"One of the best American Football games ever to be released"
American Football is a sport most people outside America don't understand to well. They don't understand why grown men charge at each other trying to take each other down all for one ball. The ESPN franchise is new, replacing the 2kX franchise from SEGA and they together with Visual Concepts have delivered a superb NFL game.
ESPN features a variety of gameplay modes including season and franchise. Season allows you to take a team through one season without much of the franchise options such as the NFL draft etc. At the end of the season the game ends so you only have one crack at the Superbowl. The game mode where you will spend most of your time however is the franchise mode. In franchise you become head coach of an NFL franchise and have to deal with injuries, trades, the NFL draft and other end of season tasks. During the season you can focus on injuries and the matches themselves but at the end of the season you have to deal with retirements, trades, and the new breed of players coming in from the college competition. You can choose to handle this yourself, or have it all done by the game.
Being officially licensed has allowed SEGA to put in the official teams and players for each franchise. The teams all have accurate uniforms, stadiums and logos attached to their franchise. Also having the official ESPN licensed has allowed Visual Concepts to design their interface and visuals around actual ESPN coverage of the sport. There is no doubt that ESPN NFL Football has one of the most stylish presentations of the sport to date and for those of you familiar with ESPN you will instantly recognise the presentation available in the game.
Before each match a pre-match show is given and the commentator provides his pick for the match as well as which player will be key to that teams victory. This acts as the loading screen which is a lot better then watching a bar move across the screen. The other shows include NFL Primetime and the half time show. During the half time show, the ESPN commentator provides his insight into the match, referencing actual plays that happened during the half and the players which played well whilst NFL Primetime is a weekly wrapup show that has highlights from some of the matches simulated by the game itself.
Another unique feature of ESPN NFL Football is first person football. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to walk out to a packed Qualcomm Stadium as a player then wonder no more. First person football allows you to play matches from inside the helmet. You can change to any player at any time, and it definitely is harder then it looks. Running with the ball, getting decked and seeing your helmet hit the ground whilst you look to the sky is an impressive aspect of this game. You can choose to play a franchise from this perspective but can't chop and change between normal and first person football once the decision is made.
Another feature of ESPN is the Crib. The Crib is an area where you can look at things you have unlocked via various options in the game. Starting a franchise will unlock something, playing for an hour will unlock something etc. The Crib is a full 3D living area you can walk around with the controls and look at all the memorabilia you have unlocked. It appears that you can't unlock things for the Crib when using the lowest difficulty level so the developers obviously want you to work for your prizes.
ESPN NFL Football is tough, there is no doubt about it and much of that can be attributed to the great AI featured in the game. The focus is definitely on the running game as every pass you send towards a wide receiver can be risky. If you pass to coverage you are going to be intercepted and it works both ways, cover the AI defence and you just might pick the ball off. Even on the lowest difficulty level the game offers quite a challenge, and the reaction time is the key to victory. Once the ball is out, you only have about five seconds to decide what to do before your player becomes a quarterback pancake.
The interface used in the franchise mode and in the game overall is fantastic. You have five options and these options dictate what tasks you want to perform. For instance in the front office you can look at potential draft players, contracts etc whilst in your diary you will find upcoming matches, emails from the boss about your performance, and results from other games in the league. It is also from here that you begin your matches.
Player animations in the game are impressive and simulate the bone crunching aspect of the sport well. Players will dive for loose balls or for interceptions, jump for catches and potentially be decked or just run with the ball and hope to bust the line. Holding down the X button will make your player surge at the line, and can cause a line break if he gets on the outside of the defence. The plays in the play book can be changed on the fly. You can substitute different players into positions, flip the play, or move players around.
Visually ESPN NFL Football is impressive and features some fantastic graphics. Along with the aforementioned player animations and accurate uniforms, huge, accurate stadiums are present and the pre-match show before the Superbowl is quite accurate. There are some aesthetic touches as well such as Cheerleaders and other players on the sidelines, and cheerleaders dancing at the end of each quarter.
ESPN NFL Football features some of the best commentary in a game ever. The commentary flows so well and even though at times samples are being mixed together, it is almost impossible to tell. The commentators talk about the game being played as well as a bit of background about the players and obviously the pre-match show and half time show just adds to this. The players also yell at each other at the line of scrimmage, and this is amplified when in first person football mode.
Multiplayer is only offered on the same console. Whilst the NTSC version of the game does support the online PS2 network, the PAL version does not. This means that play is restricted to only on the same console.
Overall ESPN NFL Football is one of the best NFL games to be released thus far. The ESPN presentation paired with the accurate gameplay and fantastic graphics all combine to produce a game which no NFL fan should be without. Some will be disappointed that the PAL version of the game does not support online play on the PS2, but that shouldn't be enough to keep you from playing this superb sports game from Visual Concepts.