Pigskin Party The season's four biggest football entries have new playing features--and the games all rock

October 27, 2003

Playing a football video game used to mean sticking Tecmo Bowl in
the Nintendo console, choosing one of the four plays available
and watching crude shapes that were supposed to be players move
around the screen. These days technology has dramatically
improved the quality of play and the realism, and one company no
longer has a stranglehold on the market. That means there's now a
premium on unique features. Here's how the newly released games
from the four biggest entries in the NFL video game business
stack up.

MADDEN NFL 2004
EA Sports, $49.95, for PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube

UNIQUE FEATURE: Owner Mode. A few years ago EA Sports brought a
front-office element--franchise mode--to the video game, allowing
players to assemble teams instead of playing with existing ones.
Owner Mode takes that idea to another level, though as vicarious
thrills go, it's not the most fascinating thing to pretend that
you're Art Modell and are torn between charging $6 or $7 for a
hot dog. Among the other decisions you have to make: how much to
charge for parking and what promotional giveaways (CDs and giant
foam fingers, among others) fans will receive.

GAMEPLAY: This version is far smoother than last year's model and
the best game for on-field action. It gets extra credit for
running replays while you choose your next play, which keeps the
proceedings from dragging on. GRADE: A

ESPN NFL FOOTBALL
ESPN Videogames, $49.99, for PlayStation 2, Xbox

UNIQUE FEATURE: The Crib. Big plays on the field net you trophies
to put in your abode.

GAMEPLAY: Outstanding. The game has a feature called First Person
Football, a concept that is awe inspiring and maddening. Your
point of view is from inside a player's helmet. GRADE: A-

NFL FEVER 2004
Microsoft, $49.99, for Xbox

UNIQUE FEATURE: The XSN Sports website. Microsoft's Xbox-only
software has the most in-depth online features of any game.
Through xsnsports.com you can set up and run leagues that are
part video game, part fantasy football. You can even get
up-to-date scores of other games in your league through your
cellphone.

GAMEPLAY: Solid. Read-and-Lead Passing is the game's unique
feature. Instead of pressing a button that corresponds to a
receiver, you can aim at a spot on the field and fire away. When
you put the ball in the air, the intended receiver will break off
his route and go for the pigskin. GRADE: B+

NFL GAMEDAY 2004
989 Sports, $39.99, for PlayStation 2

UNIQUE FEATURE: Headset Voice Recognition. Using a special
headset, you can bark commands, such as Change Cover 1, and the
machine will heed them. You can also do the old set-hut-hike call
at the line of scrimmage.

GAMEPLAY: Good, but nothing sets GameDay apart from its
competitors. Button commands are pressure sensitive, meaning the
more frequently you press, the more the player reacts. Also,
Total Control Passing allows you to overthrow or underthrow
receivers or get them to break off their routes, but it involves
more button pressing than NFL Fever's Read-and-Lead. GRADE: B

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF EA SPORTS (2) TWO COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF SEGA (ESPN NFL FOOTBALL, 2) TWO COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF XSN SPORTS (NFL FEVER 2004, 2) TWO COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF 989 SPORTS (2)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)