Crunch time

Special to the Tribune

Since its initial release in 1989, EA Sports' "Madden" franchise has enjoyed a fairly clear run up the field. Previous opponents, such as Sony's "NFL Gameday" series, stumbled on the transition to PlayStation 2. SEGA Sports' highly regarded "NFL 2K" series was huge on Dreamcast, but when SEGA decided to develop the franchise on other consoles, "Madden's" lead and reputation were just too strong to defeat.

This year, SEGA has a new game plan. Partnering with publisher Take-Two (which also has platinum developer Rockstar under its umbrella), SEGA launched its "ESPN NFL 2K5" three weeks before "Madden" and at a bargain price (only $20).

But don't be fooled by that. This is not a budget game of football. It was developed by Visual Concepts as a full-price release, and while the price cut will surely affect the game's profit margin, gamers are losing nothing. From the TV-quality ESPN presentation (including commentary from talking heads Chris Berman and Suzy Kolber) to the inclusion of replayable classic moments in football such as the famous "Immaculate Reception," "ESPN" feels like a $50 game every step of the way.

On the other hand, EA Sports' "Madden 2005" is a $50 game that feels like you should have paid $100. This 15th anniversary release is the best in the franchise thus far, offering the ultimate football game for fans.

While "ESPN" adds entertaining gimmicks such as teams of B- and C-list pop-culture celebrities, including Carmen Electra, Steve-O (MTV's "Jackass") and Jamie Kennedy, EA Sports continues to tighten its already superlative play. One of the biggest additions to "Madden 2005" is the Hit Stick; it allows you to slam your opponents through hard, timed flicks of the right stick, often resulting in fumbles and excellent tackle animations.

Both "ESPN" and "Madden 2005" are online this year for each system -- except for "Madden" on the GameCube, which can't seem to get its online act together. EA's agreement with Microsoft to finally support Xbox Live is great news for "Madden" fans as Live is a far superior online service to Sony's. And for EA to give up any modicum of control to Microsoft signals that the biggest software publisher in the world believes there is a serious future for the inevitable Xbox successor.

So, should you go cheap and buy "ESPN NFL 2K5," or lay down the full $50 for "Madden 2005?" If you are a casual football fan who intends to just play a few smack-talk-filled games with friends during the season, or enjoys all things ESPN, then SEGA's game is an excellent choice. It's a great value, and SEGA was wise to court such an audience.

But if you must have the absolute best, and could care less about throwing a touchdown pass to Steve-O, there is no substitute for "Madden 2005." Each year, the game gets prettier, the crunches get sickeningly harder, and the control gets tighter with more fan-friendly options, like the Hit Stick. There's a reason why "Madden" continues to sit at the top of retail each year, and 2004 should be no exception.

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