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Head-To-Head Review: The Virtual Super Bowl, Madden NFL 2005 vs. ESPN NFL 2K5

Posted on Wed, Sep 08, 2004

The digital gridiron competition has never been hotter; Madden has been reigning strong as king since its inception for the last 15 years. But, ever since the launch of Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast console, competition has finally gotten a bit stiff with the NFL 2K series. In recent years, small additions to the series such as online play and, more recently, the ESPN license have given Visual Concepts the potential with their 2K series to topple King John and his mighty game, but have never been able to pull it off. They’ve stepped up to the challenge with a surprising price drop to $20, alongside vastly improved gameplay and physics. But, just as every other year, Madden’s also redesigned many things, from character animation to gameplay, and maybe the biggest addition, online play on Xbox Live. So, who’s going to take the championship home this year and win the Virtual Super Bowl? Let’s get to kickoff and decide a victor.

Madden NFL 2005 Logovs.ESPN NFL 2K5 Logo

Madden’s marvel has always been its gameplay. Year after year, amazing improvements that seem ridiculously impossible are done with ease. It wasn’t long ago that running backs could only move 8 different directions; now, there’s full 360-degree control. Last year introduced the innovative Playmaker control, which allowed players on the offensive side of the ball to modify plays with the flick of a stick. Even though it seemed like an amazing feature that brought a new aspect to the game, this left players on defense baffled on how to control the big O when a receiver changes routes mid-run.

Defensive stalwarts, worry no more. Your time has come, and Playmaker control has reached the D. Imagine it: Your Baltimore Ravens are in the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, in the frigid weather, attempting to stop the Packers from victory. It’s fourth down, one yard to go, you’re up by a field goal with a minute left in the game. You call a Cover 12, expecting Brett Favre to connect downfield with Donald Driver for the touchdown. Then, you get a gut instinct call, and you decide to blitz it instead of cover the pass. You can feel it; Ahman Green is about to stuff it in the hole, get the first, and then the Pack calls a T.O. to stop the clock and extend their chances of victory. So, you enact Playmaker Control, and you send in Ray Lewis to blitz right down the middle. The ball’s snapped; Lewis runs through the O-Line and nails Ahman, behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of four. You get the ball back, take a couple of knees, and the game is yours. That, my friends, is the Madden Experience.

While Madden has made some large adaptations to improve their gameplay (the Hit Stick for defense, which allows you to deliver bone-crushing tackles), ESPN 2K5 has only made a few tweaks that, while providing an improvement over last year, don’t really do too much to put them ahead. The good thing this year is that everything just plain feels right. You feel like you’re really in control of everything that happens down on the field this year, which is an experience that really never blossomed in the previous year’s editions of the series. Everything you do, from calling an audible, to having players switch coverage, seems to drastically affect the game.

Admittedly, Visual Concepts has made some strides to improve the ESPN NFL series this year, making it come closer to Madden than ever before. But, just as in years before, King John and his men at EA/Tiburon have managed to deliver the best gameplay on the planet in a football game. While it’s stiff competition this year, Madden manages to score a touchdown in the gameplay area.

Current Score: Madden NFL 2005 – 7, ESPN NFL 2K5 – 0

Ever since acquiring the ESPN license, all of the Sega Sports series have taken the ball and ran with it in the presentation department. But none has come closer to a real-life ESPN program experience than in 2K5. Everything just feels like you’re actually watching a football game on ESPN, rather than playing a video game. Just as you start off a game, Chris Berman of SportsCenter fame is shown at the SC desk, making comments about the upcoming matchup. You’ll hear his famous quirps about “well-dressed Amani Toomer” getting ready to carry the Giants to victory. As you play your first game, you’ll immediately recognize everything on screen if you’ve ever watched a single game of football on ESPN. The score box, the bottom line updates; everything that you’ve ever seen on ESPN programming, you’ll see here.

Meanwhile, Madden has somewhat taken a dip in the presentation. It just feels like last year’s edition was recycled in this department. The infamous boring commentary is back in full swing, and while EA does attempt to make some efforts by bringing in other familiar faces (such as famed sports radio host Tony Bruno to take part in the “radio” part of the Franchise mode), the overall feel of the game just doesn’t give off a live telecast experience.

So, while Madden may have rocked the face off of ESPN in gameplay and took an early lead, Sega’s all-star football game has managed to score a huge touchdown in the presentation, and tie it all up.

Current Score: Madden NFL 2005 – 7, ESPN NFL 2K5 – 7

Ever since the release of the PlayStation 2 in 2001, Madden NFL has been the innovator in excellent graphics. The first time gamers saw Eddie George of the Tennessee Titans stiff-arm defenders as he ran downfield in the first Madden 2001 screenshots, jaws dropped. How could we possibly have a game that looks this realistic? Surprisingly, it’s even better.

Gone are the Madden days of the infamous “ghost face,” where athletes would have mundane facial expressions, but eyes that moved around like the paintings on the wall in Scooby-Doo cartoons of old. Everything looks pristine in the graphical aspect, from player animations (as mentioned before, full 360-degree range of motion), down to the little details on every player that makes them look fantastic.

ESPN’s graphics aren’t too shabby, either, but they’re not really that beautiful. The best way to describe them is that they’re stunning at first, but after a couple of hours of staring at the screen, very underwhelming. The stadiums are pretty true-to-life, the fan cutscenes are nice, and even the player models are pretty close to the actual players in most cases (while Tiki and Ronde Barber in the game both look like their real-life counterparts, I’ve never, ever seen Marvin Harrison look so scary in my life). It all looks nice at first glance, but if you’re a visual aficionado, then you’ll be disappointed.

While ESPN put up a tough battle in the trenches, Madden managed to get the ball downfield and create a drive that barely got them into the endzone. They tack on a last second TD to their score to break the tie at halftime. Will they manage to keep their lead and take home this year’s Virtual Super Bowl? Only time will tell.

Current Score: Madden NFL 2005 – 14, ESPN NFL 2K5 – 7

While not always the most important factor when considering purchasing a sports game, sound does play a big role in your overall experience on the field. Whether it be a soccer, baseball, hockey or football game, the sound ends up playing a big role in your satisfaction with a game.

This is the one hump that the Madden series has never been able to overcome. While John himself isn’t a bad commentator on the live stick, and can provide some interesting facts in his color commentary every once in a while, it seems like he loses all ability when he gets in the recording booth. It’s almost come to a point where you’re expecting Madden and buddy Al Michaels throw out clever remarks like “The only way to win on the gridiron, is to score more points.” This year hasn’t gotten much better for the Madden camp. If that man says “Boom” one more time, there will be a massive revolution of sports gamers looking for better commentary.

Thankfully, that massive revolution only has to go out to the store and pick up a copy of ESPN to save themselves. The commentary is excellent in the game, and while it may get repetitive at times (I’ve found myself screaming at the television, “How many times are you going to tell me how many balls they’ve knocked down?!”), in the end, the commentary is a great piece of work. Especially when you get to hear Chris Berman tell you all about what happened at half-time, it sounds like he really wanted to try and deliver the best he could, rather than just get his paycheck and get out of there.

Bravo to ESPN 2K5 for making a long run down the field to tie it up once again, with much help from Boomer and the famed fictional commentary team of ESPN NFL 2K history, Peter O’Keefe and Dan Stevens.

Current Score: Madden NFL 2K5 – 14, ESPN NFL 2K5 - 14

Online Play:
Since becoming the first online football game for consoles back on the Sega Dreamcast, the ESPN NFL games have proven to provide a good game or two over the ‘Net, but pale in comparison to other online titles. Unfortunately, this year is no different. Unless you have a very high-speed Internet connection, you’ll experience some extreme latency issues, even on DSL speeds. Kudos are awarded for creating what may be the best online league system yet, with the ability to trade players from your teams, and even have custom fantasy rosters. In game, though, the online play lacks the flash and fluidity to keep its head up above the water.

Madden, however, is quite the opposite. No matter whether you’re playing on 56k (PS2 only) or a T3 connection, lag is rarely a problem. Everything runs as smoothly as it would offline, with only a patch or two of latency on occasion. All of the online game modes on Madden are nice, but could’ve been improved a bit. Obviously, the biggest thing going for Madden this year is EA’s agreement to finally put their games on Xbox Live, which is good for owners of Microsoft’s big green machine who’ve been waiting for a Madden fix online.

Although Madden is missing out on a couple of small features that could’ve made the experience even better than it is now, room is open for improvement. Besides, isn’t that what the series has been about for the last 15 years? Madden scores a huge touchdown in the online department, regaining the lead going into the final stretch of the game.

Current Score: Madden NFL 2005 – 21, ESPN NFL 2K5 - 14

Special Features:
Of course, good gameplay is going to bring in a gamer if they’re really into football. But, for those that need a little more than just a good four quarters to entertain them, little extra features are needed to entice them into digging into their wallets and shelling out the cash for a purchase.

First off, the most noticeable thing about ESPN 2K5 this year is the price tag - $20. When someone pushes a game out of the studios with a $20 tag on it, many are expecting the same thing they get from other budget titles: a quick fix that can last a day or two, and then go into the dust bin to be forgotten forever. In no way, shape, or form is this the case for ESPN. The delivery on everything presented is excellent, and the $20 price is good enough to be considered a huge bonus for the gridiron gamer who’s short on cash.

Also included in ESPN is the “ESPN 25th Anniversary” mode. In celebration of the channel that brought us Stuart Scott, Craig Kilborn and endless memories in sports history, Visual Concepts has taken the top 25 football moments of the last 25 years, and packed them into the game, allowing you to recreate history. Everything from the “Immaculate Reception” made by Steelers running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua to the infamous “Wide Right” kick that took the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XXV is here, and ready for you to take the reins of football history.

If you pick up the standard version of Madden (available for PS2, GameCube and Xbox), you’re getting an excellent title with all of the bonuses that past Madden’s have brought. But, in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the series that changed the way football is played, EA has released the PS2-exclusive Championship Edition. This features bonus DVD content showing production of the game, a similar mode to ESPN’s “25th Anniversary” mode, but also has one of the most exciting bonuses ever found in a game: re-created versions of Madden from the years of ’93, ’96, and ’99. The only downside to this is that these games feature current rosters due to licensing problems. While it’s great to have old-school graphics back, the lack of old-school rosters is detrimental to the game.

So, while ESPN has some excellent add-ons that make the game even more fun, Madden has the Championship Edition that is truly a beast. However, the fact that the CE was only released for PS2 delivered a hard blow to the squad, and ESPN scores a last second field goal to save themselves from humiliation, and ending the game with only a four-point deficit.

Final Score: Madden NFL 2005 – 21, ESPN NFL 2K5 – 17

While ESPN put up a hard fight throughout the entire battle, EA’s efforts with Madden were barely enough to put the competitors to rest for another year. Will the strides that Sega made with the ESPN 2K series continue into next year, and finally put them over the top as the King of Virtual Football? While we can’t assure you a definite answer quite yet, it’s certain that Madden keeps the crown for another year.

Posted By: Matt Hack - 3635 Reads

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