Parity comes to NFL football videogames

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

As it has in the National Football League, parity has come to NFL videogames.

It's been easy in years past to simply anoint whatever iteration of Madden was current, and pick a second-place finisher from the herd of wannabes bringing up the rear.

This year, however, I have "Madden 2004" from Tiburon and EA Sports for the PlayStation 2 and "ESPN Football," from Sega for the Xbox, in a dead heat.

Each has its own strong points, but taken as a whole, it's hard to argue strongly that one is superior to the other.

Of course, there are other games out there vying for your videogame football dollar, and I'm including "NFL Fever 2004" from Microsoft for Xbox, as an example of the second tier of games.

If you've been a "Madden" fan, there's no reason for you to change horses now. All the fine play modes are there, including Mini-Camp, Football 101, Franchise and Tournament. A fantastic new mode, Owner, gives you total control over every area of your team.

You hire and fire, decide how much to gouge the fans on ticket prices and even fiddle with the price of the greaseburgers at the concession stands.

Gameplay remains solid and relatively easy to pick up for a quick tilt. Becoming an expert will take far longer, given the many things you can accomplish with the controller. The new Playmaker option gives you more control over each play, but adds a level of involvement that requires more learning time.

Graphics are good, although I think a back-to-back comparison would give "ESPN" the edge. Sound, including the expanded commentary, is also very good. Finally, using the EA Sports Online service, you can play against other "Madden" fans online.

When playing "ESPN," the first thing that will grab you is the amazing graphics, which are the best ever for football, both in detail and animation.

Then, you have to try the new First Person Football. It puts you on the field in a first-person perspective with selected players. I don't think it's something I'd use all the time, but it makes an excellent alternative to the more normal behind-the-line view.

"ESPN" has all the bells and whistles, with everything you need to make it a spectacular experience. The sound, including the brilliantly elaborate commentary, edges "Madden."

And, of course, it supports Xbox Live, Microsoft's fine online service.

Pop "NFL Fever" in your Xbox and the gap between it and the other two, while not of Grand Canyon proportions, is certainly evident.

The graphics are good, but a cut below the leaders. Offense seems to dominate against the AI, with defensive backs seemingly unclear on what they're expected to do.

After listening to both previous games, the sound will grate on you. Commentary is a substantial cut below the leaders, as are the in-game effects and jawing.

There are some nice touches, like help from a coach in picking your next play and the nifty new Read and Lead feature, which gives you total control over your passes.

There's also a nice "fatigue" graph which tells you when individual players need a breather.

"ESPN Football" and "Madden 2004" each get an A. I prefer "ESPN Football," but you can't go wrong either way: both are state-of-the-art NFL titles.

"NFL Fever 2004" rates a B-.

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