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Score: 8.0 / 10
If you know your games, you’re probably
aware of the so-called EA Sports Cover Athlete Curse. This is how it
goes (according to some): whichever athlete is selected for the cover of
Madden NFL usually has a crap season due to some debilitating injury. If
the Curse is to be believed, it has spread to EA’s other sport
franchises, such as this year’s NHL 2004, featuring Dany Heatly of the
If you remember, and you should if you’re into hockey, Dany Heatly was
at the wheel of his Ferrari when he crashed, injuring himself and
killing teammate Dan Snyder.
Is the curse real? If you’re superstitious, maybe, but while you’re
playing NHL 2004, it’s not a point you’ll ponder for long. No, you’ll be
pondering where the fun went.
For all of NHL’s advancements and polish, I
just couldn’t get over the fact the fun factor has dropped way off in
favor of realism – my biggest problem with NHL 2004. You’ll notice this
immediately with the absence of Don Taylor doing the color work, and any
amusing banter whatsoever between John Hughson and Craig Simpson. Say
what you will about Taylor’s glibness, it added a level of “arcadeness”
play more enjoyable – you are, after all, playing a game and a game
should entertain. Of course, the more serious hockey fanatics will
probably thank EA for dropping him, as it’s a sign of the simulation
bent of the latest NHL iteration.
Fighting is back in a big way this year with a completely revamped
fighting method. It’s a fairly simplistic fighting system, but it feels
and looks completely “organic” except for the “twitching like a landed
fish” when someone gets knocked to the ice. Of course, the fighting is a
small aspect of the actual game.
Besides the extensive Dynasty Mode (and Exhibition, Season, Playoffs,
and Tournament) where you can leap into the boots of the General
Manager, which should be a fans dream (where you can manage rosters and
take part in the entry draft) you have access to 39 elite league teams.
The elite teams are a welcome addition as they offer a variation on
hockey without deviating too far from the NHL style. Of these two modes,
I spent far more time skating in Europe than scrambling around the front
office in Dynasty Mode. I always wonder how much attention GM and
Dynasty modes actually receive from gamers, but those that enjoy the
minutia will surely appreciate it and be able to poke holes in its
shortcomings. I am not one of these people so forgive me for not
attempting to poke holes. (Besides I liked creating my own team.)
But on the subject of poking, you can do that too! The developers
managed to pack a lot into the controller, and you have practically
every real-life hockey action at your disposal. Spins, dekes, shot
fakes, and, yes, poke checks, are all accounted for. It does take a
while to learn everything though as some of the moves require button
combinations. For example, diving requires you to hold the left shoulder
button and Y at the same time. You can also call out defensive and
offensive strategies on the fly. Gone are the days of button mashing!
Even the hitting gets an upgrade. Without the puck, you have body check
control with the right thumbstick. Besides getting a handle on the
control, you also have to master the passing, which is tough. Magic
stick-to-stick passing is completely absent. It’s very easy to send off
misdirected passes, and is more common than one might expect.
The on-ice action is very good if somewhat heavy on offense. This is
somewhat mollified when playing with human opponents/teammates (tons of
fun!) and the skill level can be tweaked when playing solo, but even so,
the AI is more than competent – and frighteningly prescient at times –
which leads to appropriate (i.e. normal) final scores.
The graphics and overall presentation is top notch – should we expect
less? NHL 2004 is a great-looking and great-sounding game. 'Nuff said!
NHL 2004 is an extremely good hockey game but has one major failing in
my eyes: lack of fun. For simulation fans, this (subjective) problem
won’t be viewed as a failing. It’s loaded with everything that a hockey
fan could want (especially the Play Now option, which gets you playing
quickly and painlessly), and should definitely please those that felt a
little let down by last year’s edition.