The NFL 2K series started on the Dreamcast, and immediately wowed people with its amazing graphics and tight gameplay. Though the series has always received strong reviews, it has never come close to challenging Madden for the top spot. This year, Sega and Visual Concepts have decided to pull out all the stops and take it right to Madden, not only by releasing the game several weeks early, but also by selling the game for the bargain price of $20. The game is amazing looking and has unparalleled presentation courtesy of ESPN, but it seems the early release has left the game riddled with bugs and glitches, many of which are bad enough to make the game irrelevant to the hardcore football fan.
ESPN NFL 2K5 provides all of the features you've come to expect in a current football game. The game is online, and features leagues as well as downloadable rosters. Unfortunately there have been large amounts of people unable to compete online due to incompatible rosters and other major issues. Celebrating ESPN's 25th anniversary, there are 25 scenarios representing the greatest games and scenarios in football the last 25 years. These include the "one yard short" game of the Titans and Rams in the Superbowl, Scott Norwood's "wide right" kick, and the "immaculate reception." For people new to the series, there's a training mode that encompasses both offense and defense, and you can also practice or scrimmage to hone your skills.
As you progress through the game and accomplish tasks and milestones, you'll unlock crib points. These points are used in your virtual crib to unlock furniture, home theaters, fish tanks, bar stools, lamps, bobble heads and secret teams. While spending 400 hard earned points on a coffee table seems rather lame at first, it can be very addicting trying to unlock all the items before your friends do. One thing is for sure – it's a heck of a lot better than Madden cards.
One of the new features this year is the addition of celebrity challenges. "Stars" such as Steve-O, Funkmaster Flex, and Carmen Electra will call your phone in the crib and issue you a challenge. If you play them, you'll play against their created teams while they spout off annoying, repetitive phrases. Not only do you have to hear these morons over and over, you have to see their picture pop up on the screen, and other than Carmen, that's a bad thing. The worst part about playing a celebrity isn't just their voices, but how lame it is playing against a fake person. You've got to wait for them to pick their play, make adjustments, and in Funkmaster's case, he'll just run the clock down before he snaps it. The genius that decided it would be fun to wait for Flex to bleed the clock while you stare at the screen doing nothing for 30 seconds at a time needs to be shot.
Another new feature this year is the VIP profile, which is a glorified user profile from years past. Basically, you play all your games under your profile, and the game learns your tendencies. These are turned into a VIP profile, and your friends can play against you when you're not around, or you can even play against yourself to spot weaknesses in your game. Honestly, it's not that great of a feature to play against, but the stat tracking that it keeps really does help you find flaws in your game, but keep in mind your buddy has the same access to the information as you so your secrets won't go undiscovered for long.
If you're longing for a different sort of football challenge, then first person football (FPF) may be what you're looking for. In FPF you control the quarterback on a passing play and a running back on a run play. You'll see the game through the eyes of the players, which is at first difficult, but in the end it's quite a lot of fun. Passing is initially quite tough, but once you master the timing, you'll be surprised at how well it works. Even defense is fun in FPF since you really get the sense of patrolling the middle as a linebacker, or you dish out pain as a rushing defensive lineman.
All of these extra features are secondary to the game's franchise mode, where you take over control of your favorite team and lead them to glory year after year – hopefully. You can choose to either pick a team with its current roster, or if you're really into managing a team, draft a brand new squad. Once you begin the franchise, a series of poorly designed menus make even the most menial task difficult. You can see what positions your team needs to fill on one screen, but you have to exit that menu and open another one to search for available players. The whole process from determining you need a player to finding him, signing him and getting him in your lineup is far too complex that it needs to be. If you're playing with a friend and he has played his week one game, and you want to play your week 1 and 2 games back to back, you can't, the game won't let you. This makes already long seasons drag on especially long, and adds to the list of frustrating issues the game has.
The whole problem with things being laid out in a more difficult fashion than they need to be continues into the actual gameplay. There's no option to sub out your entire squad for the second unit in the pre-season, defensive audibles are terribly cumbersome, and even switching your VIP before the game is broken. It's extremely frustrating to have your VIP showing on the game select screen, only to find after the game that the points go to someone else because you didn't go to a buried menu and officially activate the VIP. The game says it's active, but it's really not – which is a simple problem that should be fixed.
Once you start the game, the gameplay is for the most part, top notch. The running game is smooth and more responsive than Madden's typically is, and the game rewards you for being patient and finding your blockers. The passing game is tough at first, but learning your three and five step drops and when receivers make their cuts will dramatically improve your passing stats. It's easy to audible and call hot routes, though the time it takes for your quarterback to bark out new signals after selecting a play is frustrating when you're running a hurry-up offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, the game plays a lot like Madden, including the computer's amazing ability to complete long third down passes or run an incredibly efficient two-minute drill. There seems to be a lot of passes defended in each game, and many that look like they should have been picked off end up hitting the turf, so the actual amount of interceptions per game is on par with a real game.
Unfortunately, there are several problems during the game that are inexcusable and remind you that you're playing a $20 football game. Key amongst these is the computer's penchant for putting players like Peyton Manning and Orlando Pace back to return kicks. How a game could have shipped with Peyton Manning, who might be the slowest person on the planet alive or dead is inconceivable. There are also things like the clipping bug, where for example you make a 50 yard run, but it gets called back for clipping, which is a 15 yard penalty. The ball is spotted properly, but your running back's stats will reflect that incident to be a -65 yard run which will kill your stats for the game and for the season in some cases. The game also spots the ball poorly, often taking 2 or 3 yards at a time off of a run. There are also numerous reports of the game freezing and the commentary dropping out.
There's no question that ESPN NFL 2K5 is the best looking football game ever. The player models are gorgeous, the stadiums are accurate and colorful, and the game is filled with lots of little touches that really add to the experience. The first time you see a rapidly moving shadow over the field and notice that it's a blimp flying over the field, or you see fans arguing over who is in the right seat, you'll know that the developers took great pride in their presentation. The field shows wear as the game goes on, the lighting will change as it gets later, and uniforms will get dirty at different rates, depending on how often the player hits the turf – it's really impressive. The ESPN presentation, which is found throughout the game really makes the game feel like a broadcast, and the Sportscenter that you can watch after each week is nothing short of incredible. The game doesn't support progressive scan on the PS2, which is a shame because the Xbox version of the title looks amazing with it.
Just like it takes the graphics to an all new level, the ESPN theme does the same for the audio. Chris Berman introduces the game, and even shows and narrates all of the highlights at halftime. Normally you get long pauses while the game loads names and weird emphasis on certain names, but Berman's commentary is very tight and sounds quite realistic. The announcers are a bit verbose and often fall behind on the play, but some of their insight is very impressive and when combined with the ESPN overlays, it's poignant. The current announcers have been a staple of the series since its inception, but with the ESPN name and feel so prominent in the game, it's really about time that they bring in the real Sunday night crew to complete the series' transition.
One of the coolest features in the game didn't make it to the PS2 version, and it's really a shame. The ability to rip songs and then place them in the game was perhaps my favorite part of NFL 2K5 on the Xbox. You not only can edit the clip to the spot of the song you want to hear, but you can then select after what type of play you want to hear it. Hearing songs that get you pumped up, or even just standard stadium hits like "We will rock you" or "Rock and roll part 2" makes your home field just a little more friendly. Unfortunately, even PS2 owners with an HDD unit are out of luck with this feature as it's completely unsupported.
While the majority of the gameplay is above average, the game's bevy of technical issues kill any hopes that a hardcore fan would be satisfied with this game in the long term. Yes, it can fill the football void until Madden comes out, and casual players are likely to enjoy it just fine, especially for the $20 price tag. However, the bottom line is that there's no excuse for a game to be released with this many major problems, especially when Sega has decided that this is the year for people to really try it out to see how it compares to Madden.