About a week and a half ago, I was in a store buying a few games as presents for friends when I overheard part of a fierce debate raging at the counter.
“2K5 is only 20 bucks? What’s wrong with it,” railed the customer.
“Nothing’s wrong with it,” replied the manager. “It was released at that price on purpose, probably to give it a better chance before Madden came out.”
“Nah, something’s gotta be wrong with it. You don’t just come out with that kinda game for only 20 bucks,” the customer said.
It was at this point that I stepped in and gave my two cents, which is exactly what I’d like to start this article with. (Bear with me, because I’ll get to 2K5 in a second, but this needs to be said at some point in this article, and if not at the beginning, most certainly it’ll come at the end.) Simply put, 2K5 is one of the best, if not the best, ways to spend 20 dollars for a game. Period. The sheer amount of features within 2K5 would be enough to justify a fifty dollar price tag, but the inclusion of intangible features that haven’t been seen elsewhere, like the VIP system or the Weekly Prep system could easily allow Sega to charge whatever they wanted to. Instead, they chose to give the game fans a pre-season gift by making this title affordable for every fan. I do mean EVERY fan. If you happen to be a fan of football, even if you bow down to the altar of Madden, you should go out and buy 2K5 simply because this is a great simulation of football.
Now onto the review itself. Fans of the ESPN Franchise will find that many of the previous modes that appeared in 2K4 make their return in 2K5, and for the most part, seem like they’re the same as last year’s title. This means that the Practice, Situation, Quick Game and Tournament modes will be quite familiar to owners of the old game. This is actually quite deceptive, as 2K5 emphasizes the franchise’s largest strength to provide a completely new experience, namely that of ESPN branding and personalities to make you feel completely in a broadcast. As soon as teams are picked, players are greeted by a digital Chris Berman, who gives the same amount of hype and energy that you’d typically find on an episode of “NFL Primetime.” Thanks to Boomer, you get the feeling that the game you’re playing has been elevated to the same stage as the ones you’d actually watch on TV on a Sunday, which is a pretty big accomplishment.
Along with the Swami introducing a game, Xbox owners and PS2 owners with Hard Disk Drives get a complete recap of the game at the half and the end of the game complete with video and Berman’s commentary. This means that you’ll not only get the highlights of each half, but you’ll get the typical ESPN catchphrases. So expect to hear “Da Raidas” or “Marshall, Marshall, Marshall,” amongst other Berman sayings interspersed through the recaps. Top this off with the ESPN graphical stat presentation, additional field coverage thanks to the Skycam, complete offensive pass and running analysis and the presentation of the Player of the Game award by sideline reporter Suzy Kolber and you’ve got something that starts to transcend the usual sports title from simple play with commentary to an experience.
This seems to fit this year’s all-encapsulating idea of The Year Of The Fan, the celebration that ESPN has been marking all year long for its 25th anniversary on the air. 2K5 is no exception to this commemoration, and it includes some of the classic football moments ever seen on a gridiron. Although it’s virtually a historic version of the situation mode, it poses a number of theoretical questions: Ever feel like you could’ve run “The Drive” better than Elway? Do you think your defensive adjustments would’ve rendered the Immaculate Reception an unholy fumble? Here’s your chance to either uphold history or completely re-write it to your whim, which is an awesome feature for fans of the game. Trivia buffs will be able to also unlock a trivia machine which hosts a number of obscure and general questions about the sport, which is a great time waster when you’re not in the mood for a full game.
Of course, you’ll only be able to acquire the trivia machine after racking up points that can be used for currency to outfit your crib. Yep, the crib has returned, although it’s received a significant facelift from last year’s “storage space.” Players initially start out with a shopping catalogue, which they can use to initially purchase a certain amount of items for their trophy room, living room, etc. However, players will also need to unlock additional catalogues that hold even more items with strong gameplay and management of crib points. This restriction may seem somewhat strict at first, but it actually has the effect of letting players choose exactly what they want in their house while discarding or disregarding other facets, imparting much more of a personal flavor to a space. New to this year’s crib is the inclusion of the celebrity telephone, which allows Steve-O from Jackass, Carmen Electra, Jamie Kennedy or Funk Master Flex to call you up and challenge you to a football game. Successfully defeating a celeb’s team of all-stars provides a significant boost to your point “bank account.”
Whether you wind up facing off against one of these celebrities, a friend or an online opponent, you’ll find yourself subjected to the VIP system, an incredible tool that not only tracks how you and your rival plays, but gives you an opportunity to constantly improve against virtually any offense or defense you go against. Here’s how it works: As soon as you start playing 2K5, the game creates and tracks your game profile. This measures everything on the offense, from the number of times you like to pass or run the football to the side of the field you like to prefer running plays towards. Defense isn’t left out of this equation either, as it’ll track things like the number of times you play zone, man to man coverage or blitz. Once a game is done, the profile compiles all of the data and provides a statistical analysis via graphs and charts to give you an idea of how you like to play football.
The coolest thing about this, particularly for sports fans is that you can challenge any VIP profile you’ve ever played against at any time. This means that gamers can play against their own user created profiles to test out their personal strategies and weaknesses, giving them a chance to improve their strategies. This also extends the option for people to play their friends, collect each other’s profiles and practice against their friends whenever they want. It makes it much harder for your buddy to constantly run that counter play to the strong side when you know he tries that play 60% of the time on first down. You’re not restricted to people you know either; you can take on the celebrity VIP profiles or any one of the actual NFL coaches that’ve been included, giving you a chance to best Shanahan or Gibbs at their own game. The potential for players to learn thanks to this feature alone is immeasurable, especially when gamers start playing on higher difficulty levels.
Finally, before I approach the gameplay, I’d like to bring up the franchise mode that has been included in 2K5. Most gamers consider Madden 2004 to be the mark by which every other franchise mode should be measured. 2K5 actually manages to give Madden a run for its money thanks to the level of detail included in every function. For one thing, players get to decide what level of involvement you want. This means that gamers that don’t particularly care to micromanage every little detail of an organization aren’t forced to deal with the smaller details. People who do love to be involved in everything for their prospective dynasty will have a field day. From negotiating every single cent of a player’s contract (including signing bonuses and pay per year) to the team’s salary cap, just about every mundane detail is available for you to tweak at will.
Much more important is the ability to establish a training regimen for your team. This lets coaches design just how their team is going to prepare for an upcoming game day by day. You can assign squads or individual players to work on skills, view tape or simply relax and get ready for game time. So, for instance, if you know you’re going to go up against Dante Hall, you may want to work your special teams on containing punt and kickoff returns. On the other hand, if you find out that a cornerback or linebacker is injured on a particular side, forcing the other team to put in their second string, you may want to focus on exploiting that weakness with your running backs, running more plays in that direction. There is a danger, however, because creating the wrong program for your squads will weaken your team’s performance, making a victory much more difficult.
One of the things that experienced players of 2K5 will notice is that the gameplay doesn’t appear on the surface to be much different than last year’s game. However, if 2004 football titles marked the year of game offense, then the 2005 titles have easily refocused on defense. For one, every running back won’t be able to continually make Barry Sanders-like cuts on every run, nor will they be able to bowl through lines of defenders like Earl Campbell with momentum. In fact, you may be lucky if you get through two before your momentum slows down and you have to build it back up again (leaving you open to a gang tackle). Similarly, your receivers won’t drop as many balls, but they’ll need that extra edge because players can perform many more defensive adjustments for on the fly coverage. Not only can you perform defensive line, linebacker or defensive back shifts, for instance, to respond to trips on the strong side, but you can also assign individual coverage routes for players. For example, you can take an inside linebacker and assign him to blitz the quarterback while you get a safety to cover the area he vacates.
Along with defensive shifts, you’ll have the option to choose between “maximum tackling,” lighter hits and diving blows. If you hit the tackle button lightly, you’ll most likely push a player or run into him with a certain degree of force. If you charge the button up, however, you can seriously decleat another player. These moves can be dangerous, however, because astute gamers can spin or juke out of the way of these blows and break a larger run for yardage. Quarterbacks even have an additional weapon to avoid crushing sacks with a flick of the right thumbstick. If you time it just right, QBs will duck, dodge or wiggle their way out of a ground losing tackle, buying some time to make a completion or throw the ball away.
Finally, for those of you who considered first person view a simple gimmick, it does make a return in this year’s game, but it’s been strengthened significantly to make the feature easier to play. First of all, camera angles are much cleaner and easier to switch between to get a better perspective for the on-field action. Second, changing players on defense to make a play is much less disorienting than last year. Third, it’s easier to make passes as a quarterback to receivers because the icons for your backs are larger. Finally, if the first person mode is too much, you can easily switch out of first person view into third person and continue your game.
Speaking of the dialogue, Chris probably provides the best dialogue within the game, but it’s hard to tell if that’s because of Chris’ charisma and talent or the way he’s presented in the game. Dan Stevens and Peter O’Keefe provide much of the same dialogue as last year with a few new lines, and while they’re decent for calling the in-game action accurately, they don’t really have any significant insights to offer. That’s primarily reserved for Mel Kiper and Trey Wingo, who offer opinions on prospects and injury reports respectively. You will actually hear players make comments during cutscenes, such as, “Yeah, that was a nice hit,” but for some reason, the voices sound particularly bad when they’re giving post game interviews to Suzy. Some players that don’t have accents in real life all of a sudden develop them when giving their thoughts on a game. Sound effects are still pretty solid from last year, but where the Xbox outshines the PS2 version is in the ability to rip songs onto the hard drive and assign particular songs to certain game situations, such as defenders sacking a quarterback or intercepting a pass. This can be anything you choose, and gives gamers the option to be a coach, a player and a stadium DJ, which is just cool.
Aside from online play, which gives players the option to take on just about anyone in either match or league play, many of the gameplay elements are simply massive expansions or improvements to the sport of football. There are some things that still fall short. For instance, while the VIP concept is a great feature, I don’t necessarily care to go against some of these celebrities, or continually hear some of their comments during a game. If I could go up against current football stars, legendary coaches or even legendary players, the VIP status could’ve been the most incredible mode ever seen in a sports game. I’m definitely keeping my fingers crossed for next year. What’s more, I loved the idea that you could completely program your team’s preparation for an upcoming game. Unfortunately, I wish there was more feedback as I tinkered with the program as the week went on. Leaving the actual results to the very last second makes it really hard to tell what seems to have worked for your squad and what didn’t, so it’s very hard to learn how to fully prep for teams.
These issues aside, I still have to re-iterate my initial comments: for a mere 20 bucks, ESPN 2K5 is the best way that any gamer can spend money on a quality title. Deep, customizable gameplay along with a number of innovative features go a long way to giving Madden a run for its money. Football fans of any kind deserve to have this game in their library. Don’t think, just go out and buy it now.