ESPN NHL Hockey Review
Sega Sports has now become ESPN Videogames, and they've renamed the series ESPN NHL Hockey, thanks to their union with the television network of the same name. The game is also under the wing of a new development team, Kush Games, following the acquisition of Treyarch (of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater fame) by Activision. Have the changes in name and development teams hurt the series? The quick answer is a resounding ‘no.' ESPN NHL Hockey is easily the greatest hockey videogame ever made. This isn't to say that it is perfect. It still has its faults, but most of them are small, niggling issues.
The game plays much the same as last year's title, and this isn't a bad thing at all considering how good NHL 2K3 was. In fact, this year it's better. AI improvements make the game feel much more solid than last year. Defensemen will now attempt to disrupt shooting and passing lanes, and even go so far as to dive in front of an unprotected net. Penalty killers play much more defensively, allowing the offense to set up a better power play. I found the AI would often attempt to skate the puck out of the zone rather than clearing it last year, this problem has been rectified this year, and if you're not careful you'll find yourself skating into your defensive zone to grab the puck. The AI also seems to perform board pins only in the ends, and not in the neutral zone like in 2K3.
Another problem that no longer exists is the lack of scoring, especially on lower difficulty settings. Last year, games often went into double or triple OT, because goalies were stopping nearly every shot that came their way. The only way to fix this was through the AI sliders. This year, it seems that the netminders are no longer brick walls on even Rookie difficulty. They're still tough on All-Star and Hall of Famer levels, but they're beatable with good passing and shot selection. However, passing from the goalie still seems not quite as responsive at it should be, and can ultimately become frustrating. AI goalies will pass in front of their own net when opposing players are around, which is a problem that also existed last year.
Control is just as responsive, maybe slightly better, though I question Kush's decision to move poke checks to the triangle button. This annoyance is compounded by the inability to map buttons in a single situation. That's right, if you map poke checks to the square button, shots are moved to the triangle button. Why this happened, I do not know, but it makes no sense when you could map buttons for individual situations last year.
Momentum seems a little more realistic this year as well. It seems that it takes just a bit longer to build up some speed, and it's easy to overskate if you're on the speed burst trigger. Thankfully, by pulling back on the right analog stick you can do a full hockey stop that seems slightly more effective than using the left analog stick. The right analog stick can also be used for a variety of deke moves, but unlike EA's manual deke, this is used more for actual maneuvers rather than stick control. For those who used the right analog stick for line and strategy changes last year, get used to using the D-Pad. Perhaps the shift trigger could have been used with the right analog to perform changes, as I don't care for taking my thumb off of the left analog stick and losing control of my players in the thick of things.
Sliders are available for just about anything one would want to change, from pass accuracy, to how long the referee will wait to freeze the puck, to how often the glass surrounding the ice will break. AI sliders now exist for both player and CPU, which allows for even greater freedom when tweaking the game to one's personal preferences.
The most immediately noticeable change to the game was the addition of the ESPN license. From the game's front-end menu to rosters in Franchise Mode, it both looks and sounds like you are watching a contest on ESPN. Statistical overlays look just like those seen on TV, and Gary Thorne and Bill Clement ("Clement, Clement, hands of cement,") ESPN's most famous hockey announcing duo provide their voices as the play-by-play and color commentary.
The duo's commentary is almost always spot-on as far as timing, which is unusual for a fast paced game like hockey. Lines seem much more varied than last year, though repetition still occurs, most often in the pre-game rundown. It only took about five games to hear Clement repeat his comment about Geoff Sanderson's maturation into a better all-around player three times. Still, it's nice to have more player specific commentary, and Clement and Thorne lend more credibility to the game.
Player specific chants are also in the game, though thus far I have only heard crowds chanting for goalies after making great saves. Hopefully Kush felt the need to add a "Luuuuuc!!" chant for Columbus' Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre. If not, such chants for lesser known but locally popular players would make a great addition next year, helping to make each arena (and playing home games) feel more special. The typical "DEFENSE!" chants are in as well, and the crowd sounds pretty decent. When a goal is scored, the PA announcer pauses between each player, allowing the crowd to cheer for the assisting players, which is a nice touch.
On-ice sounds are well done, with hits on the boards providing a satisfying thud. Skates sound fairly realistic, and nothing gets the heart pumping like the ping of a slap shot off the post. Unfortunately there is no on-ice chatter to be heard. This would be great to give an idea of the chances two players were about to engage in some quality fisticuffs.
Speaking of fights, they happen much more often this year, even when the slider is set to a relatively low level compared to last year. The engine is slightly improved this year, but is still not nearly as good as the Hitz fighting engine. This is forgivable though, as Hitz has fighting as a central part of its gameplay, but it would still be nice to have a great fighting engine in ESPN NHL.
Graphically, the game looks much better than last year, and seems more crisp and lively. Player faces are very much improved, and it's quite easy to name players by looking only at their faces. One of the most impressive features of the new faces is the presence of player specific individual missing teeth. If a player is missing an incisor, it's missing in the game. Even better, is that this feature is available in the create-a-player mode.
Arenas look very nice, and have many small details. Crowds are the standard cardboard cutouts, but when the camera cuts to the penalty box, there are 3-D models there to heckle the imprisoned player and bang on the glass.
One problem with the game engine is the lack of a zoom function. This is problematic, because none of the default cameras are optimal. The ¾ Camera angle could stand to be zoomed out ever so slightly, in my opinion, especially when skating towards the bottom of the screen. Lack of a widescreen mode is disappointing, though only for HDTV owners.
This year, PS2 owners get to experience online hockey, a feature only present in the Xbox version last year. So far, my experience has been good, but I'm on a broadband connection, so as always, your experience may vary. The online experience though, is hurt by the inability to change strategies just after choosing teams. This is another feature last year that somehow got left out. This also affects the offline game, but is less problematic. Also, word has it that the notorious quitters are still around, and my advice is to find a good group of players and check your opponent's stats before agreeing to the game to avoid this problem. Leagues are not available this year, which has been known for a while, but is very disappointing after seeing how great ESPN NFL's online leagues are.
Franchise mode is largely unchanged this year, though it has been brought inline with ESPN NFL's franchise mode in that injury reports and the like are now received via ‘email.' A weekly rundown such as what is available in ESPN NFL would have been nice, but alas, NHL fans won't be treated to that this season. Injuries seem to occur slightly less often than last year, a welcome change.
The game also includes a few extra modes, such as the Skills Contest. It consists of Hardest Shot, Accuracy, and Skating. Accuracy and Skating are both good ways to hone your abilities, while Hardest Shot has little that will help in the main game. There is also a team vs. team progressive contest including the above contests and a breakaway shot contest.
Unlockables also exist, and are procured by spending tokens. The unlockables include extra sweaters, classic teams, and modes such as pond hockey. Tokens can be earned by performing in-game tasks, like scoring within thirty seconds of the first period, scoring a hat trick, or putting up a shutout. They can also be earned by posting high scores in the Skills Contests.
To sum it up, there is no hockey game available that can touch ESPN NHL in terms of realism. Will this year's three other titles hold up in comparison? That remains to be seen, but anyone who is a hockey fan would do well by spending their hard-earned cash on this title. Do yourself a favor and pick ESPN NHL Hockey up.
9/16/2003 Duane Moore