It's taken its sweet time coming out here, and it's certainly a touch more expensive than it should be, but Sega/Take Two/ESPN's NFL 2K5 is definitively the best gridiron game you can get this year. Next year, with the impact of EA's aggressive moves, signing up the exclusive NFL and ESPN contracts, and Sega selling off what's left to Take Two, and it could be anybody's ballgame.
For the vast majority of the Australian audience, your primary exposure to American Football will be via the cathode ray tube that folks like to call television. NFL's an acquired taste, and with the costs of just the basic plastic body armor that most NFL athletes wear being prohibitive, it's far more likely that you'll just head down to the local park for some footy (League, Union or AFL, depending on taste) than stand suspiciously with your hands in-between someone else's legs, shouting incomprehensible strings of numbers while waiting for the opposing team line to rush at you with murderous intent.
Thanks to the US market being huge for exactly these kinds of games, however, we don't need to, as huge sums of money are ploughed into annual video game franchises such as the ESPN games, and EA's competing Madden line. The gap between both games is pretty slim -- and unless you're really obsessive, there's certainly no real need to own both titles. Having said that, at an asking price of just under fifty bucks, there's no doubting that ESPN NFL 2K5 is the best value NFL game you're likely to see for a long while. It's actually just a tad overpriced, given that it went to retail in the US for US$19.95, with Xbox Live support that has been strangely stripped out -- and that was at the start of the season, not the end of it. Still, it beats not getting the title at all.
If you've played the previous ESPN title, NFL 2K4, or Sega's previous NFL 2K games, you'll be on mostly familiar territory with ESPN 2K5, which doesn't particularly innovate in areas of pure gameplay to speak of; it's still the same old game of choosing plays (with the option to fake your choice when playing a real opponent) and grinding your way up the field, ten yards and four plays at a time. There are some tweaked options for delivering stronger (but riskier) tackles, and shifting around specific defensive players - or even whole lines of them - but these are enhancements to what was already a solid package, not radical design changes.
NFL 2K5 certainly isn't a cakewalk of a game, and if you're not familiar with NFL strategy, you'll probably find yourself losing yards and conceding points at a truly frightening pace. Then again, if you're a fan of the pigskin, you'll appreciate how well balanced and genuinely representative of the real NFL this game is, from realistic coverage patterns that'll penalise you for trying too many risky passes to a franchise mode that takes ages to demystify; if your love for the NFL goes as far as looking at every statistic and wanting to specifically trade players and manage teams over a huge time period, then that's open to you as well, as it was in last year's game.
Where NFL 2K5 really shines from an Australian perspective, however, is that it really nails the TV presentation aspect. Everything that ESPN does when covering a game is here, from Chris Berman's half-time show to sideline injury reports and some really stunning commentary that manages to cover the flow of the game better than any title in recent memory. Admittedly, once you've played through a season's worth of games, you'll start to pick apart the phrases that link up to make this smooth commentary, but it'll take you about a season to really start noticing it at all. While Madden 2005 is a good looking game, ESPN blows it away in the animation stakes, with larger and more realistic players in pretty much every position, a huge variety of running, passing and tackling animations and the aforementioned TV-style coverage that's really the icing on the cake for this particular title.
ESPN NFL 2K5 also features what it calls the VIP system, which at first just seems like a fancy marketing way of saying "User profiles". The interesting thing about the VIP settings is that they track absolutely everything you do, and build a reasonable facsimile of your play style based on the moves you most often make. VIP profiles can be shuffled around on memory cards, making for some intriguing possibilities -- you could prepare for a match with your mates by grabbing their VIP profile and seeing how they play against the computer AI.
American sports are inextricably linked to lots of meaningless glitz, and in the case of NFL 2K5, this is exemplified in the Crib. As you play the game, you'll earn Crib credits -- for time played, games won or lost, and exceptional moves made. Crib credits can be used to upgrade your crib, so if you're into a very loose Sims-style experience, complete with a slew of B and Z-grade celebrities who'll call into your crib to challenge you to a game. It's silly, but you can completely ignore it if you so wish.
There are flaws in ESPN NFL 2K5 - the removal of Xbox Live support, the rosters that were accurate when the game launched in the US, a month before the season's kick-off, but that are by now hopelessly out of date - but in the grand scheme of things, and especially at this price point, it's really hard to argue with a title as good as NFL 2K5. Now, if only we could get next year's game on time, for once.