Visual Concepts
Sega
Sports
1-4
09.04.03

ESPN NFL Football


In case you haven't realized it by now, ESPN NFL Football is really NFL 2K4. It says Sega 2K4 in the corner of the box as well. Now with ESPN Football in its name, it's a true ESPN game. Before I start the review, I just have a few things I need to get off my chest. It's a shame the marketing for this title is hardly present. How can there be EA Sports sponsorship/advertising on ESPN (television network)? How can they show so much Madden on ESPN TV at all? They should have had Sega's ESPN game all over the network, no matter what the issue was. It just makes no sense.

Besides that, this game makes last year's version look like a piece of crap. I don't mean to be so harsh about 2K3, but it makes me wonder what I was thinking when I gave NFL 2K3 the score I did. This is something that Visual Concepts is known for doing though, and that is changing and making their games better every year.

Gameplay

There's a lot of cool new features that you should know about. First things first…VC brought back the lateral. Thank goodness. The absence of this feature in last year's NFL 2K3 was missed greatly by me. They also fixed the diving distance. You can still dive far and make a tackle, but just not really far like in previous 2K editions. The Y button works a hundred times better than last year's version (for blocking on defense). When attempting to block a field goal, your player will actually jump this time! Last year it just seemed like this feature was locked. Lastly, no more hard-to-press button format. Last year's version was a killer with that, and that button format hindered gameplay.

The overall gameplay is way smoother than any other NFL 2K game that I have ever played. With that said, the controls are much more responsive. NFL 2K3 was a little clunky when compared to 2K4. When you move a linemen, he moves with ease, and does not accidentally go offsides. Also, if you move a lineman around, but still want to shift the defense, you can because it resets as if you didn't move. Last year was difficult and a little confusing. When you're switching in between defensive players, you can now go back one, instead of going through them all just to get to the guy you wanted to control in the first place. The bottom line, all of the little things that bothered me from NFL 2K3 are all fixed now.

The ESPN usage is totally different and completely overhauled. The way you pick plays has wholly changed, and the new play-calling menu's are definitely something to be happy about. The all-new revamped play-calling menu is now in the form of Madden games with the 3 blocks of plays. It turns out it works well with ESPN Football. The rest of the ESPN implementation is incredible. Before each game (NFL Countdown), Chris Berman makes his pick, and then the announcers talk about the players before the coin toss, and make their hot player pick. NFL Primetime (weekly wrap-up) shows highlights of certain games, but I never came across a highlight from any of the games that I played. During the half-time show, not only do they choose a "hot at the half" player, but they will show actual screenshots of big plays of the game. It's overwhelming of how realistic the feeling can be.

Every year, the Xbox Exclusive staff creates a team, and plays a few seasons with it. As usual, there are a lot of options to customize your player with while using the create-a-player feature. This year, Visual Concepts introduced something called First Person Football. Playing from this point of view can give you a sense of what it's like to be on the field with the pro's. For the most part, it's playable, but it seems like they will have to make a few adjustments for next year's version.

The franchise mode has a good amount of initial options. Some of the adjustable options that can be turned on/off are, pre-season games, owner firing, etc. Once you get into the franchise, you get e-mails giving you tips and stats from around the league. You basically get news from around the NFL, such as injured players, or trade's to watch out for. The Front Office is where you make all the contracts, trades, and look at your team needs. A new power ranking feature has been added. It mainly gives you an overall ranking of your team's performance for any given week. There are many more franchise options, and I really can't list them all, but one that I like was "scouting time" for prospects. You can choose to scout certain players, and you'll receive feedback about them. Another alternative when playing the franchise mode is being able to play it using the First Person Football mode.

Probably the coolest and biggest new feature added to this game is "The Crib." When you start playing you set up a user name, and from there it keeps track of what you do in the game. When you walk into the Crib, you can move around and see that there are a few different rooms. These can all be decorated with things that are available, and with new things that can be unlocked. There are a few mini games to play at your crib. Once unlocked, you can play air hockey or paper football. The gameplay and controls of these games are average, and there is nothing spectacular about them at all. They are still fun to play, however. I must say that football trivia can be very fun. You can play the all-new football trivia with up to 4 of your friends, and that can get pretty competitive. You can unlock and watch previous versions of the 2K series' opening movie sequences. As you play more and more, ESPN commercials will also be viewable. You have a lot of work to do to unlock trophies, bobble heads, team mugs, posters, and everything else that can be used in the Crib. You can also unlock new stadiums, teams, and other things to use for in-game play. To get the crib looking unique to yourself, you can pick and choose what want. You basically decorate this room with your favorite team logos, or a mixture of your favorite teams.

As you can probably tell, the ESPN 2K series is really starting to bulk up on the options. There's a few minor changes, but nothing hinders the gameplay is such a way that 2K veterans will complain about. Hurry-up offense is now done by holding down the B button, rather than Y. The manual says Y, but B is what worked for me.

When on defense, Y blocks or bats away the ball, but the R trigger attempts to intercept it. You can swap players on the fly at ease. By pressing a few buttons before you pick a play, you can have a whole new team out on the field. Defense can be adjusted. When holding down the black or white button and moving the right thumbstick, you can adjust where the DB's and LB's are positioned. It's a little tricky since you have to hold down one of those buttons, and then pretty much move your left thumb onto the right thumbstick. With the right thumbstick alone, you can adjust the line. So you have a lot more options when playing D.

The running game is just phenomenal. I never felt more in control of a running back. Now I can run the ball and actually gain positive yardage. When you're running with the ball, the Y button works wonders. It basically puts your head down, and your player goes in hard and gains yards. I'll say it again, I can't stress enough that when running, it feels like you have more control than ever. When you're the QB (offense), putting players in motion is trouble-free and super easy to do. Setting up hot routes is also done with simplicity. The spin move is back, and that means no more crazy stutter-step into a spin that was in 2K3. One of the biggest problems of NFL 2K3 was balls popping out of players hands way too easily. Well, guess what? No more balls popping out of players hands after they catch it. At least not as much anyway.

There is now the challenge play! Finally, Sega has put this feature in their football game. The overall atmosphere is excellent. After a big play, players on the sidelines will give each other high-fives, and the coach will sometimes yell in excitement.

Graphics

Divits coming up from cleats in real-time, weather effects, real-time shadow effects, cheerleaders, and detailed modeled fans are just some of the amazing visuals that you'll see in Sega's 2K4 pigskin title. These are the best football graphics I have ever seen. ESPN 2K4's graphics are so fluid and the players move so life-like, that they give me the chills because I have never been this overwhelmed by a football game since the release of NFL 2K on Dreamcast. There is so many different animations. Every player on the field is doing something different with their movement.

The stadiums appear to be 99.9% accurate. There is nothing to complain about, except in real life some teams don't have cheerleaders, but they are in every stadium…but who can complain about that? You can see the player's emotions when a play goes both good and bad. The QB will yell at someone and throw his hands all over. You can't really make out what they are saying, but it's still very lifelike.

Sound

Dan Stevens and Peter O'Keefe…you got to love them. They provide non-stop commentary, and I think they are the best announcers in a videogame. The main thing that I like about the sound is that it creates a life-like football environment. The crowd's reactions to big plays, players yelling all over the place, and the air horns going off allow me to enjoy listening each time I play this game. The PA announcer, and the stadium are also right on the money and add even more realism to the experience. The default crib music is upbeat and get's you pumped for a big game.

Replay Value

Whether it's playing this game by yourself, with a friend, or on Xbox Live, there is so much to learn and unlock. If you are looking to buy a great football game and then some, get this one right away.

Bottom Line:

Remember the big jump from NFL 2K to NFL 2K1, and how NFL 2K1 just blew the original out of the water? This game feels like that same giant step forward, and I have to say they nailed it. Five years in the making, this series gets better every time and this year the game engine is more than perfect. I never felt this strongly about a football game before. Everything that needed to be fixed or improved was all taken care of. They even incorporated the challenge play. After playing ESPN Football 2K4, I honestly can't believe that I had given 2K3 the score that I had. The whole ESPN presentation has been updated, and it's amazing. It feels like your playing a real football game, and it's the best one around.

Related Links:

Official ESPN Videogames Website

-Steve Melanson




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