At EA's annual press event for 2004, we had the opportunity to take a look at the latest in EA's long-running NHL series, NHL 2005. The focus for this year's game has been largely to clear out some of the congestion found in last year's edition. In NHL 2004, players had a bit of a tendency to bunch up too much, making it exceedingly difficult to find your way down the ice to set up a scoring opportunity. In addition to tweaks made to both the controls and the artificial intelligence to fix this, EA will also be including a healthy smattering of new modes and requisite graphical upgrades to try to make this entry the definitive hockey title of the year.
To start, we took some time to see what exactly EA Sports did to dispense with the congested ice. First of all, the game's AI has been redesigned in such a way that the players are more attuned to the space around them, and they seem to have a better idea of how to use that space to their advantage. Defensemen will back off more to try to get a good amount of running space to deliver hard checks, and speedier players seem to have better ideas about how to scoot and deke around players by using the space allotted. In addition to the basic AI tweaks, the developer has also implemented a new control concept called "open ice controls." Using these controls, you can send commands to other players on the ice, allowing you to set up picks and designed scoring opportunities. You can also take advantage of a new deke button called a tap deke. Using this button, your controlled player will perform a deke that is more akin to his particular personality. So, say, if you're using Todd Bertuzzi, your deke will be performed more with your body, thus knocking a player away from you. However, with a player like, say, Markus Naslund, you'll deke with your stick, keeping the puck away from opposing players. New shot functions have also been added, including a specific wrist shot button that allows you to hold the button down as long as necessary to get the right shot off, and a new wraparound feature that's very similar to the one found in last year's NHL Hitz Pro.
Another gameplay addition to NHL 2005 is the new faceoff playbook. Any card-carrying NHL fan will tell you that many teams live or die by their faceoff percentage, so now you'll be able to more readily design exactly how you want a faceoff to go. If you choose an aggressive strategy, you can place a winger across the ice from the faceoff circle to try to send it across to him for the one-timer. The downside to this is that if you don't win, that's one less player you have close by to try to pick the puck back from the opposing team. You can also choose standard and conservative strategies for faceoffs, as well as tie up your faceoff opponent, kick the puck with your skate, and so on.
In terms of mode additions to this year's game, the biggest is the addition of the World Cup of Hockey tournament. This is the tournament where the NHL and the world's finest all come together to play some very exciting hockey--and compete for the right to take the cup home. The exact extent of how the tournament would work in the game was not shown to us, but it was mentioned that plenty of international players would be featured. Another mode addition to the game is a new minigame, of sorts, in which up to four players can compete with one another on the same section of ice, each trying to outscore the other. This fast and frenetic mode seems like it should be a very nice addition to the game's overall package.
In terms of the game's dynasty mode, you can expect to see much of the same types of functionality found in last year's game. However, a few changes have been made, largely due to user feedback. In this year's game, you won't be automatically burdened with a lackluster team from the get-go. If you pick a high-ranking team, your team will still be up to snuff from the very beginning. One new addition to the mode is a newly revamped feedback system that clearly spells out your current player situations and your owner's goals. Owner goals are especially of note, because--depending on the owner--sometimes you will be asked specifically to turn a profit with your team (regardless of how much your team might suffer in the win-loss column due to cost cutting). However, others may demand a Stanley Cup in a relatively short period of time.
Graphically, NHL 2005 is looking quite impressive. The most detail you'll see is in the player faces, which have been reworked to an almost staggering degree. The amount of facial detail put into each model is, quite frankly, insane. The remaining portions of the player models also look extremely polished, with more reactive jersey movements and realistic builds. Though not a whole lot in the way of new animation was immediately apparent from our time spent with the game, it does seem as though the fluidity of the on-the-ice action has improved quite a bit.
With all of these new features, and the added bonus of Live support for the Xbox version of the game, it seems as though NHL 2005 is shaping up very well. It's far too early to tell whether or not it will be the top dog of the hockey market, but it certainly seems like it has the potential to be. And, just to assuage any fears, it certainly seems as though the current NHL collective bargaining talks (and possible lockout) won't affect the game's planned fall release. We'll bring you more on NHL 2005 soon.