SummarySuperb hockey simulation - the best out there, but could use some polish and tweaks
The GoodESPN NHL Hockey, as the NHL2K games before it, takes hockey in the "sim" direction. Previous hockey video games have been terribly unrealistic, but they have been accepted simply because there has been nothing else close. Of course, since hockey doesn't enjoy the same fanbase as (American) football does, realism doesn't get the same treatment here as it does in NFL games like Madden and ESPN/NFL2K. Still, ESPN NHL is a step forward.
Gameplay is pretty tight. Goals have to be earned - no gimmes. The fast-paced struggle for the puck and the difficulty of setting up in the offensive zone is what makes real hockey exciting - and this game really captures that. Unlike last year, one-timer goals and goals off rebounds are the way to score. A good deke and a quick shot to the open side of the net can also tally a goal.
The graphics are outstanding. Easily the best looking hockey game to date, and a huge improvement over the rather homely NHL2K3. The player models are very fluid, and the arena and ice are incredibly detailed. The action replays are also very well done, offering shots from different angles and generally giving a great view of the big plays after they happen.
Online play is offered via Xbox Live. Xbox hockey fans should eat up an online component that doesn't carry the same proliferation of bugs and glitches that NHL2K3 did. Online hockey on the Xbox isn't the most popular game in town, so don't expect a treasure trove of players... especially once Microsoft's own online-capable hockey game releases. However, this game is good enough to keep a loyal following, and there should be plenty of online action to be had.
The BadWhile most of the game is solid, there are some shortcomings that have to be noted.
Slapshots are a bit too weak. They are far too frequently blocked before they reach the net... they don't "get through" traffic like they do in real life. The "deke" control also seems almost totally useless. Using the right stick for the deke control was a genius design decision, but the dekes take so long to happen that, far too often, you'll just end up running into the goalie before the deke is done. Players are better off just deking manually.
The game is a bit more balanced towards hard-hitting defense this year, as opposed to poke-checking the puck away in NHL2K3. On one hand, this is good - the poke checks were just too easy - but the open ice checks of ESPN NHL Hockey are not very realistic. The checking strength can be fine-tuned using gameplay adjusting sliders, which helps. However, don't count on having those sliders tweaked in every online game... so if you play online, expect some slam-fests.
In season mode, injuries occur far too often. This is partly because most players check a lot. Unfortunately, this is what the gameplay leans towards. A smart player will balance body checks and stick pokes on defense, but the body check is just so strong that it's tough to keep from using it very liberally.
Worst of all is the audio. First off, the game does not have Dolby Digital 5.1 support, despite previous Xbox NHL2K games having it. Secondly, the on-ice audio is pathetically weak. Hockey is full of great sound - from the clattering on the ice to the slams against the boards - and the audio in this game misses out on all of it.
And then there's the commentary. NHL2K3's was terrible, so ESPN NHL features real NHL commentators in Gary Thorne and Bill Clement ("Clement, Clement, hands of cement", as the great ESPN commercial from a couple years ago opined). Naturally, the NHL announcing pedigree of these two would lead people to expect great commentary. However, the commentary is VERY repetitive (Clement constantly refers to "shoulder" hits - it sounds silly, but after a few games, it becomes very grating). Thorne and Clement deliver very good sounding lines, but far too few lines were recorded, and the programmers dropped the ball in making them repeat so much. It wouldn't be so bad if you could just turn if off and enjoy the arena sound, but that arena sound is so weak that the commentary is needed to keep the audio experience from being too anemic.
The Bottom LineThough the game has room for improvement, ESPN NHL Hockey is a very strong hockey game. EA's NHL series has not yet caught up, although NHL 2004 is much better than the NHL 2003 disaster. While the audio failings and other shortcomings are very disheartening, the core gameplay (online and off) is enough to keep hockey fans coming back.