What is it?: Playstation 2 game (sports genre) by SEGA
Price: $19.99 retail (yeah, you read that right)
Tom Edwards, Editor-In-Chief,

    Ok, you're in business.  You're trying to sell a product that you feel very confident in.  However, another company's product dominates the marketplace.  How do you manage to get your product to the masses?

    If this were a PC game, it'd be a little easier.  Offer a shareware version of the game with limited capabilities.  Let people try it out, see if it truly is a better game.  The beauty of PC games is that between word of mouth and the word "free", games and other programs can gain a fan base overnight.  In the case of ESPN NFL 2K5 though, the problem was much more difficult.  First off, there is no "freeware" in the console video game market.  The closest you get to that is a demo game which might be playable at the local Best Buy if the 11 year old who got parked there by his parents 45 minutes ago ever gets picked back up.  2K5 also faced the challenge of being a direct competitor to the Madden football franchise, which is entering its 15th year and shows no sign of letting up.  The Madden football games are known to be not only the cutting edge in football video games, but in the entire sports genre.  Most gamers don't contemplate the newest Madden features for the coming year, they just buy it, no questions asked.  Last year's version of Madden 2004 sold over 2 million copies within its first three weeks of release, shattering sales records.  Madden to football games is what Band-Aid is to adhesive bandages; the words have become synominous with each other.

    So SEGA (yes, that SEGA) had to do something unconventional to get their product in the homes of America's football video game players.  And they did.  They made it 20 bucks.

    Yep.  20 bucks, less than half of Madden 2005's suggested retail price.  Between that and releasing several weeks before Madden's release date, SEGA went with an interesting strategy; allow gamers to buy two football games this year, with the belief that those few weeks that 2K5 will be the sole football game in the house will make gamers realize that this product is Madden's equal.  Whether or not it is remains to be seen, but SEGA puts forth a very good product, especially considering the price, that falls short in certain areas.

    One of SEGA's wisest moves was teaming up with ESPN.  Although ESPN's name value isn't what it used to be several years ago, it's still very familiar in the minds of any sports fan.  ESPN NFL 2K5 doesn't waste this association with just sticking a name on a box.  The presentation of the game during gameplay is phenominal.  Chris Berman from his NFL Primetime set welcomes you to the upcoming game (badly dubbed), and leads you in to a setup very similar to ESPN's Sunday Night Football.  During gameplay, you notice from statistics to name overlays that the fonts and graphics are exactly the same as NFL Sunday Night Football.  The feeling is sincerely like you're watching a NFL game on ESPN, not just a video game (or even a football game).

    SEGA doesn't stop there with visual impression.  The player bodies are lifelike, in facial features and dimension, although the "fatter" players, for lack of a better term, don't really come off that way.  Animation is fluid, with the tackle animation being most impressive.  Players get wrapped up in tackles, and diving tackles are handled in a somewhat realistic way.  I even had the chance to see a diving tackle on a quarterback get ducked under and the play continue.

    While the animations are fluid and crisp, the actual control leaves a bit to be desired.  The controls (wisely) are quite similar to Madden's, so a Madden player could quickly pick up 2K5 and begin to play immedately.  However SEGA's insistance on using the analog joystick to make players properly run can be annoying.  Using the regular D-pad will cause ball carriers to run in 90 degree angles, which can make attempting to establish a running game highly difficult.  Once you get using the analog stick though, the controls aren't that bad, and the added shoulder charge button is an added bonus.

    The replay value (at least to me - your mileage may vary) of a football game comes from its franchise-type mode.  A proper franchise mode (especially in the weird financial world of football) isn't easy to pull off; you have to keep a happy balance by getting it detailed enough to make it seem somewhat realistic and useful, but not too detailed as to confuse people.  2K5 gives a valiant try, but fails in coming up with a quality franchise mode here.  First off, after simming through a few games, you realize that some very familiar players aren't where you thought they'd be.  That's because players get traded in 2K5's franchise mode, and traded often.  While frequent trading (especially of star players) can be mildly annoying in baseball games, it's completely unrealistic in NFL-based games.  The way the NFL financial system works prevents trades from almost ever taking place, only usually coming about as a last resort before a release.  The reason?  The NFL states that if a player is traded, his entire signing bonus is counted against the trading team's salary cap, similar to if the team released the player.  So, for a player-for-player deal to take place in the NFL, both teams would have to absorb salary cap hits to trade the players in question.  This seasons Redskins/Broncos deal involving Champ Bailey and Clinton Portis was only able to take place because Portis had a cheap contract (making the cap hit minimal) while Bailey was technically unsigned (as a restricted free agent, he could not count against the Skins cap since he wasn't under contract).  In 2K5, however, teams regularly trade major players, regardless of cap hits.  It's unrealistic and annoying.

    The offseason movement isn't smooth, either.  Moving from stage to stage, whether completed or not, is made to seem like you're skipping the stage.  It took me several minutes after the initial stage (retirement) to try to move onto the next field, and finally skipping to the next field (re-signing), where I was met with a warning that I was about to skip the retirement phase.  I had the option of having the computer "do the dirty work" (their words, not mine), or cancelling.  Cancelling brought you back to where you were before, so letting the computer do the dirty work was the only way to advance.  I had no idea if my decisions were followed or if the computer GM made some changes for me.

    Re-signing your free agents and free agency are interesting, although I feel they could be handled better.  The signing of available players is done through an "interest" system, which isn't uncommon, but the interest bar just extends, but doesn't give a signal to inform what makes for an acceptable offer.  What may seem like the amount of "interest bar" that one player accepted isn't enough for another, and - this is a great feature - repeated rejected offers cause the interest bar to lessen, meaning what could have been accepted two offers ago won't be accepted now because of past negociations.  In addition, players that you can sign in free agency aren't necessarily all the players who are free agents.  The players you see are the players that have interest in you; not every player.  I found this out unintentionally, as a player I didn't re-sign and allowed to go FA I couldn't try to re-sign later.  While an excellent idea (you shouldn't be able to obtain every free agent), this method doesn't allow you to see every player available in free agency or keep easy track of where free agents are going.  As a result, you can't react to what teams in your division do during free agency.  This could be better handled by showing all available free agents, and either color coding players who will not sign with you under any circumstance, or allowing you to select them to begin to offer them a contract, only to be told that the player has no interest playing for you.

    The draft is handled differently, and has its advantages and disadvantages.  If you allow for the special Sportscenter before the draft, you'll hear Mel Kiper give a heads up to who some of the top players are.  But outside of that, you're completely blind.  WHile some I've talked to find this refreshing, I still think it's a bit unrealistic that you have no clue whether a player is a top three prospect of not worth drafting.  Combine numbers listed seem to be worthless, and the limited amount of scouting points makes the draft a crapshoot if you're not aiming for just one position.  While this may seem difficult, during the draft you can view a screen that shows you five suggested picks (at various positions), so if a position you want is on that list, you're almost guaranteed a good pick there.

    Contracts are handled surprisingly well.  Outside of the beforementioned "interest system", contracts have four variables, with amount, length, and bonus percentage being joined by a variable setting which can change the way the contract is set up financially.  For instance, some players may prefer a frontloaded contract, while others want their money evenly spread out.  This is more realistic than other games which automaticly devide the contract evenly over several years.  This flexability allows for more financial creativity.

    Player progress seems to go smoothly, as players who get reps seem to increase in skill, but not necessarily, and players who maybe don't get playing time don't drop off dramaticly, making them useless.  One thing that hinders this though is the NFL-like depth chart system that 2K5 uses.  In using a depth chart similar to those used in the actual NFL (for example, depth for left and right tackle, instead of generic "offensive tackle"), one selects a position to change and a list of "eligible" players can be shifted around.  Only players specificly listed at that position can be played at a position however, so fullbacks cannot play halfback, cornerbacks cannot play safety, and guards cannot play center.  This lack of flexability forces teams to obtain unnecessary players while having depth at other similar positions.  The kick/punt return selection is barely functional, as a generic list of players is posted that you can select from to be your kick or punt returner is listed, and although there's three people listed on the depth chart, you can only select one; the others are listed there without rhyme or reason.

    2K5 has some interesting features that stand out from other sports games.  One that stands out is a first person mode which allows the player to be a primary player using an in-the-helmet perspective during gameplay.  Taking a handoff using this feature allows you to look for holes in the offense and get the sudden shock of your vision going upwards as you're hit several times by tacklers.  It's fun as a distraction, but not something you'd want to necessarily play a season of.

    Another feature is the "Crib", which allows players to earn credits for reaching certain milestones and spending the credits decorating an apartment with various NFL-related items, such as furniture, posters, bobbleheads, and other bonuses like cheats, hidden celebrity "free agents", and movie clips which can be watched in your living room.  While I used my credits to purchase a Sportscenter commercial, my TV was bad and the picture was very small.  My assumption is that if you earn more credits (and unlock more catalogs, allowing you a greater variety which to choose from), you could purchase a larger entertainment center, allowing you to view the commercial larger.

    Overall, a good effort from SEGA.  ESPN NFL 2K5 is not a bad game at all, especially with the price tag.  While the franchise mode is a big strike against it in my eyes, it's an excellent game to pick up and play, especially with a few friends over.  The presentation is bound to impress, although after several plays, it begins to get repetitive.  It's a fun game, but it lacks staying power.  Within the first few days of ownership, I was ready to forget about Madden.  After two weeks, I'm back to the countdown to the Madden Collectors Edition.

    RATING: Worth a rental (hell, a buy at $20), but won't stop you looking longingly at Madden's new features.

Copyright 2004  All Rights reserved.