place. ESPN NFL 2K5 is going to give you virtually endless replay, not only with the core game modes but the stellar online play and 25th Anniversary challenges will keep you playing until 2K6 arrives. Youíll spend hours just messing around with your Crib.
NFL 2K5 has a very strong online component and the new tournament structure and web access opens up all sorts of possibilities for researching and organizing games or complex tournament seasons. The network code is highly optimized and there was seldom any noticeable lag or other issues while playing online. The only concession I could see was that replays during the halftime and post-game shows were replaced with still images rather than video.
Best of all, the very best football game of 2004 is only $19. Skip Madden and head right to the real thing and use that extra $30 to buy a new controller or a case of beer (import recommended), or how about the rest of the ESPN sports line-up coming out later this year.
ESPN Videogames sent out a warning to the rest of the sports gaming world with last yearís game and this year they have dealt a fatal blow to the competition. Sure, there are thousands of die-hard Madden fans who will remain in denial and line-up for their copy of Madden 2005 like the Lemmings they are, but anyone who plays ESPN NFL 2K5 will know the truth after their very first game.
NFL 2K5 not only has the best gameplay, both in accuracy and pure fun factor, but the entire game is wrapped up in an ESPN presentation that is worthy of being watched on Sunday with a group of friends. And your friends are going to have a blast creating their own VIP files then decorating their own Cribs and when they go home you can play their VIP files so you can own them the next time you play together. Simply put, this is one NFL game you wonít be able to put down.