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Staying In | VIDEO GAME REVIEWS

Pigskin passion

October 02, 2003|Pete Metzger | Times Staff Writer

Three guys. Four NFL football games. One couch. What happened on a recent Saturday is a tale of late hits, trash talk, shirtless fans and cheerleaders.

Oh, and there were some games played too. What we found were the dazzling graphics of "NFL Fever," the botched handoff of "Gameday 2004," some strategic mind-bending in "Madden 2004" and the highlight reel that is "ESPN Football." Of course, this exhaustive research required more than one guy. So with the help of longtime gamers Mike and Gus, off we go.

The whole show

Like using magical powers to take control of a "Sunday Night Football" game, "ESPN Football" showcases all the bells and whistles that typically can be found Sundays at 5:30 p.m. Before kickoff, studio host Chris Berman offers a preview of the coming tilt, complete with player intros and stats; screen graphics are the same ones used on the broadcasts.

Gamers can choose to play as various "great year" teams, like the '83 Raiders or the '72 Dolphins, or any current squad and play in any current NFL stadium (sorry, no L.A. Coliseum).

The graphics rock. When Ricky Williams breaks a tackle -- like Gus kept making him do -- opponents fall down like they should. Easy-to-call plays and easy-to-control players make for a realistic game pace, or so Gus thought as he rode Williams to 289 rushing yards and six touchdowns over a hapless Mike.

Superior commentary also elevates "ESPN." During the game, Terry McGovern and Jay Styne -- who? -- call the game using the players' names instead of generic terms. And replays include yellow Telestrator marks.

At halftime, Berman returns with highlights of the game in progress, a nice touch. And there are no obnoxious commercials.

You can also play from the perspective of a player peering out from under his helmet. The screen even goes black momentarily when Warren Sapp sacks you. There is also a "Cribs" feature that allows you to feast your eyes on all the trophy bling-bling in your luxury condo.

Color commentary

Fun's over. Time for some serious football.

The newest edition of one of the bestselling franchises of all time, "Madden 2004" gives gamers probably the most complete football simulator around. The smooth, fluid graphics and logical controls will feel familiar to fans of the series, and play-calling is as complicated as you want, with myriad unlockables for special plays.

But seeing as how ABC commentator John Madden put his name on the game, you would think the commentary would be better. (What else to do when Mike is spanking you, 40-12?) Sure, "Monday Night Football's" Al Michaels joins Madden in the booth, but instead of naming each player or team, there are a lot of "theys" instead of "the Raiders."

That said, if X's and O's are your thing, "Madden" will make the chalkboard in your mind spring to life.

Tackle trouble

" 'NFL Fever,' huh?" a skeptical Mike says. Well, turns out, actually more like a cold.

"Fever" features the best graphics of the bunch, right down to the players' mug shots beside their introductions. Options include fictional teams and playing locales -- the Pansies can take on the Skeletons on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

But "Fever" is sorely lacking when it comes to calling plays and controlling your Donovan McNabbs or Edgerrin Jameses. The play feels sloppy and robotic, and the tackling looks plastic.

"I'm just pushing buttons hoping something happens," Mike says.

Cartoon time

The primitive "Gameday 2004" features San Diego Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson on the box. Insert your own "Chargers are stiffs" joke here.

A John Facenda-like voice narrates the opening movie, but it's downhill from there.

While the play-calling is more intuitive than "Fever," the graphics sag. Players look cartoonish; replays are herky-jerky. Even the dancing in the cheerleaders' halftime show is woeful. "They're not even in rhythm," Mike says. "Look at the one in the front. She's new."

At least the generic commentary rings familiar -- Dick Enberg and Dan Fouts.

*

Games

"ESPN Football"

Good: All-around fun.

Bad: Not a whole lot.

Details: PlayStation 2, Xbox; $49.99; rating: E (everyone).

*

"Madden 2004"

Good: For serious football fans.

Bad: Maybe too serious; lackluster commentary.

Details: All platforms; $49.99; rating: E.

*

"Gameday 2004"

Good: Will still be on the shelf when "ESPN" and "Madden" are sold out.

Bad: Where to start?

Details: PlayStation 2 platform; $39.99; rating: E.

*

"NFL Fever"

Good: Best-looking graphics.

Bad: Sloppy gameplay.

Details: Xbox platform; $49.99; Rating: E.

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