Just to set the stage for what's to come, I'm not exactly your typical, fanatical, "buy every title from every publisher before the regular season kicks off" pigskin gamer. Before this purchase, the most recent football title in my collection was NFL 2K2 on the Dreamcast. Before that, I owned the original NFL Blitz on the PlayStation. Before that... jeez, it must've been Super Play Action Football for the SNES. So, needless to say, I was experiencing a lot of the more recent additions to the game's mechanics for the first time.
Right from the get-go you'll realize one thing in particular; 2K5 is certainly not lacking in gameplay modes. From that very first menu screen, I was almost overwhelmed by the wide variety of options, scenarios, game types and challenges at my disposal. With just a couple presses of the "A" button, I could dive right into a game between two randomly-selected teams, at a randomly-selected stadium, under randomly-selected weather conditions. I could step right into Donovan McNabb's shoes, moments before last year's fateful 4th and 26 conversion versus Green Bay in the divisional championships. I could create a player... hell, I could create a whole TEAM. I could take the first steps towards managing and commanding an NFL dynasty, ideally leading the Colts to five straight Super Bowl victories (complete with correctly-numbered on-field logos). I could jump online, download the most current rosters and dive right into a game against one of the hundreds of players awaiting opponents in the lounge. I could load one of the forty or fifty archived "classic teams," challenging the legendary '72 Dolphins or '85 Bears on a whim. I could take a moment to learn the basics, participating in the game's thorough Training Camp section. And while I realize that a lot of these features are returning from previous seasons, it was really an eye-opening experience to see them all together like this. Things have grown noticeably more complex, more widely varied than the last time I sat down to take a few snaps on a home console. If I went in looking for variety and nothing more, this game would be a perfect ten. It covers all the bases, along with most of the outfield.
I took a particular liking to the "25th Anniversary" Scenario games, which throw you into the heat of the action during one of twenty five questionably-chosen historic moments throughout history. It's a really cool experience to change history (for example, successfully scoring on that last drive and winning Super Bowl XXXIV for the Tennessee Titans) or to relive some of the game's most memorable moments, (The "Immaculate Reception," The "Ice Bowl", or The "Heidi Bowl") but a handful of the scenarios are genuine head scratchers and seem totally out of place alongside their genuinely historical counterparts. Regardless, the difficulty is pretty wide here and it's a nice little set of challenges if you aren't looking to kill an hour by playing a full game.
The Training Camp mode is actually remarkably helpful in both instructing entirely new players and getting old gamers who'd missed a few generations (that'd be me) up to speed on the changes the series has undergone in their absence. It's tough but fair, and serves as a great indicator of what's to come; for instance, when you're taught to accelerate your running by tapping the "A" button as fast as humanly possible, the training for this technique is ruthless. You're to outrun two defenders on a thirty yard run, up the center of the field without crossing the hash lines, and the first couple times I tried it I was driven through the ground. I was taking the speed of the defenders for granted, and only halfheartedly tapping the "A" button. Eventually I learned that if you're going to break away from your pursuers, you're going to need to quickly set the controller down on your lap and really concentrate on hitting that button faster than anything you've ever done in your life. When I finally passed that particular training module, I'd learned a lesson that carried over to the real games. Like I said, it's a stern teacher but a fair one, and if you learn the right lessons in training you'll be a much better player in the long run.
Online play, which is a big part of the reason I was planning to purchase a football title this season in the first place, was largely underwhelming. I brought this one home on the day of its release, eager to get online and throw down before any hacks could be uncovered, before anybody had the advantage of three hundred games' worth of experience on me. Popped it in, powered it on, attempted to sign on, and... nothing. The servers were down for several days after the game's release, since the developers had somehow not anticipated a heavy server load on opening day. Honestly, this was one area that I felt Sega had a surefire advantage over EA, since the 2K series had been featured on Xbox Live since the service's inception. The way I figured, if any game was more likely to experience server problems it was going to be Madden. The immediate problems with online play turned out to be an indication of what was to come. Once the online portion of the title was finally... uh... online, I realized how difficult it was to hook up with my friends in-game. Sporadic server problems continued for nearly two weeks, so that I'd need to power off my Xbox, sign back on, send an invite and hope my friend didn't have the same problem, forcing him to power off, sign back on, and try the whole thing again. In addition, the process of actually sending or accepting a game invite is needlessly complicated and click-heavy. Ideally, this function should be the centerpiece of the ESPN package. You should be able to check your buddy list and send or accept invites with the press of a single button from virtually any location. Instead, if you receive an invite (signified by a mysterious green envelope icon that pops up without explanation on the side of the screen) you have to quit what you're doing, pull all the way out to the main menu, enter the online navigation section, go into your online options, open your buddy list, select the person you'd like to play, and finally accept the invitation. Instead of simply accepting the invitation in one step, you're needlessly clicking your way through six.
Oh, and those worries I had about the online community being ruthless, cheat-savvy and almost entirely unsportsmanlike? They've been pretty much spot-on thus far. I played a guy last week who was keeping up with me, neck and neck, until midway through the third quarter. This had been a great, hard fought game and I was relieved to have finally moved ten points ahead by returning an interception for a touchdown. Instead of playing through to the conclusion, and possibly making a big comeback, he shut off the Xbox. On on-screen timer counted down from twenty, and when he didn't reconnect the game was over. The disconnect showed up as a "drop" on his statistics, but I didn't retain any of my stats and I didn't get the win in the record books. While it can be argued that it's easy to pick out the guys who are going to do this, since the number of quits and drops in your opponent's history are readily visible before you start a game, the credibility of this system is relatively low since Sega seems to clear out everybody's online stats once every month and a half. Frankly, I doubt I'll be playing much online ball any more.
Likewise, the insanely detailed "Franchise" mode is loaded with strange bugs and inane punishments for players who don't have the interest or free time to devote to every single aspect of the managerial experience. Myself, I've never had much attraction toward the idea of individually managing every player's activities during the time between games, and wanted to let the computer handle everything except the games themselves and maybe the occasional trade or free agency signing. As a result, my team's draft choices were consistently the worst in the league, my offensive and defensive ranks plummeted with each new season and winning the division each year became more and more difficult. In essence, I guess, you don't have to handle every aspect of the franchise yourself... only if you want to win. In addition, I ran into more in-game flaws and bugs in the franchise mode than in any other section of the game. After a difficult season with the Colts, I managed to secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, but when I kicked off on our first playoff game I realized that my entire starting lineup had been randomly changed around without any notification. Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, they were all riding the bench even though they were at the top of the depth charts. I had to go in and manually re-insert each of them into every single play formation at the beginning of each playoff game from that point forward. And then, after finally winning the Super Bowl and conducting the draft, the game repeatedly froze immediately after the opening kickoff of the franchise's second season. I had to start again from scratch. I haven't had the same problem with freezing since I restarted with the Vikings, (I'm now into my third season) aside from the occasional benching of Daunte Culpepper. Weird, weird, weird.
Which brings me to the action on the field itself, the real star of this show. Any football title can deliver with the bonus materials and online play, but if the football itself isn't any good, it's all for naught. 2K5's play experience is, in spirit, an arcade-ized version of the real game, albeit a very in-depth, detailed, option heavy one. The amount of available plays, modifications, audibles, route changes and split-second decisions are mind-boggling, but this isn't a direct simulation. Frankly, I doubt very many console owners would have the patience to play through an exact pro football simulation, since this is a year-round full time job for players and coaches alike, and the pace of your average game isn't nearly as frantic and fast paced as Sega or EA would like for us to believe. To its credit, though, this game has really done its best to give you as accurate a representation as possible without losing any of the action and excitement that defined the titles that have come before.
Keeping that in mind, your players don't always act like you'd imagine a real player would in any given circumstance, especially when it comes to the passing game. Pass defense varies wildly from inhumanly tight (with coverage that knows precisely when they need to leap to hit the receiver a fraction of a second after the ball gets there, thus avoiding a penalty) to unbelievably loose (I've thrown countless touchdowns to star receivers in triple and quadruple coverage without much of a fight). Receivers completely give up on a play after the ball's been touched or tipped, often halting mid-stride to emotionlessly watch it land at their feet. Your blockers on a kickoff or punt will run BEHIND the player catching the ball, and then stare off into the stands while the kicking team completely mauls their teammate. These instances aren't exactly few and far between, but they don't hurt the game too significantly once you accept the fact that they're there and alter your plans accordingly.
The games never seem to lag, as you're treated to frequent replays, occasional shots of the audience and / or cheerleaders, reaction shots from each team's bench and more. It really does have the feel of a genuine ESPN production, with accurate transitions used to introduce stats, replays or the end of a quarter, and that helps to keep up the pace during the selection of plays and dead time between downs. The broad gap that existed between difficulty levels from 2k2, in which "Pro" was extremely easy and "All Pro" was jaw-droppingly difficult, has been addressed nicely here. "Pro" is a little bit tougher than I remembered it, and "All Pro" is a little bit easier, so it feels more like a natural progression and less like a sneak attack. Don't even ask me about the "Legendary" setting.
Control on the field is surprisingly simple, considering the insane amount of options at your disposal in any given situation. I've long said that the best control schemes in the world are the ones that become like second nature to the player, serving not so much as a controller but as an extension of your own body, and at this point I'm secure in saying that's what 2K5's controls have become. The Xbox's analog sticks work flawlessly, with the left working as a pressure-sensitive indicator of direction and the right performing a variety of special moves (spins, jukes, shoulder charges, leaps, etc). The same functions are accomplished when rushing the ball by pressing "B", "Y" "L", "R" and black or clear buttons. In addition, you can beef up the ferocity of your special moves by holding down the "A" button, rather than tapping it quickly, and pressing the special maneuver's button at a strategic moment. This method slows you down considerably, but gives you the ability to completely flatten defenders if used correctly. The passing system (in which each receiver is attached to a button and, naturally, pressing that particular button passes to that particular receiver) wasn't broken in previous titles and I'm glad to see they didn't try to fix it with something unwieldy here. If you see a sack coming you can attempt to avoid it by quickly hitting the right analog stick, but you momentarily lose the ability to throw and if another lineman is following in the first's footsteps, your ass is grass. Holding the "R" trigger switches you to full "Michael Vick Haulin' Ass Mode" as your passing options disappear in favor of the standard running backs' control scheme. Calling an audible is as simple as pressing the "Y" button before the snap and making a selection from the four or five plays that have been assigned to that particular play set. Likewise, changing your receivers' routes involves merely pointing the right analog stick in the direction you want them to run and hitting the button assigned to that particular receiver. Neither of those are options you'll be using too often early in your career, but as you become more experienced and learn to read a defense against your players' strengths, they'll become more and more useful and lead to bigger and better plays. For instance, if you've got a super-speedy wide receiver on the line and the single man assigned to him is crowding the line, send him deep. He'll outrun the defense and make a big play, provided somebody doesn't freaking touch the ball before it gets to him.
Defensive control options are much more limited than their offensive counterparts, since defenders typically have little more to worry about than eluding blockers, tackling ball carriers and disrupting passes. Like the offensive players, your defenders can choose to sprint up to the line by tapping the "A" button, which isn't really all that effective, or put their whole weight into the effort by charging up the "A" button and shaking the blockers by hitting "R" or "L" at the right moment. If you fail to break through the O Line, your defender can still attempt to disrupt the pass by hitting the "Y" button and throwing an arm up into the air. If you're guarding a receiver you have the same options as on the line, but instead of shaking the lineman, you can attempt to either bat the ball out of the air if it's headed your way (the "L" button) or try for an interception (the "R" button). Looking for the interception is more risky, since your players will usually make bonehead plays that leave nothing but open field in front of them should the receiver make the catch, but obviously the potential rewards are much greater. Personally, though, I rarely took over on pass coverage until the ball was in the air, since it became nothing more than an excuse for the refs to make phantom pass interference calls.
In terms of visuals, my initial impressions were both met and exceeded. This is as graphically impressive a sports game as I've ever seen. Reflections off of helmets and jerseys, a wide variety of facial expressions with seamless transitions from one to the next, an almost limitless collection of player animations and incredible stadium replications are just the tip of the iceberg. Occasionally you'll see something that's glaringly out of place, (like the weak, two-dimensional crowds in the background of every long shot or the fuzzy, pixelated appearance of the logo in the center of the field if you're more than thirty yards away) but they're pretty well isolated and only really stand out because everything surrounding them is so pristine. The presentation of the game itself is really outstanding, too, to the point that I've fooled people passing by the apartment and glancing in my sliding glass door into believing I was watching a live game on ESPN. I mean, these guys have got everything captured perfectly, from the opening credits of SportsCenter to Chris Berman's comb over. The visuals do a great job of setting the mood, especially during and after the Super Bowl, where you're treated to an Air Force fly-by, giant inflatable cartoon football players greeting you at the player introductions, post-game celebrations in the locker room and more. If you need a game that shows off what the Xbox's visual capabilities can do in a sports environment, you can't get any better than this.
I was surprised to hear several recycled phrases on the commentary, left over from NFL 2K2's announce team, but the entire presentation was padded with just enough new stuff to remove the feeling that I'd paid for this before and to keep the whole experience fresh and interesting. The fluidity of the commentary is uncanny in its current incarnation; gone are the days of announcers shouting "That brings up... third and.... eleven.... from the.... Eagles'.... thirty... five... yard line," and in their place is an ongoing dialogue that's much more reminiscent of what you'll hear during a real game. The announcers go off on unrelated tangents from time to time, poke fun at each other and praise big plays if and when they come around. If a player is knocked out of the game, Suzy Kolber will head to the sidelines and report on the trainer's diagnosis. The only problem with her occasional reports is that they throw off the regular announce team's commentary. You'll get through three or four plays while she's rambling on about how much pain your wide receiver is in, and when she finally quits chatting, the regular announcers will jump in and play catch up. They'll run through every play that went on while she was talking, as if everything was happening in super speed, until they finally catch up with the live action. It's not really that big of a deal, but can grow distracting if they're too far behind in the timeline.
Chris Berman's original commentary is really the superstar here, and it's largely an amazing bit of work. He's got his trademark nicknames for a great number of players, if and when he needs to introduce them, and his calls have every bit of the wit and comedy you're used to hearing on the evening edition of NFL Primetime. My only complaint about his role in the production is the repetition of those aforementioned nicknames. He didn't record regular names for the players, so every time Marvin Harrison makes a big play that's worth recapping, he'll refer to him as "Starvin' Marvin Harrison." EVERY time. You could have thrown exclusively to Harrison's side of the field all game long, and the halftime show would be filled with "Starvin' Marvin"s.
The whole game's presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, if you've got the hardware to handle it, and sounds really superb pumped all the way up. The sounds of creaking pads, grunts, groans and shuffling feet are perfect, especially in first person mode, where they're coming from all around you, and the sound system is pumpin' when the music kicks in between plays. As I'd mentioned in the introduction, custom soundtracks are supported in this title, and they're quite a bit of fun to select, crop, implement and enjoy. You can grab any tune currently housed on the Box's hard drive, specify exact starting and ending positions, and assign the tune to play after a stop on third down, an interception, the end of a quarter, a touchdown or about two dozen other situations. It's a great feature, and while it does grow to rely on some songs more frequently than others, it beats the pants off of listening to the generic default music after every play.
My only complaint in this area is that the crowd noise doesn't reflect that of a live pro football crowd. You'd figure, if they're going to go all the way with the noise of the players themselves, that they'd want to match it with an equally uproarious crowd that explodes after a tremendous play and grows progressively louder as the calls become more important and time slowly winds away. A successfully rowdy audience would've put the Surround Sound over the top, and quite possibly gone a ways toward amending the errors elsewhere in the game. Instead, we get ho hum cheers after a big play that quickly die away, a lot of white "mulling audience" noise and a noticeable lack of loud "DEE-FENSE" chants.
This is easily the longest writeup I've ever concocted, and even so I've overlooked a LOT of stuff. The Crib, for example, where you can outfit your imaginary skyscraping apartment with bundles and bundles of NFL-related crap, spending the points you've earned by toppling existing NFL records. The all-new VIP system, enabling you to share your playcalling tendencies with friends and future opponents around the world. The detailed create-a-player and create-a-team modes. The online leagues (which, for the record, I've never seen fully functional due again to Sega's ongoing server problems). Sega and Visual Concepts were on the right track with this one, packing as much quality as they could into one disc, and it's painful to realize just how close to undeniable perfection they really were without realizing it in the end. With a few tweaks to the online mode, another couple of weeks in testing and a few very minor changes, this could have been more than just a twenty dollar discount title. It could've ranked among the greatest of all time, with a price that will never be beaten, but it got shot out to market too soon and the whole picture suffered as a result. Still a damn fine game, and if you can live with a couple glitches it's absolutely worth a second look.
Overall Score: 8.8