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It’s that time of year again for armchair Quarterbacks to kiss their loved ones goodbye and get ready for another long campaign of franchises and Super Bowls. Yes, ready for some football or not the professional season is just around the corner. Likewise the videogame versions of America’s favorite sport have begun to take the field preparing to meet in one of the biggest match-ups ever. Underdog ESPN NFL 2K5 arrives first with a potent lineup to contend for your hard earned cash.

A feature list a mile long this year includes an expanded ‘Crib’, more realistic play mechanics, deeper franchise mode and organized online leagues. Along with all the expanded and new features the graphics too have gotten even more realistic; no small feat after the visual display served up last year. Improved details help each player look unbelievably close to their real life counterpart. Wonderful graphics are great, as is a long list of features; but a football game ultimately comes down to the controls and mechanics of the game.

Last year’s ESPN faced some of its worst issues in the running game. One name struck fear into all that faced him, Ricky Williams. Great running backs like Ricky could easily break three or four tackles per run. Not only was the running game too easy, it ignored real life physics which allowed unnatural moves, such as turning on a dime without slowing your forward progress. This year the running game has been completely reworked and improved. Head up the line on the right and try to make a cut to dodge a tackle and your man will shift his momentum, reacting realistically and slowing a bit while he regains his balance and shifts his weight.

But the biggest addition to the running game happens to be on the other side of the ball, Maximum Tackle. When the defender comes up to lay that hit on Ricky, the way the button is pressed affects the kind of tackle that is performed. Tap the button lightly and you get a light push; hit it a bit harder, and a dive results with the chance to create a fumble; or hold down the button and you wrap Ricky up causing a contest of button mashing skills. When this happens both virtual coaches furiously tap the ‘A’ button to see whether Ricky is stopped in his tracks or slips through to gain another few yards.

The passing game has gotten a bit better this year as well, but along with that comes an increase in difficulty. Last year dropped passes were a bit too common and very frustrating. This year the game rewards practicing to master routes with good passes, although some are still dropped that look like an easy catch for a pro. Huge plays are especially satisfying since the average carry is about three to five yards and passes average in the high single digits to low teens. When that big sixty yard run or eighty-five yard touchdown pass happens it is hard to contain the excitement; and it really creates a huge amount of pride.

The defense this year is well done, although at times guys that should be performing a block, or going for an interception will sit and watch as they botch a play. It doesn’t happen much but sometimes creates huge missed opportunities. Defense receives some nice improvements this year with the linebacker shift, and defensive back shift. Before a snap use the new shifts to put double coverage on an opponent’s star receiving threat, or move up some defenders to stop a power runner.

Franchise mode this year is the micro manager’s dream. Start off with the team of your choice and decide what is done for each day before the big game at the end of the week. Monday through Friday consist of forty man-hours a day to prepare the warriors for their next battle. Each task given to players draws from those hours. A quarterback doing a session of Pilates to increase durability and agility will cost two hours of a day whereas a full scrimmage for the team will cost six. Other practice options include team meetings and film study. The schedule of these tasks that you create carries over from week to week, letting you edit only a few tweaks to perfect your preparation each week for the next game. Each position has a good ten to twenty options for training per day, and you can repeat the same things over and over for cumulative results.

The presentation is amazing in ESPN this year. After a full week of games Chris Berman and company put on a broadcast perfect version of Sports Center that is quite possibly the coolest feature put into a football game over the past few years. Like their real world counterparts they discuss the goings on around the NFL for the week, including injuries and trades, the big players and the teams to watch. They also show full video highlights of big plays from that week’s games (courtesy of the Xbox hard drive). During games Peter O’Keefe and Dan Stevens give some interesting commentary, including everything from giraffes, to lions prancing on antelope. Although it becomes repetitive and laughable, it does do a good job of sticking to what is going on in the game. The half time and post game shows are also well done, with a recap of the big plays for the half and game, and awards for the half-time hero and player of the game. Xbox owners get support for custom soundtracks, including the option to set custom clips off your soundtracks for specific things that happen during the game, adding a lot of personality.

Offline the game has a lot going for it, as you earn credits for every accomplishment that can be used to dress up your ‘crib’. The AI even puts up a good fight, but where the game really shows off is in online multiplayer. There have been a few problems with log-ins, challenge bugs and roster problems, but Sega seems committed to patching their servers to resolve these and they are not causing the online aspect to be unplayable. Getting a game started is fairly easy, and as long as the host has good upload speed lag is only seen when there is heavy rain, snow or on the occasional kick off. Otherwise, it’s like being in the same house. The greatest downfall of online play is that crib points, outside of the ten received for every hour of play, are not awarded unless played offline.

A few less than spectacular extra features complete the package. Worth mention only for reference these include annoying celebrity matches, and a frustrating ESPN 25th anniversary mode, where the top 25 plays in football are reenacted by the player.

All in all Visual Concepts put together a gem of a football game this year that will definitely gives EA fans something to think about. ESPN has made the primetime highlight reel and at its bargain price is impossible to pass up. While these heavyweights may slug it out to a draw this year, if ESPN can tweak a last few items for next year there may well be a new undisputed king of the gridiron.