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Q4 2003



- Xbox Live support for up to 10 players
- Decent fight setup



- Graphics are okay, but on-ice player animations are weak
- No franchise mode
- Developing an average scoring touch takes a while



Review: NHL 2004 (Xbox)

Review: ESPN NHL Hockey (Playstation 2)

Review: ESPN NHL Hockey (Xbox)



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NHL Rivals 2004

Score: 7.2 / 10


nhl rivals 2004 xbox preview         nhl rivals 2004 xbox preview


Following its NFL Fever, NBA Inside Drive, and Inside Pitch series, Microsoft finally has an NHL game to join them: NHL Rivals 2004. Much like the other three games, NHL Rivals 2004 has a few features that establish it as a viable option for Xbox sports gamers. But unfortunately, just like the other three Microsoft franchises, it doesnít have the complete package that its competitors EA Sports and Sega Sports offer in their respective hockey titles. Itís a good first-time effort, but good isnít good enough against the excellent NHL 2004 (from EA Sports) and NHL ESPN Hockey (from Sega Sports).

Unlike the other ďBig FourĒ franchises from Microsoft (NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball) NHL Rivals 2004 leans more to the simulation side of the ice than to an arcade oriented style of gameplay. As such, you will see a lot of low-scoring affairs (especially with the difficulty settings increased), much like in the NHL itself, where netting more than two goals a game is considered a potent offense. In single-player action, there are a few modes to shred up the ice, including Season mode, Playoff, Tournament, Pickup and even a Rivals mode that randomly squares off two long and bitter NHL rivals. But just like its other 2003 first-time sports entry, Inside Pitch 2003, there isnít a franchise mode to be seen, which is a big issue when deciding




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on a possible purchase among todayís hardcore sports gamers weaned on EA Sports lineup of detailed 30-year franchise modes.

But NHL 2004 Rivals does have a major advantage that the NHL hockey series from EA doesnít offer Xbox gamers: online gameplay through Xbox Live. As part of the fledgling XSN sports network, NHL Rivals 2004 allows you to


create your own online leagues and updated rosters will be available for download throughout the season. Itís online that NHL Rivals 2004 can show off some of its best features, but also brings some of its gameplay issues to center ice attention, too.

NHL Rivals supports full 10-player online games. Each player (excluding the goalie) can be assigned to a single online player. Although thereís a lot of teamwork needed in team matches to achieve success in first-person shooters over Xbox Live, NHL Rivals 2004 with all the hockey rules on (icing, two-line passes, offside) is a huge litmus test for your working-as-a-team-and-not-an-individual skills. If you can find 10-player games online, then certainly join, because this is NHL Rivals 2004 at its best, especially compared to one-on-one matches that can expose some of the gameís online weaknesses.

I wonít say that itís cheating, because itís not a playerís fault that you can do it in an online contest. But some players can almost score at will and your A.I. defense doesnít have a viable solution to shut it down. While the game is simulation-style hockey offline, online it can turn into an arcade-type goal-scoring affair if your adversary knows how to advantageously exploit the gameís uneven online A.I.

What really is necessary, particularly online, is developing a scoring touch, and that definitely is easier said than done. You can learn how to score in the Open Ice mode, where you can skate and practice all of Rivalsí moves while shooting five-on-none against Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils, only the best goalie in the league. This helps hone your scoring if you practice long enough, but it takes earnest gameplay sessions in a lot of hockey contests to still get good at putting the puck in the net, especially when you account for five other opposing players on the ice with the and less-than-sufficient controls.

There are a good number of available moves, including dekes, wrist shots, slap shots, passing, dumping the puck into and out of zones, and hitting. But it isnít always simple to get the puck-handler to do what you want him to do instantaneously. Harder is defense, where performing efficient neutralizing moves against a rushing opponent without giving up a scoring chance takes some practice. And good hits often result in a roughing penalty instead of earning time on the highlight reel.


nhl rivals 2004 xbox preview          nhl rivals 2004 xbox preview

A couple of well-developed facets of the NHL experience show up in NHL Rivals 2004. The faceoff system is similar to NHL Hitz in that you are given a selection of faceoff strategies that will either counteract the selection choice of your opponent or be counteracted. Rivalsí fight system is good too, actually allowing you to decide if you want to fight or avoid it completely (but letís face it, youíll most likely be dropping the gloves every time).

The gameís A.I. helps give Rivals its simulation feel, but not in an altogether good way. Up the difficulty setting, and even lowly goalies turn into Hall of Famers, stopping even point-blank shots. The A.I. usually provides sufficient defensive help for and against you, but makes some boneheaded decisions on offense both ways. On clear-cut breakaways with you trailing badly behind, the A.I. will unbelievably many, many times pass the puck to a trailing A.I. teammate, giving you the break you need to get back into defensive position.

Both the visual and sound presentation of Rivals are mixed. Visually, Rivals is clean-looking in its arenas and realistic crowds, and to a degree, the players themselves. But the facial features of the players donít match their true-life counterparts. And NHL Rivals 2004ís on-ice player animations are weak, with only a few basic animated moves for any player, nowhere near the total youíll see in EA Sportsí latest offering. Sound effects arenít near the high quality of again, NHL 2004 from EA Sports, which is so realistic in its amount of sound effects, you actually think youíre watching a television broadcast of NHL hockey. The announcing tandem of Sam Rosen and John Davidson do a decent job in their in-game analysis and commentary, but NHL Rivals 2004 could have used more overall interjection from its announcing team at the appropriate time. The first period could almost be over before they will even announce the teamís starting lineups.

Much like a NHL expansion team that does unexpectedly well in its initial campaign but doesnít have any realistic chance of competing for even a number-eight seed playoff spot, NHL Rivals 2004 is a good start for Microsoftís hockey franchise, but needs many more superstar elements to challenge its competition in the hockey game arena. But if you already own more than one of the other 2004 XSN sports titles with an Xbox Live subscription, you definitely may want to consider NHL Rivals 2004.

- Lee Cieniawa

(January 16, 2004)

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