Though Visual Concepts' NHL franchise has always been good, the last two iterations of the series, NHL 2K3 and ESPN NHL Hockey, have really helped establish the franchise as the best of the current bunch. With its upcoming installment, ESPN NHL 2005, Visual Concepts is looking to improve what is already working and to fix what isn't working as well as it could be, namely the franchise mode and fighting engine.
Hockey is obviously a rough and occasionally dirty sport, as evidenced by incidents such as the Todd Bertuzzi debacle from a few months back. Fighting isn't always the prettiest part of the sport, but it is an important part, and in ESPN NHL 2005, you'll have greater control over your ability to slug it out and play dirty against your opponents. When you're not in control of the puck, by pressing on the right control stick you'll be able to perform "dirty moves." Each move is different, depending on the direction you tap the stick. For example, if you press back on it, you'll perform a hard slash, and if you press forward you can slam another player with your elbow. Obviously, all of this aggression won't go unchecked, so should you get too dirty, you will be thrown in the sin bin.
These dirty moves tie in to a tension meter for each team on the ice. The more aggressive you are, the more you'll tick off the opposing team. Once that happens, your odds of getting into a fight are very, very high. Assuming you do find yourself in a fight, you'll have a much greater wealth of fighting options at your disposal than the generic rock-'em-sock-'em-robots style of fighting from previous games. Not only will you be able to throw more realistic punches and grapple around with your opponent, but you'll also be able to do it anywhere on the ice, since the fighting engine gives you free rein to skate and slide anywhere on the rink.
When not brawling with the opposing team, you'll actually be able to play some hockey. The basic hockey mechanics seemed pretty similar to those in last year's games, at least in terms of shooting and passing. However, the deke system seems to have gotten a big improvement. Last year's dekes were good but a little unwieldy at times when trying to snake your way past a defender. Now, dekes are much more precise and give you a much tighter range of movement. Pressing forward will do a very quick deke around the opponent in front of you; pressing to either side will perform side-to-side fake-outs; and pressing back will let you stop pretty much on a dime, giving you a little room to wind up a snap shot. The dekeing really does feel great and really allows for more complex play setups.
The biggest mode upgrade the game has seen this year is to the franchise mode, which now includes things like realistic minor league transactions and a full coaching staff. Scouting was pretty much absent from any of the previous games, but now you will be able to fully scout players. The game gives you the ability to watch them perform on the ice, and you can even have them run specific practice drills, all in the name of finding out everything you can about a player. ESPN NHL 2005 will also include a more fleshed-out Skybox mode with more unlockables, and it's likely to feature most of, if not all of, the same online capabilities as the game's NFL counterpart, including online leagues and tournaments that feature live rosters, trades, and injuries.
From what we saw on the E3 2004 show floor, we're expecting good things from ESPN NHL 2005 when it hits stores this fall. We will have more on the game in the coming weeks.