Reviewed by Lucien
November 26th 2003
ESPN NFL is the latest from Sega's upstart series, NFL 2k. It came out of nowhere
four years ago to successfully challenge Madden as the best football game.
Despite the name change, ESPN continues its brilliance and provides both excellent
single- and multiplayer gameplay.
The Game: ESPN NFL comes with a variety of modes, including the standards quick game, season, tournament, franchise, and online. A new addition is the oft-talked about first person mode. This is a truly unique experience that is fun to mess around with, but ultimately doesn't offer enough to play full time. Running the ball in first person is excellent, with a meter in the bottom of the screen to help see where the defenders are coming from. Going up the middle will give you a new respect for running backs, and for the linemen that block. Passing the ball is not as much fun, as it can be tough to see all the available receivers. It is, without a doubt, an extremely fun mode but not one with which to go through an entire franchise. It's simply more efficient to play with the regular camera angles.
The gameplay in ESPN NFL, while not the most realistic, is still superb, especially when it comes to dealing with the computer AI. The controls are simple and handle extremely well, giving you full control over the player. Timing a juke or stiff arm is pretty intuitive, and the ability to charge up a move adds a bit of on-the-fly strategy when running with the ball. The charge button and the sprint button are one and the same, meaning you can only do one or the other. Do you sprint for those few extra yards and a possible first down, or charge up a juke and attempt an even bigger gain? Another control change is that of the diving tackle. It's been reduced so no longer can you dive five yards to make a tackle. It's now used more to just add some power to your tackle.
Both the running and passing game have received some minor tweaks, but they were good to begin with. The hole on a run play won't always appear where it should, forcing you to make quick adjustments. A dominant offensive line is drastically different from a mediocre one, and the halfback will automatically twist his body sideways to avoid running into his own linemen. With an arsenal of moves like the juke, spin, stiff arm, and simply attempting to demolish a defender, running the ball is just fun. And each move seems to have its appropriate moment. Don't expect to overpower Urlacher, as a spin or stiff arm would work better, but if all that stands between you and a touchdown is a weak cornerback, going through him is probably the best bet.
The passing game is pretty spot on, especially with Maximum Passing enabled. This allows you to lead the receiver by moving the left thumbstick in the instant before the ball is thrown. It takes a short while to get used to, but it really allows you to either hit the receiver in stride or to place the ball in a place where only the he can catch it. Although this does cause some annoying problems when passing on the run, it's well worth learning. Even without Maximum Passing, throwing the ball is still excellent. Cornerbacks who are a few yards behind the receiver won't suddenly close the gap to make the tackle and it seems that incomplete passes caused by hitting the receivers at the instant of the catch has been toned down drastically. This alleviates one of the biggest frustrations from last year's game. Another great tweak is that you can gang tackle. This means no more bouncing off a receiver as he's slipping out of the grip of another defender. You even alter the direction of the ball carrier when assisting in a tackle.
The computer-controlled teams behave like their real life counterparts for the most part. The Falcons will force you to keep a linebacker or two on Vick, and the Raiders will exploit any weaknesses in your secondary. Teams will throw a nice variety of defenses at you, and the AI seems pretty adept at picking out your preferences. That out pattern that worked brilliantly twice before on third down will get picked off when the defense switches to a zone 2. This means there are no real "money" plays that you can run to get guaranteed yardage. On offense, the computer is just as adept. Blitz too much and you'll watch a screen play net some big yardage.
ESPN NFL's franchise mode is pretty solid, but not as involved as Madden's Owner's mode. An email system alerts you to news occurring in the league, and gives support or critique from the owner on your performance so far. It's a simple, yet deep interface, and each email gives quick links to the relevant information. For example, when the trainer tells you about a key injury to your best linebacker, a simple press of the A button will take you to your depth chart to make necessary adjustments. Signing free agents and drafting rookies is very tight, and working within the budget of the salary cap makes it all the more interesting. Drafting is done just like last year. You're given a certain number of hours to scout the incoming rookie pool. Spend one hour on a player and you'll see only general stats. Use a full three hours and you can see each and every statistic. This requires a lot of thought and preparation before going into draft day; no more automatically getting the best rookie available. Also gone are the days of swindling the A.I. during trades. Rarely will you make a deal in which you profit greatly over the computer. One minor criticism of trades is the trading block system. The computer will offer a deal for players on the block, but when you try to accept, it will ask for more (sometimes a lot more). Instead of just working out the details, it pretty much forces you to hammer out a deal from the ground up. Overall, however, the franchise mode is a great experience.
A new (and great) addition is the Crib. This is a way of rewarding various feats, ranging from simply playing for an hour to making a 99 yard touchdown run. The Crib looks like the wing of a big name athlete’s mansion. There's a lounge area, tv room, pool room, a bar, and a hot tub. You can tweak the floor boards, furniture, posters, and tons of other things. Each reward garners either a new trophy for the display cases, or something else to decorate your crib. Simply by walking through someone's crib you can tell how much they've accomplished in-game. The true reward is showing it off to your friends.
Online play is solid, with plenty of options for finding games and checking stats. I experienced lag in a few games, but that was few and far between and was definitely not the norm. One much-needed addition this year is a timer during the pause screen in multiplayer. Anyone who played NFL 2k3 online remembers that a losing player could just hit pause and leave the game there for hours at a time, forcing the winning player to eventually quit the game and forfeit. Thankfully, those losers can't bore me into forfeiting anymore.
Graphics & Sound: ESPN NFL looks sharp, very sharp. A large part of the easy control and great gameplay is just how smooth the game looks. The animations move fluidly and really immerse you into the football game. Players look realistic with running backs not as big as linemen or as tall as receivers. The use of the ESPN logo is prevalent and well done, and truly makes the game feel like a presentation of Sunday Night Football. The field will show signs of wear and tear when playing on real grass, and the players' uniforms will also get progressively dirtier. Each team's stadium looks excellent, with the nice touch of both team and player specific banners. Even the sidelines look good with more 3d characters and animation than last year's effort.
The sound is equally impressive. Tackles sound like they hurt (especially when playing in first person mode) and players grunt or yell appropriately. Both the crowd and the commentary is pretty tight with the action on the field, which draws you further into the game. It's also nice to hear the linebackers calling out for someone to pick up the man in motion, or shouting whether it's a run or pass play. The ESPN music during the menus gets old quickly, and ESPN NFL allows you to play custom soundtracks off your Xbox's hard drive. This might be the single best improvement in sound over last year's edition.
Innovation: With first person mode, ESPN NFL branches out into virgin territory. Although not as great as the hype made it out to be, it's still nonetheless an exciting addition that is fun to play. I was very pleasantly surprised to see how well developed it was. Although sounding like nothing more than a gimmick, it's very well fleshed out. The crib mode stands head and shoulders above all other sports games' methods of rewarding the devoted player. The amount of unlockables in this game is astounding. It's not limited to just decorating you crib, either. You can unlock soundtracks and video clips from a plethora of previous Sega games like Jet Grind Radio and NFL 2k2. Some rewards even influence gameplay: cheat codes and bonus free agents (both real and fictitious) can be uncovered. Also new is the ability to gang tackle the ball carrier, a much needed feature for football games that is well executed.
Mojo: Tons of mojo. The animations, sounds, A.I., just everything is well done. The crib mode, however, truly stands out as reeking of coolness. Especially when you can cruise through a friend's version and see the differences between the two. Customizable soundtracks make navigating the offseason menus so much more enjoyable, although that mojo factor is dependent on what music is stored on your Xbox.
Lowdown: ESPN NFL hits all the sweet spots. With rock solid gameplay, that's realistic with just a dash of arcade, it wouldn't matter what the game looked like. Fortunately, Sega threw in gorgeous graphics. And with a pinch of top-notch sound, you have a game with all the right ingredients.
Gameplay: 9, Graphics/Sound: 9, Innovation: 9, Mojo: 9 . Final: 9
GOTY WINNER: BEST SPORTS GAME OF 2003