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Football season is here at last. And what a first week it was! Once again, Houston wins their first game of the season (at the expense of poor Miami, who already put coach Dave Wannstedt on the hot seat), Former Patriots Drew Bledsoe and Lawyer Milloy deliver a big "in your face" to their former team in a 31-0 Bills Blowout, Brett Favre throws a record tying four picks in a loss, and best of all, the 49ers defense nukes the Bears in head coach Dennis Erickson's debut.
At the time of this writing I know we are heading into week two where the 49ers will be playing the hated Rams, but with Kurt Warner out with a concussion (I never thought I'd be saying thank you to the Giants, especially with jerks like Jerry the Homophobe Shockey on their team), but now with Warner out of the picture, I am looking forward to a 2-0 season start.
But some things never change. We have the Madden Curse strike again, when Michael Vick (Madden's cover boy) was knocked out with a leg injury, and as always we are thrust upon with several competing football games out on the market. While the usual suspects, Madden 2004 and the newly named ESPN NFL Football (formerly NFL 2K4) will be up for review, I will also be adding NFL Fever 2004 for the first time.
NEW FEATURES SCORE:
It's hard to believe that Madden is starting its 14th year (going all the way back to the Apple II computer and the Sega Genesis), but it's even harder to believe that EA always seems to find something new to make the series as fresh as ever. This year, they not only provide one dazzling new intro; they provide two!
First off is the new Playmaker control system. Using the rarely operated right thumbstick (aside from FPS titles, of course), Playmaker allows on-the-fly audibles before and during the play. Say you have a run formation heading to the left, a quick press of the right thumbstick will bluff the defense as your running back will actually run to the right. Or if you have a wide receiver heading in a post formation (diagonally towards the center of the field), but the far end does not have a receiver present, just pressing forward will send the receiver on a fly (straight out to the endzone) pattern, away from any defenseman.
When a play starts, Playmaker can also be used on offense to set blocks for your running back, or on defense to commit your defenders to either a pass or run play. It is a very well thought out application that adds a unique twist to a solid title.
If just for Playmaker, EA would have had a strong start with the new additions, but go figure they go ahead and add a Franchise mode lover's dream with the new Owner mode. Not only will you have control of your team from a coach and general manager standpoint, but now as a team owner you will have control of everything, ranging from the price of a beer (now I can raise prices to prevent public drunkenness), paying your players and staff (now with four coaches: head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and special teams coach, and a training staff), upgrading your stadium (or building a new one, providing you can procure the funds), or even relocating your team which will make your previous home team fans very unhappy. Just ask any pre-Ravens Cleveland Browns fans when I mention the name Art Modell.) Now the main goal is to not just win the Super Bowl (which is always nice), but to make your fans happy and to maintain a profit.
Sega is recovering from a poor sales year last year. Despite introducing the ESPN license to NFL 2K3, they only were able to sell 300,000 copies as opposed to Madden's three million. After admitting defeat they have now fought back and have taken advantage of the full ESPN license. Where the previous game featured some minor ESPN related graphics, the rest of the game felt like classic 2K. This year the ESPN license has been used to full effect, as you can see right from the menu screen (a virtual recreation of the SportsCenter set). Each game begins with a full NFL Countdown intro hosted by Chris Berman who keeps his trademark of unique names for teams (the RAAAAAAAAAAAIDERS, though I still have yet to hear the New York Football Giants) and players (Ace-Deuce McAllister and Steve "Air" McNair), as well as an impressive halftime report featuring key plays and Berman's pick for the Hot at the Half player (though it should be his Halftime Hero). In addition, with each week in Franchise mode, the Weekly Wrap-up that was popular last year has been upgraded to ESPN NFL Primetime, which not only features the scores for the week, but up to THREE highlights. This feat has never been done even back in the days of cart football (Madden on the Genesis used to feature one highlight per week.)
ESPN also decided to become more daring with a new First Person Football mode. As the name says, the entire game can be played from inside the player's helmet. In addition to the standard controls used in standard football, the right thumbstick can be pressed down for a Max Payne-like bullet time feature, vital for reading the receivers and throwing to the correct one without a possible sack. The FPF can also be used in the Franchise mode, and is a strange feature, but at times can be very disorienting and can make some people sick (I have had first hand account of it.)
In addition, ESPN now adds a new Crib feature. Similar to Madden cards, players earn bonuses for specific tasks (completing a long pass, making an interception and running it for a touchdown, or just for playing for a certain time frame) in the form of decorations and bonuses to set up a personal sports haven.
Granted my past experience with NFL Fever has been very limited, as I have always been aware of how the gameplay has been more arcade like, centering on big money plays (but nowhere near the level of Blitz). This year promises to be more realistic, but from what I've seen so far there are still too many big pass plays for my taste.
However the biggest addition this year is the use of Microsoft's own XSN Sports network. Using XSN, players can use their MSN Messenger Passport along with their Xbox Gametag to set up leagues and tournaments, then play them using Xbox Live. It will be very interesting to see the results of these online leagues and how they will be used in future XSN titles (NBA Inside Drive, NHL Rivals, the newly acquired MLB High Heat, etc.)
Once again, ESPN NFL takes control visually. The players were always the most realistic and this year we see more of them with their helmets off, and they do look authentic as well. The coaches also look more like their lifelike counterparts. However, with the new ESPN polish everything looks better than even.
But what gets me is how even on the PS2, all those ESPN graphics and effects don't slow the game down much?
Madden 2004, sad to say, really needs to get a makeover. We still have the same graphics that have been used since Madden 2002. On the bright side, there is no slowdown at all, but still the jerseys aren't completely accurate. I know I am anal about this, but I want the authentic lettering on the players. If there is a bright side, it is the newly designed play selection screen that allows replays to be shown while making a play.
NFL Fever has been heavily criticized for their player models. I do remember most of them looking like marshmallow men. This year the body shapes look better, but they are still off. In addition, some of the players don't look like the real deal when they have their helmets off. I also noticed some slowdown on occasion, but nothing serious. On the bright side, the stadiums still look amazing, but some serious work needs to be done for 2005.
ADVANTAGE: ESPN NFL
Again taking advantage of the ESPN license, Sega strikes again with an aurally impressive package. Once again the commentary is at the top of the line (despite using the same commentary team for the fifth straight year), and as always Chris Berman (one of the few ESPN personalities I can tolerate) is as impressive on PS2 as he is on TV. Everything else sounds similar to the well known 2K franchise, which is never anything to complain about (still love the personal trash talking).
Madden not only needs a makeover graphics wise, but we need some real commentary. It is still as drab and lifeless as ever. EA needs to take a cue from the NCAA commentary team, as they are still EA's best (though Jim Hughson from NHL without Don Taylor comes a close second).
NFL Fever's commentary puzzles me as well. I have little experience with Kevin Colabro, but I do know a little of Ron Pitts. In any event they don't excite me that much. Even on the field the action sounds strange. When the players are on the field for the pre-game warm-ups, I couldn't even make out what they were saying. I might be wrong, but why does Coach Erickson sound like a drill sergeant? If he really does sound like this (I haven't heard him myself yet) then I will retract my previous statement. The crowd itself, however, sounds great on a 5.1 system and using the original NFL Films soundtracks is a nice touch (though being able to import custom soundtracks is also a big plus.)
ADVANTAGE: ESPN NFL
Now here is what matters the most. To me, the perfect football game must be as realistic as possible. Madden keeps getting closer and closer to perfection, and now with adding Playmaker, it is touching that unattainable level. Both passing and running feel the way they should. As for defense, I still find at times that I would like to see better defensive coverage, let alone a challenge system where I can actually overturn bad calls more often, but that's what 2005 is for.
ESPN's criticisms of the past have been the same thing: not being able to tackle computer players and passes that look complete, only to bounce out a second later, leading to very frustrating moments. It is now possible to be able to complete a pass without it bouncing out after being a COMPLETION, and it is also possible to tackle players without watching them bounce away from you.
There are still complaints with the running game, as it seems at times to be too difficult to get even two yards. Where is the blocking? Isn't that what Tight Ends and Guards are supposed to do?
What I do like the most is that ESPN finally is able to provide a challenge system, which Madden has had since 2002 (I know it was in 2001 but you could never use it.) The great thing about this challenge system is that unlike Madden which selects the cause for challenge automatically, ESPN lets you choose the reason for the challenge, be it a bad spot of the ball, or a fumble that should have actually been called an incomplete pass. My only complaint about the new Challenge system is that a large number of plays are overturned (on the other side, most of the plays on Madden seem to stand, go figure), but at times it could end up hurting the person making the challenge, such as a bad spot actually turning out worse.
NFL Fever still feels a little too much on the arcade side to me. I've seen too many big yardage pass plays, plus my biggest concern was trying to control defense. Passes are thrown out way too quickly, and it's hard to react in time. The bright side is Microsoft offers the ability to select a receiver closest to the passing target, which does help a bit, but still results in too many completions.
The passing game is varied, which helps out. In addition to the standard button passing, Fever includes Trigger passing (select a receiver then use the Right Trigger to pass to him, allowing control of the throw power and height) and the new "Read and Lead" passing (using the right thumbstick to control a passing cursor).
All the passing schemes work out quite well. But that doesn't hold back the fact that running can be a little difficult at times. While I can get a few big gains at times, other times the defensive line comes crashing out of nowhere on poor little Garrison Hearst. What is even worse is how I can't select my motion man. Whereas both Madden and ESPN allow me to select which player I want to set in motion (vital for me to use as a blocker), Fever only controls a motion man with the use of the X button. I would prefer to have more variety in my running/passing game.
Lastly, I feel disappointed with Fever's options. There are no difficulty slides (can only select levels of Rookie, Veteran, All-Pro, and All-Fever), When 2005 comes out, there should be more variety in the difficulty.
Last year I dismissed the online decision as "too soon to tell," but now with both the PS2 Network Adapter and Xbox Live available, plus the PC of course, the online battle can take place.
I was able to get some time with ESPN NFL Football last year on both the PS2 and Xbox Live, and they were both impressive (though the Live version had a bug that changed the music in Franchise mode for the worse) but for some reason the PS2 version of ESPN has a bug that won't let me register to play online. When typing my email address (both with the Dual Shock 2 and with a keyboard), I can't type the "@" character. It seems as though the only way I can register to play will be on espnvideogames.com, and as of writing this review, the registration is not up yet.
Madden plays well online this year (despite being PS2 only), and does a good job of keeping track of player stats, win-loss records, and disconnection percentage (vital for tracking sore losers who constantly quit). These scores can also be tracked on a PC using EA Sports Online. What I loved the most about EASO is should a player quit the game, you are given the opportunity to continue the game against the computer. A win against the CPU will count as a win for you (with the actual score) and the quitter will get a losing score of 0-2.
Live gameplay will be Fever's best strength. With the use of the XSN network, setting up leagues and tournaments on a PC and playing them on the Xbox will be commonplace, and I will love to see it done by both EA and ESPN in the near future. I commend Microsoft for coming out with an impressive feature.
ADVANTANGE: NFL FEVER
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Again we have a very tight race in the football market, but despite some unique innovations (XSN, First Person Football, Playmaker control, Owner Mode), the result is the same as ever.
Fever might be the weakest of the three titles, but the concept of XSN shows potential, and I look forward to its progress. ESPN is a technical marvel, and it is a vast improvement over last year (worthy enough of the MIP award for Most Improved Player.)
But once again, it is Madden 2004 that walks away with it all. This year they did several things right:
1. The Playmaker control system works great.
2. Owner mode is a franchise lover's fantasy.
3. Madden 2004 is the only title with a PC and PS1 version
4. EA had a three week lead-in on the competition, resulting in massive sales.
Till next time, see you on the gridiron!
Todd Hargosh is GiN's Product Testing Manager. He enjoys any game that gets his adrenaline pumping. Todd can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.