NHL Eastside Hockey Manager Hands-On Impressions

We get our first look at Sports Interactive's upcoming hockey management game.

Sega and Sports Interactive stopped by our office earlier this week and came armed with a finished European version of NHL Eastside Hockey Manager for the PC. The game will be the first from UK-based Sports Interactive to be released in North America when it ships to stores in September. Based on what we've seen of the predominantly text-based sports management game, there's no reason why it shouldn't prove every bit as popular with hockey fans as the best-selling Championship Manager series has always been with soccer fans.

NHL Eastside Hockey Manager uses an enhanced version of the Championship Manager 2001/2002 engine, but it also incorporates a number of features that weren't present in that game, some of which were introduced in more recent Championship Manager titles and others which--assuming they don't show up in Football Manager 2005--appear to have been developed specifically for the hockey audience. The game will feature new options that reveal exactly where your players have been shooting from and at which parts of the goal, for example.

Managing a hockey team is a lot harder than you'd expect, because there are a lot of details to take into account.

NHL Eastside Hockey Manager will allow you to manage any of around 200 hockey teams from 18 leagues in no fewer than 12 different countries--including the United States, Canada, Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Norway, Russia, Slovakia, and Sweden. Once you've chosen which team you'd like to manage, one of the first things that you'll find in your in-game inbox is an e-mail from the board of directors outlining its expectations for the coming season. Depending on which team you've chosen, your goal might simply be to improve the team roster or to stay clear of relegation. Opt for a successful team, though, and you'll be expected to continue the good work done by your predecessor by picking up some silverware or, at the very least, by making the playoffs. As the manager, you'll be responsible for everything from player transfers and team selection, to practice routines and match tactics--although you will have the option to delegate certain tasks to your coaching staff.

There's clearly an awful lot of depth in NHL Eastside Hockey Manager, but, like the Championship Manager games on which it's modeled, navigating the beautifully presented menus really couldn't be any easier. Any time you see the name of a hockey player mentioned in an e-mail or in a match report, for example, you can click on it to check out the player's profile--complete with a photo, in most cases. In addition to no fewer than 27 mental, physical, and technical attributes that determine a player's skills on the ice, secret personality attributes (that you never get to see) ensure that no two players in the game are the same or need handling in the same way. One of the options to make the game more difficult, which is straight from the Championship Manager series, will hide most players' normally visible attributes from you until you have one of your scouts go to check them out. To make the game more challenging still, you'll be able to populate it entirely with randomly generated players in place of the real ones, thus making any previous knowledge you have of today's top players completely useless.

You can plan your lineup and then tinker with it as injuries and lackluster performances take their tolls.

Once you've selected a lineup for your team's next match and have given instructions either to the whole team, to specific lines, or to individual players, you'll be taken to the match engine. Although it's accompanied by a graphical representation of the rink that shows the approximate location of the puck, the gameplay essentially amounts to nothing more than well-written radio commentary. The fact that you don't actually get to watch the matches being played might sound disappointing on paper, but believe us when we say that the matches you'll see in your head as you follow the commentary will be as realistic and exciting as anything powered by EA Sports. This is the way it's always been with the Championship Manager series, and those games break sales records across Europe practically every time a new version is released. We should also mention that although Sports Interactive's game are generally played solo, NHL Eastside Hockey Manager will feature support for up to 30 players--which is just enough for you and your friends to assume control of every team in the NHL.

So there you have it. We haven't really scratched the surface with NHL Eastside Hockey Manager yet, but it's already apparent that--as expected--it's essentially Championship Manager with a puck. This is definitely not a bad thing--unless, of course, you end up being the spouse of an addict and, as has already happened with Championship Manager in Europe, the game is cited as grounds for divorce. We'll bring you more on NHL Eastside Hockey Manager as its September release closes in.

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