ESPN NFL Football (formerly NFL 2K4) comes at us in what I consider a rather weak year for the Madden franchise. This year, Visual Concepts comes at us with a game utilizing the full ESPN license (NFL 2K3 used some after getting the license) and bringing new things to the table like First-Person Football and a new Crib mode. ESPN NFL Football brings a new attitude to the table, but will it finally be able to take a good bite out of Madden‘s dominance? Let’s see.

This game certainly gives NFL Fever 2004 a run for its money and easily outdoes Madden 2004 in this regard. The graphics are sharp, colorful and have a smooth framerate (have yet to see slowdown that I can remember). The animations are done well, although Madden arguably does better with the lesser graphic package. Tackling animations still seem a bit off in some instances, although the Superman linebackers from last year are now gone. No longer will you be making that 10 yard dive trying to get a running back/receiver. Faces are done rather well, although I have to say Fever seems to capture them better.

First-Person Football can be talked about here first. The graphics in this mode are very nice and you even have a way of slowing down the play so you can execute moves. It’s an interesting game mode and seeing your player get pounded or deliver the pounding is awesome. You see everything a regular player would if, say, flipped by a tackle. Gives me some extra respect to the players that play the real-life game. Only graphical problem in this mode is there is a lot of clipping after a play is completed. While the play is going on the clipping is kept at a minimum though.

Another interesting thing I would like to point out about the 3 major games (Madden. Fever and ESPN). The animations of fans are almost non-existant on the latter 2. Madden actually has animations for the fans even if they are only the sprites jumping up and down. At least it looks like the fans are excited about the game. Fever‘s fans animate only when you are close enough to see the fans. In a far away shot, there is no movement. ESPN is much the same, although they have cutscenes that show fans in the stands. This still doesn’t excuse the non-animated fans though in regular gameplay. Just shows you what gets cut in the game when you want smooth framerate, you know?

I would rate this section higher, but I’m not too excited about the overall crowd noise while playing the game. Fever is easily the best of the football games with crowd noise. They get loud and soft for the correct reasons. Madden gets loud whether the home or away team scores. ESPN sits in the middle. The crowd noise seems quiet compared to the other 2 and it’s a rather boring experience. This is rather picky though, so let’s get to the good stuff.

Commentary and ancillary things done correctly…what a concept! The commentary is done by the same team that has done it since NFL 2K on the Dreamcast. Dan Stevens and Peter O’Keefe are simply the best team out there. Yes, some things are repeated and some things can come out slowly in regards to on-field action (mostly happens when you are quickly going through your plays instead of taking time), but they are just smooth. There are no inunciation problems like Al Michales has in Madden.

The bigger score for ESPN NFL Football is Chris Berman doing pre-game, halftime and NFL Primetime voiceovers. The pre-game isn’t too exciting, although he does give you who he thinks will win the game. Halftime and NFL Primetime are where he shines. At halftime he will go through the stats on both teams and go through some key plays/drives that you did in the first half. The numbers flow together smoothly (just think about the amount of numbers Chris Berman had to say for this game and make it sound smooth) and everything is well done. NFL Primetime is quite awesome in the fact that he looks over all the week’s games AND they show highlights from some of the games…actual in-game highlights, not just static pictures. This just simply brings the whole package together and I say bravo Visual Concepts…you have finally made an almost perfect Commentary/Ancillary setup that easily bests Madden in its best days.

I’ve always had a problem with this series way of doing speed and power by holding down a button and letting go. This year you are able to repeatedly punch the button to run faster and you can build up power and do a dash, shoulder hit, etc. on a more powerful scale than pulling off the move without powering up. In many ways this works, but in my mind this control system is still well below Madden and its ease of pulling off moves and running fast. ESPN NFL Football took some cues from Madden this year (especially in playcalling), but they should really take the cue from Madden on this specific thing.

The most difficult thing about ESPN NFL Football is getting used to a different control setup than the other football games I’ve reviewed this year. I honestly don’t like how some buttons do a different thing before the snap than after the snap. Madden stays pretty constant, while ESPN is more dynamic and takes a bit more to get used to.

A plus this year is that the old way of selecting plays is gone, so no more cursing over the analog stick and picking the wrong play. However there are other problems with the way they did playcalling this year, but we’ll get to that in the next section.

Visual Concepts again finds itself on the short end of the stick when going up against Madden in overall gameplay in my opinion. Yes, it has First-Person Football and the Cribs (more later) section, but it just doesn’t stand up to the coolness of being able to run a franchise as an owner, the feeling that there is more control over your players, do playmaker plays and be able to import real college players into the game (once EA sends us the fixed disc of course). I also dare say that Madden is a bit easier to pick up than ESPN.

What ESPN NFL Football does have obviously outdoes what Madden doesn’t have, but it’s up to you which extras you like more. First up is the First-Person Football mode. Unlike some printed magazines, I don’t consider this a gimmick and could see where other football games would love to implement something like this in future games. The only thing that sucks about this mode is that the commentators are no longer heard in the game. Instead you hear other players and the fans. I personally like to hear commentary and missed it a lot when playing in FPF mode. Another cool thing about this mode is that it is playable online via Live, which is something I believe was not originally in the plan for this game.

Cribs mode is the other section where ESPN outdoes Madden. Much like the Madden Challenge cards, ESPN unlocks stuff for you in your Crib while you are playing the game. You basically are in your Crib and can look at different rooms in there. You can purchase items, win items, etc. and add to your Crib. Want your favorite team’s colors on your couch, go ahead! The coolest thing about the Crib part is that you can unlock Air Hockey and Paper Football (where you have your paper triangle like you played when you were a kid). Cribs is a nice mode, but much like the Madden Challenge, I’m not too excited about the mode.

Where ESPN trades off with Madden on who is better is the Franchise mode. We’ll talk about where ESPN is better. The addition of Chris Berman in the pre-game easily bumps this game up to the top. The whole e-mail system where different people on your club send you congratulations or concerns is cool. You have control over contracts, depth charts, trading, the draft, etc. This is a lot like Madden obviously, although there is a different interface to it. You also have set goals to meet or your job may be in jeopardy. Overall though, Madden simply outdoes this with its Owner mode. You’re given that extra control over the operations of your football team that ESPN NFL Football does not give you.

Another problem for someone who has played Madden for way too many years is the new way of calling plays. ESPN NFL Football sets its play structure up much like Madden except for one key difference: The look of the plays are confusing when contrasted against Madden‘s easy to visually connect with plays. Everything is too bunched up and if you aren’t up on football terms you wouldn’t know a Counter play is going to go the other way than where the red line is pointing. Instead you will be hitting the Black button to see what the play is and then if you’re playing a person on the same machine you have now given away your play. They should have presented them in a wider fashion than they do in the playmaking screen. The other problem with the playcalling menu is on defense. Not only do you pick the formation, but you also pick the sub-formation before actually choosing the play. They should eliminate the middle section there for those people that don’t care about the intricacies of the game and only want to play with simple playcalling.

This game plays better and more realistic than Madden. When I talk about realism I am saying that this game moves fast, but seems to play out more realistic than Madden. I am a far more adept runner on the latter game than I am up to this point on ESPN NFL Football. Part of it might have to do with the fact that I don’t feel as in control over my RBs moves as I do in Madden and it will take me a bit to get used to the nuances of the NFL series again. I have to be more strategic in my playcalling and not be running a big percentage of the time because I rarely get over 10 yards. Once you get into passing you see that the defensive backfield is smarter here than on Madden. Receivers will be well covered and you have to really notice your receivers having that extra step to get it in there sometimes. This game is nice and tight and the games are far more close on All-Pro (the desired difficulty in this game because the earlier ones are way too easy) in this game than Madden.

One of the minuses of this game is that there are far too many missed tackles on the defense. A runner can shrug off defenders like no tomorrow, although on the higher difficulty levels it becomes less prevalent. There are also questionable AI choices as presented by Gone Gold’s Bill Harris in his September 5th Night Call. I think he makes valid points, but in some ways I wish he would have been as hard on Madden 2004 as he is on ESPN NFL Football. They may not pull dumbass timeouts in Madden, but the DBs and even the receivers doing crossing patterns do some dumb things in that game. As pointed out in his column, this game does not support 720p mode as stated on the back of the box. Then again, it does support Dolby Digital 5.1 and that is not checked on the back of the box. It is sad this support is not in it, but it doesn’t bother me at this time since I do not have a high-definition television with which to enjoy those progressive modes.

There is also a problem pointed out by freelance writer Bill Abner where the stats are screwed up if you choose anything outside of 4 minute quarters. Even then certain positions are still low in stats. You can run your games at 5 min. (or above) and all the simulation games at 4 min., so that is a welcome thing if you want some semi-accurate stats.

So, in this section there are a lot of choices for football purchasers out there. Do you like the idea of Crib mode and First-Person Football or are you more interested in Owner mode and seeing smooth moves (as well as other things).

Yes, this is rated lower than Madden 2004 in this section, but I will explain why. Madden 2004‘s franchise mode is simply better than this game and I just see myself playing that game more for franchise mode than this game (although I will play both). Where this game totally destroys Madden 2004 is in online play, which is where this game will get the majority of playing from me. Obviously the Xbox version of Madden 2004 does not have online play, but both versions of this game do. Online play runs smoothly, at least until the end. There’s a little problem with this game. If you have Dolby Digital 5.1 set up on your Xbox dashboard this game will lock up at the end of an online game. If you have Dolby Digital 5.1 disabled on the dashboard you’re just fine. I certainly hope Sega fixes this problem as I personally like to hear this game through my Dolby Digital 5.1 system, you know?

Later on this week I will have a review of the PS2 version of this game and their online leagues and tournaments. The Xbox version does not have these things, which is kind of sad. The Xbox players are left with NFL Fever 2004 as the only game with a centralized league and tournament setup. Obviously Sega and Microsoft had different ideas and Microsoft is trying to push their XSN Sports lineup, so Sega got the short end of the stick here.

This game has great value for those players that felt let down by Madden this year (and there seems to be quite a few out there). It brings better graphics, better commentary and just a nicely crafted overall game to the table.