NHL 2005 E3 2004 Impressions

EA hopes to open up the ice with changes to its hockey franchise.

As far as sports games go, some of the industry's stiffest competition exists in the hockey market. No one is as keenly aware of this as Electronic Arts, so it's no surprise that the publishing giant is making such an effort to improve its NHL series. At E3 2004, EA sports representatives gave us a demonstration of their newest hockey game, NHL 2005. The main focus during the development of the game was to improve player AI so that the ice would feel less congested than it did in last year's game. Players in NHL 2005 will be more aware of their spacing and will react more naturally to puck movement, thanks in part to the developers applying five-man motion capture to better re-create the flow of an actual game. The developers of the NBA Live series used this technique to great effect in last year's game, so it's natural that the NHL team would try it. The result is more open space in front of the nets and better positioning by players in the set offenses.

EA was also excited to introduce a feature it calls "open ice control." Basically this gives you the ability to control players both on and off the puck to set up simple plays. One example would be breakout passes. You can set up a winger with the puck, near the boards at center ice, and then switch to the center and have him streak past the defensemen. You can then call for a pass from the winger for a perfect breakout into the attacking zone. Another interesting feature is that you can call for picks as you maneuver around the ice. While this tactic is technically illegal, it's still done in the NHL to set up breakaways by skilled players. The developers warn that, as in the real-life game, you can't use this tactic too much, or else you risk interference penalties or retaliation from the other team.

Other features hockey fans can look forward to include personality-driven AI; the star players in the game will play in the same style as they do in real life. Thirty-nine teams from Swedish, German, and Finnish leagues will be included in the game, along with 21 different international teams. The inclusion of these teams allows you to play the World Cup of Hockey. A full dynasty mode is also included, which allows you to run all operations of a hockey franchise, including player signing, drafting, and trading, as well as setting prices. NHL 2005 will also mark the series' first appearance on Xbox Live, so Xbox owners will be able to play online, just like players on the PS2 and PC have been doing. The game is slated to ship this fall, just in time for hockey season, on the Xbox, PS2, PC, and GameCube platforms.

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