As for the crib, it's deeper, there's more stuff to unlock (ranging from furniture to free agents), and it's got one all-new feature to speak of. That feature? The inclusion of a bunch of B-list celebrities. These celebrities consist of Ready to Rumble and 3,000 Miles to Graceland star David Arquette, Dave Navarro groupie numero uno Carmen Electra, mildly funny comic actor Jamie Kennedy, the loudest hip-hop personality on earth in Funkmasta Flex, and the grotesque human curiosity-turned-occasional reality TV star Steve-O. Each of these celebrities has his or her own "team," which basically consists of a roster most pro bowl teams can't even compete with, and through the crib, they'll challenge you to matches. The only interaction you have with the celebrities is through a little box with a talking head that appears from time to time during a game. The celebrity taunts you when his or her team makes a big play, while he or she laments when you pull a big play. For the sake of brevity, we'll just sum it up nicely and quickly for you: This feature is dumb. None of these celebrities makes any manner of contextual sense in the game, their dialogue is painful to listen to, and, really, the last thing we ever want to see is Steve-O's grinning, desperate face when we give up a touchdown. The good news is that you can, if so inclined, completely ignore these celebrity interactions, even if you happen to visit the crib regularly. And you'll want to ignore it.
First-person football and the crib are back. Whether you loved them or hated them last year, you'll likely have much the same reaction to them this time around.
The last couple of additions to ESPN NFL 2K5's feature list are celebrations and, on the Xbox, editable stadium music. The celebration mode actually lets you assign specific celebration animations to various control buttons, letting you bust out with your favorite celebrations after a big score. The list of available celebrations isn't huge, but there's a decent variety to choose from. The stadium music mode is Xbox-exclusive since it ties into the game's custom soundtrack feature. Basically, you can take any song from the Xbox hard drive and edit it to fit into the game as background ambience. Score a big touchdown and set it to play the most celebratory song you've got. Get ready for a kickoff and set up "Welcome to the Jungle" to play (just like a New England home game). It's a very cool feature, to say the least.
Aside from these modes, most of the remaining game is much the same as before. The requisite quick match, situation, practice, tournament, player create, and team create modes are all there, front and center. One notable omission is the season mode, which, for some reason, just doesn't exist this year. While you can just play a single season in the franchise mode, and the franchise mode does support multiplayer, it is a little odd that season was just dumped.
Online play is also back once again for ESPN NFL 2K5, and, this year, both the PS2 and Xbox are basically on an even keel when it comes to online features. Both have your basic head-to-head play, and both feature tournament- and season-based league play. Leagues existed on the PS2 last year, but they weren't all that spectacular. This year, leagues are set to offer up a multitude of options that weren't previously available, including live rosters. Essentially, the system will host your league's rosters on a server, allowing you to perform trades, conduct free agent signings, and track injuries across your league. It's basically the closest thing to that Holy Grail of online football--called an online franchise mode--that fans have been pining for since the advent of online play. That all sounds very cool, but leagues are currently unavailable as of this writing, so it's hard to say one way or the other if this feature will work out as intended.
The online mode on both the PS2 and Xbox features league play, complete with live roster storage for trades, injury tracking, and free agent signings.
One change that's been made to the online gameplay is a new EQ balance that essentially balances out the two teams in competition to make their statistics more comparable, which means that if you want to play with a team that's lower-ranked, you'll still be able to compete with the juggernaut teams. It seems as though this works pretty well, though we did find that pitting, for example, the Giants against the Patriots was still a fairly one-sided affair. Another nice addition is the effective requirement of updated rosters for online play. Once a new roster update comes up, the game prompts you to install it once you log on. For those who demand roster purity, this is exactly what you've been hoping for. Finally, in regard to online performance, for the most part we came across no lag, no drops, and no issues to speak of. We had one connection drop on the PS2, and the PS2 version also seemed to experience a bit of slowdown online, but otherwise, it seems as though online play should be pretty much copacetic across the board.
For all of its excellent modes and gameplay, however, ESPN NFL 2K5's greatest asset comes in the form of its graphics. Hands down, flat out, undeniably, inarguably, this is the best-looking football game ever made. All you need to do is take a nice, up-close look at any given player model, and this fact will become readily apparent to you. The jerseys, helmets, body builds, and faces all look amazing. Sure, a few players' faces don't look quite perfect, but the ones that do are phenomenal. And then there's the animation. Never has a football game looked as parallel to the real game as ESPN NFL 2K5. The tackles, the catches, the throws, the blocks, the interceptions... Every single aspect of the on-the-field action--all of it--looks completely awesome. Watch a safety jump up for an interception, or check out linemen on opposite sides of the ball grappling with one another, or catch a glimpse of a running back as he spins past a would-be tackler. Try to recall a game that captured these visual aesthetics better. You might as well just give up, because you won't be able to.
Of course, all of this is to say nothing of the game's usage of the ESPN license for every aspect of its presentation, which is equally incredible. Last year's game feels like just the tip of the iceberg compared to what Visual Concepts has done with it this year. Along with all the awesome replays, menus, stat overlays, crowd cutscenes, and otherwise cool-looking ESPN bric-a-brac, real-life ESPN personalities Chris "Boomer" Berman and Suzie Kolber are polygonally represented in the game. Boomer provides pregame, halftime, and postgame commentary, whereas Suzie interjects the game with injury reports and appears at the end of the game to interview the top player of the contest. Aside from some rather poor lip-synching dialogue, these representations of the two actually look a whole bunch like their real-life counterparts. Additionally, ESPN anchor Trey Wingo and draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. also make appearances--albeit only audibly--to discuss specific aspects of a season during episodes of SportsCenter, which can be played during the franchise mode. Wingo talks up injury reports, retirements, and contract signings, whereas Kiper discusses promising rookies and lends his name to the mock draft feature. Not all of the dialogue is brilliant, but it works just fine.
The crib mode lets you assemble a large collection of random items, including bobbleheads.
However, while the dialogue from the ESPN folks is certainly great, the in-game commentary isn't quite up to snuff. Longtime Sega Sports no-name commentators Dan Stevens and Peter O'Keefe are back yet again, and if, when playing the game, their commentary seems just a tad too familiar, don't worry. You're not crazy. It seems as though the developers didn't really record much new commentary this year, and much of it is directly lifted from last year's game. Additionally, we encountered some weird spots where specific lines of dialogue kept showing up over and over again throughout a game. We actually heard the same line about "a huge punt" seven times in the same game. Aside from the repetition and lack of vicissitude, however, the commentary is still largely good, and it manages to stay accurate in most every situation.
Faring far better in the audio department are the in-game sound effects. Though, again, not a ton has changed here. However, what has changed makes a huge difference. The sounds of hits and tackles are excellent and so is the roar of the crowd, especially if you happen to have some surround speakers, because the game makes solid use of Dolby surround support on both systems. The on-the-field dialogue is about the same as always, consisting of some junky insults thrown from opposing players, which is fine for what it is. Less fine, however, is the dialogue during the Suzie Kolber interview with the player of the game. Suzie herself is appropriately obtuse for her usual on-camera interview style, but the player dialogue actually manages to be less interesting than your usual player interview. You get nothing from it, and half of the time the player speaking has the completely wrong voice. Tom Brady talking like he was raised in Brooklyn? Not good. Funny, perhaps, but not good.
As creepy as the idea of a polygonal Chris Berman is, the implementation of him, Suzie Kolber, and the other ESPN personalities is a great touch.
When comparing the two versions of ESPN NFL 2K5, the Xbox version wins in most every respect. Graphically, the PS2 version is pretty clearly just a dumbed-down take on the Xbox version, with some occasional frame rate problems to boot. Also, the PS2 version has a notable difference when it comes to highlight reels. While the Xbox version features full video highlight clips, the PS2 just uses static images presented in succession. That's not to say the PS2 version doesn't look excellent when compared to other PS2 games, because it does. However, the Xbox version holds a much clearer-cut advantage over other games on its respective system. On the flip side... Over the years, some have claimed that the PS2 versions of the ESPN games have controlled better, due to slightly more responsive button timing and analog control. An extremely minute difference can be noted between the two versions of ESPN NFL 2K5, but it's so slight that it practically doesn't matter. The Xbox version still plays wonderfully, and nobody should have any problems with it.
So, when all is said and done, and after all the price drop and release date hullabaloo, does ESPN NFL 2K5 manage to come together to make a compelling, quality football game? The answer is an unflinching and resounding "Yes." Don't think of ESPN NFL 2K5 as a budget game, because it's about the farthest thing from the average budget title that you can imagine. If anything, this game should be called the "Steal of the Century," because you're getting all the benefits of one of the best football franchises of all time for an incredibly measly 20 bucks. If this price isn't enough of an excuse to get you to give ESPN NFL 2K5--arguably the best football game on the market right now--a fair shot, then you are out of your mind. As for the rest of you who are not suffering from bouts of insanity, go pick up ESPN NFL 2K5, and do so with the peace of mind that you're getting no less than the deal of a lifetime.