EVERY YEAR EA Sports makes a bigger deal about Madden NFL, the top-selling video game of all time (Life of Reilly, page 136). The company declared Tuesday's release of Madden NFL 08 a "Maddenoliday," suggesting thousands "take a day off from work or school," and set up a mock New Year's Eve ball drop in Times Square late Monday night. Too bad the party had already started. All-Pro Football 2K8, a worthy rival title, had been out for weeks.
A brief history of football video games: Madden, which has been around for 18 years, dominated the NFL market until 2004. That's when Take-Two put out ESPN NFL 2K5. Critics lauded the fresh gameplay and buyers loved the $19.99 price, half that of Madden. But in December '05 EA Sports and the NFL signed a licensing deal that gave Madden exclusive rights to NFL logos and player names and likenesses. Unable to compete, the 2K franchise disappeared.
It took two years, but Take-Two has finally found a way to get back into the game. For All-Pro Football 2K8 they signed individual licensing deals with 241 retired players who aren't bound by NFL marketing rules. The result: an entertaining game that lacks Peyton Manning but revives the careers of John Elway and Dan Marino.
O.J. Simpson is back too. (A California judge has ruled that he fork over his profits to the family of Ron Goldman, who was murdered along with Simpson's ex-wife in 1994.) A popular Internet trailer shows O.J. playing for a team called the Assassins, whose mascot wields a knife. But the game isn't as tasteless as that might indicate: O.J, like all players, can be drafted by any team or left out of the action. In fact, the strength of 2K8 is that gamers must be G.M.'s as well as field generals. Players begin by drafting two gold players, three silver and six bronze. (Marino, for example, is a gold quarterback; Jim Zorn is a bronze.) The rest of your roster is filled in with generic players. Budget wisely, or Walter Payton and Earl Campbell will be running behind a line of John Does.
Shuffling rosters of Hall of Famers is an opportunity that Madden doesn't allow. Everything else about 2K8 is reminiscent of 2K5, for better and worse. Player movements are often smoother than on Madden, and the game controls and layout are more intuitive. But a 2008 game shouldn't look like an '05 game. None of the graphic details—the individual blades of grass, the nervous sweat on Rex Grossman's nose—that EA has perfected are there. It's nice to have Take-Two back, but the company has some catching up to do.
HOW IS THE top pick in the NBA draft spending his summer? Hanging out at his mom's house in Indiana, eating Double Chocolate Cookie Crisp and working his way through a giant piece of watermelon that he keeps in her fridge. That's what we learn from the 3 1/2-minute video tour of his mother's apartment that Greg Oden posted on yardbarker.com, where he writes a blog. MTV Cribs it ain't, but it is a pretty interesting look at how the other half lives before they become the other half. (Oden will move into posher digs when he heads to Portland in the fall.) Best scene in the shaky, handheld tour: a framed picture of a young Oden with some big hair. "That's me with a 'fro," says the engaging Oden—before quickly jerking the camera away and adding, "Don't look at that."
2K SPORTS (ALL-PRO GAME)
WINGING IT Even without NFL licenses, All-Pro manages to be innovative.
2K SPORTS (COVER)
JAE C. HONG/AP (ODEN)