Replay Value: 3
I don't know much about hockey, but I do know enough to realize that unresponsive controls, busted A.I., loose puck handling, and jumpy graphics are the kinds of things that no one wants to see in an officially licensed product.
The controls are laid out fine. You can move players up and down the ice and skate around using the analog nub. Each of the main buttons controls a basic action, such as hitting, passing, shooting, and puck dumping. By holding down a button, you can perform give-and-go passes and check opponents. The different directions on the digital directional pad let you switch between various offensive and defensive plays on the fly. There's also a shot targeting system that kicks in when you hold down the shoot button, which lets you aim the shot on goal using the analog nub.
Unfortunately, apart from the control layout, Gretzky NHL suffers from laundry list of problems and complaints. The controls are terribly unresponsive. There's a slight delay between when you actually input a command and when it's reflected on the screen. It also takes forever for players to turn around once they do start moving. Worst of all, the A.I. is totally broken. When you head down the ice, your teammates won't start following their lines for at least a few seconds. Very often, that leaves you battling for the puck in a 3-on-1 situation or trying to shoot a goal with the lane full of opposing players.
I also didn't like the puck handling much. Perhaps this is my hockey ignorance showing through, but it seems to me that players shouldn't skate over the puck without taking possession of it or just let it fly loose randomly while skating up the ice.
Probably the worst aspect of Gretzky NHL is its graphics, which actually hinder a person's ability to play the game. The arena models, players, and uniforms look great, and it's really neat that there are quickie cut scenes for replays, substitutions, and celebrations, but everything moves at such a choppy pace. It's hard to keep up with the puck when the camera can't even keep up with it. The frame-rate dips so low at times that it looks like the players are teleporting down the ice. The jumpy frame-rate also makes it difficult to see what your players are doing, since the choppy graphics interrupt the animations that are used for actions such as steals and hitting. It's so easy to get called for sticking because the game didn't bother to show your player waving his stick around while you held the steal button down too long.
At least the audio doesn't get in the way of anything... what little of it there is. Gretzky NHL 2005 on the PS2 had a commentary track and a full boat of "realistic" hockey sound effects. Gretzky NHL on the PSP doesn't have a commentary track. That pretty much leaves the sound effects, which are crisp and believable. In particular, the sound of the sticks banging together and the shooshing of the skates going down the ice are very lifelike. There's also a canned announcer that calls out goals and period changes.
In terms of overall features, Gretzky NHL is behind the curve compared to console-based sports games, but it's pretty much in line with the other sports games that are available for the PSP. All 30 NHL teams are represented, along with the majority of players. Alternate and retro uniforms are included, although many of them must first be unlocked by spending points in the Gretzky Challenge menu. Play modes include exhibition, season, and online. You can adjust rosters for the whole game in the roster manager or do so in the season mode, which also includes trades and free agents. That's everything the season mode offers, however, aside from a 2005 fantasy schedule. The online mode supports both Ad Hoc and Infrastructure link-ups, but it's limited solely to exhibition games. The server in Infrastructure mode does keep track of records and rankings however.
Owing to the game's namesake, there's a Gretzky Challenge menu that lets you trade-in the points you earn while playing the game for additional jerseys and classic versions of "The Great One" himself. Points are easy enough to earn. You just have to satisfying certain criteria, such as winning face-offs and scoring goals, during the normal course of playing.
Chances are, however, that no one is going to buy or rent this game just so they can unlock the Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky that scored 50 goals in 39 games during the 1981 season.