Their rivals have come and gone, but year after year EA Sports’ heavyweight franchises NBA Live and Madden NFL prove the ones to beat. Well-apportioned and enjoyably realized, these titles have evolved into the video game equivalent of that old barstool fixture, The Love Tester, as an unscientific yardstick of one’s manhood.
Each year, EA Sports tweaks its product enough to justify the purchase of the latest version. But with new upstarts ESPNGames and its 2K series (which we’ll review in the next column), EA Sports may for the first time in years be beginning to feel pressure on its two signature titles
Madden NFL 2005 is the pièce de résistance of sports simulations. From the stunning graphical realism to the effortless gameplay to the numerous bells and whistles, there isn’t a better sports game title. But with that success comes some complacency. This year’s version doesn’t expand much on Madden NFL 2004, which was a major step forward from the previous iteration. But defensive pass coverage has gotten tighter, and there is now an option to audible the play calling for individual defensive players. Even more fun is the new “hit stick,” by which tapping the right joystick allows the defender to deliver bone-jarring hits on the ball carrier. Yeah!
Throughout, the gameplay has grown more seamless and the rather cluttered look of last year’s menus has been streamlined, particularly in the franchise mode, which allows you to guide your team through several seasons, with free agency, holdouts, trades and the draft. EA Sports also added an attitudinal aspect to the players, who will now complain about playing time or their contract, forcing you to either mollify them or trade them. While playing baby-sitter to a whining pro athlete isn’t fun, it is awfully realistic, which is Madden’s calling card.
Not as sophisticated or as loved as Madden, NBA Live 2005 is the latest in a line of poor sisters to EA’s signature sports title. The game’s problem is that it always seems to be less than the sum of its parts. But, slowly, it’s rounding out into a fine game, if a few years behind Madden’s brilliance. Back are all the features you’ve come to expect, from the positional and directional passing modes to the “freestyle” moves that allow you to execute such ankle-breaking moves as stutter or rocker steps and crossovers. However, the defense has gotten even better at stopping dribble penetration, and the on-the-fly calling of plays such as picks and give and go is a definite enhancement.
The gameplay is solid and lends itself to great battles that have the ebb and flow of real basketball. However, the dynasty mode, with its PDA to inform you during simulations that you have an e-mail (nine times out of 10 unimportant) is a disappointment. Nor is free agency much fun — who wants to go back and forth exchanging e-mails with your star’s agent? And the “dynasty points” — which may be used to recruit potential college draftees, train your players or improve an aspect of your team’s play in the next game — are both unrealistic and unwieldy.
Far better is NCAA Football 2005, which has a more addictive dynasty/franchise mode than the aforementioned. Create your own college, colors and mascots, then try to build your school’s prestige until you’re accepted in the NCAA, or take over an existing program and work your way up to the most coveted jobs in the nation at, say, USC or Florida State or Michigan. All the players are rated for composure, and this is a crucial part of the gameplay, as their performance will rise or decline depending on how they handle the pressure. You’re also able to rally the crowd after big plays and increase the pressure. Otherwise, its gameplay is similar to Madden, which is to say it’s a visually arresting and enveloping experience. A sleeper favorite.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org