ESPN NFL 2K5 / Sega / Playstation 2

Do you know why EA forked over $300 million to get exclusivity rights from the NFL? This game, basically. It hit market priced at $20, yet was widely regarded as better than Madden's usual $60 installment for the same year. Madden had been stagnating and 2K had been on the rise for several years, but this is where the balance of power really visibly shifted. So EA's answer to this challenge to their football empire was to eliminate all competition by throwing moneyhats at the NFL. Lol free market ideology.

2K5 really is quite a well-made game that still stands up well to the latest Madden releases of 2010 and 2011. It can't compete with PS3-generation textures, of course, but it was so far ahead of the curve in terms of presentation when it came out that Madden is still trying to catch up in a number of areas. And the gameplay is really a cut better on the whole - nothing like total lack of competition to make a franchise do little to nothing to improve each year, amirite? And while it languishes in the bargain bins of U.S. Gamestops everywhere at a price of 0.99 cents, a $15 Action Replay and an internet connection will get you fully updated rosters and teams from dedicated fans that patch the game every year.

The game is tied up with ESPN and thus you can actually watch a truncated version of Sportscenter for each game week in season and franchise mode, which is actually more like the old NFL Primetime (now called the Blitz? I think?) but with only Chris Berman doing highlight voice-overs and Trey Wingo doing a weekly injury round-up. I liked that the canned dialogue changes based on what week it is - you'll get references to Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Xmas among other things - and throughout the season in franchise mode you'll also sometimes get little reports on college rookies that are making a big splash. The game has a lot more little "extra" cinematics to it in-game than previous 2k games - you now get various shots of the crowd reacting to in-game events, cuts to the players and coaches on the sidelines, and there's even a little commercial fade-out with an iconic shot from the stadium area (like the Bucs Pirate Ship or a shot of the city's downtown) at the end of each quarter (though fortunately no commercials to go with it.) The game aims to look and feel as much like a professional sports broadcast as possible and largely succeeds, and does so without encumbering the gameplay - you can skip all this stuff with a tap of the X button if you just want to get right back to the action. The action is voiced by fictional ESPN personalities Dan Stevens and Peter O' Keefe, actually done by a couple of professional voice actors. While their dialogue tends to repeat more often than you'd like, it's really not bad and they do sound like a legit broadcast team. And can always be turned off if it's not your thing. Suzy Kolber also pops in to give injury reports and coach interviews during the game, and interviews the "Primetime Player" (in all her rendered kissable-but-terribly-lip-synced glory) in a little segment after the game. Mel Kiper is also in there as draft guru and does little segments at the end of Sportscenter during the season to update you on the current crop of rookies, and then during the off-season Sportscenter basically belongs to him with nothing but draft updates.

"The Crib" is the optional feature wherein you get your serious Unlocking and Collecting on. You are basically given a luxury apartment that is bare to the walls (in what appears to be San Francisco judging by the Transamerica Pyramid in the window view, regardless of what team you pick) and you accumulate "Crib Points" as you meet various challenges and milestones in the game, with which you furnish the place with posters, player bobble-heads, couches, bar lights and a stream of bigger and better TVs. This was a bit of a mis-step in that virtual interior decorating is probably not in the interest of the average testosterone-laced NFL fan, but all the other game unlockables come through the Crib too - new music for your stadium, new celebration dances, cheats, teams and et cetera. Another aspect of the Crib is that C-list celebrities are constantly ringing your phone wanting to play a pickup game. You can end up playing Carmen Electra, Jamie Foxx, Steve-O from Jackass, David Arquette, and some other knob I've forgotten. They each have custom teams that are basically made up of players with high 90s ratings, so you pretty much have to take them on with an All-Star team. If you beat them, you get their custom logos and stadiums, which you'll probably never use. They also pop up with digitized taunts throughout their games which are not only dumb but get horribly repetitive. Celeb Games was probably the biggest mis-step here, but fortunately it's also completely optional and ignorable.

Customization and stat-tracking is one of the biggest selling points here, as it is with most of the 2K sports games. The game is managed overall by a VIP file which serves as your profile, but also tracks all of your accomplishments and overarching stats regardless of what mode you are playing in. In a neat feature, VIP files can be downloaded and uploaded between different players, so that you can play a virtual representation of someone else as the computer interprets their play based on their entire past history with the game. Pretty much every stat you can think of is tracked and constantly available. Nearly every aspect of the computer AI is also separately tweakable with a slider bar - if you find offense rather easy but struggle on defense, you can simply up the computer's run stopping or pass coverage while lowering their ability to move the ball a bit. This creates an environment where there's really no excuse for "it's too hard" or "it's too easy" - on the absolute easiest settings, a toddler sitting on the buttons could still win by a comfortable margin, whereas on the Hall Of Famer presets, you'd better know every nuance of the game inside and out and be able to read defensive schemes and call audibles. And you can get it to pretty much any point in between with a bit of tweaking.

Though the graphics here were rather quickly overtaken by Madden, the whole game looks pleasant enough and there's a nice attention to small detail. The animations are very fluid and pleasing and there seems to be quite a range of them - tackles actually change based on the position of both players and how they are moving, and the quarterback alters his throwing motion based on how he's facing/moving when the ball is thrown for example. The gameplay is brilliant, with more of a realistic physics orientation than even the newest games, the only complaint I have is a bit of passing game jank - outside and "over the top" routes almost never seem to work unless its a top QB throwing to a top receiver. Then it may magically go through a DB's hands, as the coverage seems to always be perfect unless the corner is rated below a 70. You have to make slant routes the meat of your passing game if you hope to get anywhere. I suspect 2K did this to counter complaints that long bombs were too easy in previous installments and made the game a little too arcadey. It's a valid complaint, but the tweak overcorrected things.

The Franchise mode has its little issues, but it's still better than 90% of everything else I've ever seen. For the totally new, "Franchise" is simply a mode in which you can play as many seasons as you like back-to-back with your chosen team, and in between seasons you do the stuff that NFL teams generally have to do, such as re-negotiating player contracts, scouting and drafting promising college rookies, etc. The good: contract negotiation is the simplest and most sensible that I've seen, with an "interest gauge" that reacts in real time for each player as you adjust the terms of their contract. When you make an offer to them, you can be about 95% certain that they'll accept it if the gauge is past a certain point. The off-season is also broken up into distinct segments that you take one-at-a-time to reduce confusion; first you handle players who are announcing retirement and make a bid to get them back for another year if you want them, then you get first dibs on signing your existing players who are about to go into free agency, then there's a formal free agency period, then the college draft, and so on. The bad: in this eagerness to streamline everything and make it accessible to even the non-hardcore NFL fan, a significant amount of control and depth has been lost. For example, in real life, NFL teams send scouts to watch college players during the college season, then there is the combine (almost a mini-Olympics to show off the raw physical skills of college players entering the draft that year), then after the combine there is a significant amount of time for teams to bring in players they are interested in for private workouts. In NFL 2K5, you get an extremely limited amount of time to scout in-depth during the combine, and that's it. And what's worse is that once the combine is over, you can't get back to your draft reports! The game attempts to simulate the excitement and pressure of Draft Day by actually giving you only 3.5 minutes to select each pick, but there's no way to go back to your scouting reports to remind you which one of the eight QBs you are looking at was the one that looked like the steal of the draft. And the CPU whips through picks instantaneously, which is nice for convenience, but gives you no time to react to who has been drafted ahead of you that you might have had your eye on. There really should have been a proper draft board that not only is available to look at while you are on the clock, but also can be manipulated prior to the draft to ensure you are prepared. Drafting is such a pain in the balls that I usually just end up packaging my draft picks in trade offers to get proven commodities during the season instead. There's also no representation of training camp, where your younger players tend to get the most work and development; instead you just jump straight to preseason game 1 right after the draft.

Another issue - player progression is a little bizarre and often quite unfair. During the season, in between games you are expected to spend the week working your players (every game takes place on a Sunday in 2k World to facilitate this.) Initially, this is impressive and has considerable depth - you assign players to tasks such as full team drills, positional drills, studying film, the weight room, flexibility exercises, even leadership courses and acupuncture to relieve stress. You also can put injured players through various forms of rehab for a chance at recovering faster. This is all quite interesting until you notice that the amount of time you have in which to train your team is ludicrously limited, and the time constraints seem arbitrary. I mean, don't most teams have a workout facility that can accomodate most if not all of the team at the same time? Why do the kicker and punter need 2 separate hours each alone in the weight room? The problem with this is that it takes some detailed and bizarre combination of workouts and such to actually make most players gain in stats, much less keep them from backsliding! It's not uncommon for a team starting out with about an 85 rating overall to slide to about 70 by the end of the year simply because you can't keep all of your players up to shape at once. Players also gain/lose stats with each new year. This is nice and makes sense when, say, an aging halfback loses speed and agility with each year. The gains and losses also seem very arbitrary, however, and don't seem to be affected by seasonal play at all. In my first Fantasy Draft Franchise, I had Steven Jackson run for nearly 2000 yards and win Offensive Rookie of the Year, and his workouts gave him at least minimal gains throughout the season, but at the start of the second season he had regressed three points overall for some unknown reason. Likewise, Troy Polamalu had six interceptions and a Pro Bowl nod but lost six points overall in his second year! It almost seems like there's a pre-programmed gain/loss for each player that is based on what some random programmer guessed would happen with these players, and they were way the hell off in a lot of cases.

Of course, none of the last two long-winded paragraphs applies at all to you if you don't plan to play Franchise mode. But I thought it all worth mentioning for those looking for a good franchise simulator - what's here is really quite decent on the whole, complaints aside, but it will leave you wanting a few things.

If you have a PS2 (or Xbox) hard drive you are at a great advantage here. In addition to getting full video clips for all the halftime, postgame and Sportscenter highlights (rather than still shots), you can also rip your own music and sound and add it to your stadium to be played during events such as a sack, goal line stand, etc.

There's a few blips in franchise mode and in the gameplay, but they aren't enough to derail what is an incredibly deep and well-made game, one of the best and most customizable NFL sims of all time. And at $1, you aren't exactly giving up a steak dinner if Madden turns out to be more to your fancy.

Links :

* NFL 2K5 Rosters and Patches
* Operation Sports 2k5 Forum - very active as of 2010
* Weekly Preparation FAQ - get small gains for everyone with little to no backsliding in Franchise

Videos :

* Gameplay Video
* Junkyard Blitz lol
* First Person Mode
* NFL2K5 does what Madden Don't
* And again
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