ESPN NHL 2K5 Hands-On Impressions

We get hands-on with ESPN NHL 2K5 for the first time since E3.

Visual Concepts stopped by the GameSpot offices earlier today with playable builds of its upcoming hockey game, ESPN NHL 2K5. Despite the overall high quality of last year's ESPN NHL Hockey, the developers at VC were quite frank about recognizing the shortcomings of that game and have obviously been hard at work addressing them in this year's offering. Specifically, the fighting engine and the franchise mode have been overhauled in NHL 2K5, and a highly enjoyable party mode has been added as well. To see all this crazy stuff in action, head over to ESPN NHL 2K5's media page.

ESPN NHL 2K5 will be making some surprising and enjoyable additions to the series.

We first got a chance to try out the new fighting-game mechanic. Each team has a visible tension meter, which you'll be able to see at the top of the screen. The more physical and chippy the game gets, the higher the tension meter runs for each team. Cheap shots and board-rattling checks are sure ways to run these meters up. The higher the tension meter gets, the more likely it is that a fight will break out.

Once two players have dropped the gloves, you'll be able to take control of your man. In this year's game, you have the ability to move freely around the ice, making fights somewhat more tactical as you try to maintain distance from your opponent before making your move. It also allows you to retreat or charge at your whim, without the restrictions of last year's game. You have an array of punches and moves at your disposal, including a jab, an uppercut, a dodge, and a grab. You can't just flail away wildly, though, because each punch takes stamina, which is represented by a blue bar. Punches thrown with a full or nearly full stamina bar do much more damage than blows thrown at the end of a big flurry. Some of the fights we tried still degenerated into button mashing, but overall this change appears to be a step in the right direction.

The developer has also added a number of interesting in-game features to spice up gameplay. Arguably, the most significant of these is the use of the right analog stick to poke at an opponent. Give the stick a quick tap and your player may apply a quick hook to an opponent to slow him up. Press down on the right analog stick and your player will apply a much harder and dirtier check move, which more often than not will upend or knock over the opposing player. The downside of relying on this mechanic is that you leave yourself open to a penalty, and, obviously, the harder moves make it very likely that you'll end up with a player in the penalty box. Still, it's a useful feature to have, and, as in real hockey, it allows you to intentionally take a penalty rather than give up an outnumbered attack on your goalie.

Another interesting feature is the ability to skate backward by holding the L trigger. While doing this, the right analog stick gives you full control over your hockey stick, so you can use it to sweep-check pucks or centering passes away, just like a real-life defenseman would.

On the franchise front, developer Kush Games has made wholesale changes. Everything, including trade logic and artificial intelligence roster management, has been redone from the ground up so that the computer will make more-intelligent decisions. What's more exciting, though, is the new design of the franchise mode, which focuses squarely on your staff, players, and player development. In NHL 2K5, you'll hire a full slate of coaches, scouts, and minor league managers, each of whom has specific strengths and weaknesses. Some coaches are great at working with forwards, while others develop defensemen better, for example. Over the course of several seasons, you'll also need to monitor your staff's satisfaction level. Those who are discontent may end up impacting your players in a negative way, while those who are happy could have the opposite effect.

The role of the minor-league system has also been expanded greatly. Instead of being just a holding pool for your younger players and marginal talent, the minor leagues will actually simulate games as you play through your major-league season. You'll be able to examine stats from these games as well as player stats so that you can specifically call up players who are on hot streaks. If you have young talent that you want to develop, you'll even have the ability to set up lines to ensure maximum playing time for them.

This idea is expanded even further in the offseason when you send your staff out to internationally scout. You can allocate scouting time to different areas of the world, like Scandinavia, North America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. From there you'll get player lists that provide basic physical information and rough ratings. Schedule potential major-league players for workouts and slowly their skill attribute numbers will fill in, along with text-based scouting reports that cover strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, you'll be able to compare these potential NHL players to actual, current NHL players. The more time you spend with a player, the more-specific information you'll get, which allows you to go into the draft with a plan of action. Beware if you have a poor scouting staff though; your information may be unreliable.

The best part of all of this, though, is that you can set up an actual game with these prospects to gain a true hands-on feel for their skills. Instead of just seeing a big 90 attached to some guy's shot speed rating, you'll be able to fire off screaming rockets at the goalie yourself. Instead of seeing a great check rating for a defenseman, you'll be able to flatten people in a game to know that he's a great checker. You can also run players through skills competitions to gather impressions of other aspects, like shot accuracy. Again, each of these actions takes time from your offseason, but you'll be rewarded with a fuller set of ratings for each of these players in question in the long run.

Beyond all the great new gameplay and franchise features, the most pleasant surprise for us was the inclusion of ESPN NHL 2K5's fantastic, new party mode. This mode is designed specifically for players who aren't as hardcore about their hockey. Perhaps you're having company over and you want to just fire up a fun, four-player, arcade-style hockey game with simplified controls. The "arcade quick game" and "arcade tournament" modes allow for this, and they also give you the ability to disable offsides, icing, and penalties. Also, bonuses can be added for winning fights. As a result, for example, perhaps only the loser of a fight will be sent to the penalty box, or perhaps the winner of a fight will earn a goal for his team. "Elimination" game mode is similar to arcade, except that you can set it up so that the first one to score a certain number of goals is the winner.

The true gem of party mode, however, is the "battle" setting. The best way to describe battle is that it's Mario Party meets hockey. There are 15 minigames designed for four players. We got to try a sampling of them, and they range from racing through an obstacle course, to "freeze tag" (where you gain points for checking other players), to free-for-all (where four players try to score the most goals in a rink that features just one net and one puck). Overall, the games are well designed and balanced. Some modes, like the racing modes, do favor speedy players, like the Los Angeles Kings' right winger Ziggy Palffy. Other minigames require more strength in checking, so the more-physical forwards tend to dominate. Our hands-on time in party mode with four players was a total blast, and we did everything that we possibly could to not yell too loudly in the middle of the office, which would have disturbed the other hardworking editors.

Overall, we're quite impressed with the way the game is shaping up, and we're looking forward to seeing how the final release looks when the game ships in early September. Stay tuned to GameSpot, because we'll have more on ESPN NHL 2K5 soon.

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