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Score: 8.8 / 10
Apart from the low scoring and numerous
amounts of play stoppages, hockey can be a very entertaining sport. But
let’s be honest: sometimes the only reason we watch is to see the sticks
drop and two huge Russians start throwing punches until one of them
drops as well. If not for that, we find little joy in this slowly
diminishing sport. ESPN has found a way to keep the sport appealing, to
hockey enthusiasts and occasional viewers; having carried it out in a
fashionable way. Oh, and don’t worry, you don’t have to be from Austria
to have a good time.
It’s that time of year again and this season picking the right hockey is
just about as hard as picking your nose. The obvious choice stands out.
ESPN’s rival, and longtime counterpart, is EA’s pride and joy: NHL 2004.
For the past few years the
series has seen minor changes, the most
relevant being the “breakaway” view, which is supposed to add a
cinematic and dramatic perspective to the game, though falling short.
Now that we have half of the titles out of the way, let’s pry our teeth
into ESPN NHL Hockey.
ESPN NHL Hockey (formally the 2K series) doesn’t glaze over any of its
aspects with inflated additions, such as having
major recording artists include their songs in the game (i.e. EA
Sports). ESPN sways its appeal towards the more general fans of hockey
who love the crunch against the boards, late scoring goals, and the
glory of winning Lord Stanley’s Cup. To give these features there
desired attention, ESPN has licensed everything within the game from
sleek information tabs, TV-like camera shifts, and even their official
announcers. If that’s not enough, every team comes equipped with their
official jerseys, an additional alternative jersey (some teams are still
without one), and unlockable retro jerseys. To sum things up, the game
is pretty damn official.
The picture on the cover is really Jeremy Roenick, not a graphic image.
I know that’s obvious, but that’s only to lead into my next point. The
graphics are quite impressive. Player faces can actually be recognized,
this time not for the obvious reasons. If you see a player talking or
smiling, you can actually see teeth missing. The create-a-player screen
also gives you this ability, to have teeth missing. I know this isn’t
revolutionary, but in my book, this is as real as you can get with
hockey. As for the arenas and crowd animations, it looks just as
impressive. The crowd reacts to goals scored by standing up right when
the goal goes past the line. Though another minor detail, when adding
them all up, it makes one big major improvement. The fans will also
throw their hats onto the ice if one of their home players scores a hat
trick. The arenas are generic in flavor, but recognizing the Staples
Center from the other arenas is easily done.
With the arcade theme seen with most hockey games, ESPN knew that in
order to have a successful franchise, both strategic and arcade players
needed to be able to enjoy this game. The gameplay is a great
combination of the two, leaving no gamers behind. Open ice hits, board
hits, hooks, and all other painful animations are smooth and rich in
detail. When a player falls onto the ice, bits of broken ice flies
upward, creating a more realistic effect. If there is one complaint with
the gameplay, it would lie within the goaltending. Without a doubt, ESPN
has some of the best goaltending animations I’ve ever seen, along with
the best goalie AI. Goalies improvise in vulnerable situations to come
up with that big play, and keep you from having a heart attack…then
again, giving you a heart attack. The goalie reactions are somewhat
arbitrary when I’m skating on the ice. This brings me to my complaint:
Whenever I’m shooting down the ice and make a huge shot, it rarely goes
in. However, when the computer is coming down the ice, they make an
almost effortless shot and it always goes in. this can be a nail biter
when you give up a lead, but don’t count on this happening too many
The sound is carried out in a standard fashion; with ice-skate
scratches, crowd chants, and player yells integrated in the game. During
the play stoppages you’ll sometimes hear a memorable song. For those of
you who own ESPN NFL Football, some of the tracks might sound familiar,
that’s because they were also used in NFL. The one song that can get you
off your seat and cracking skulls is Queen’s most famous hit “We will
rock you”. I was surprised to hear the song in the game, but once I
heard it, I couldn’t play without it. That’s the one song that’ll get
your adrenaline pumping to score some goals.
The best hockey game out today is ESPN NHL Hockey. Don’t think of it as
the best hockey game ever, though some reviewers will agree, because
there is still a lot of room for improvement. Nothing can be considered
perfect, so ESPN NHL Hockey will just have to be considered: the best
there is…for now. With unlockable jerseys and modes (mini-rink, air
hockey, pond hockey, etc.) and an in-depth franchise mode, be sure to
pick this game up for your holiday ass kicking, eh?