ESPN NHL Hockey Review
If you're a fan of the sport of hockey, you owe it to yourself to add ESPN NHL Hockey to your collection, as it's simply too good to pass up.
ESPN NHL Hockey is the latest addition in Sega Sports and Visual Concepts' critically-acclaimed NHL 2K series of games. Though they aren't known for releasing their sports titles in conjunction with actual pro seasons' opening days or in anticipation of a competitors sports title, Sega and Visual Concepts have managed to make ESPN NHL Hockey the first game out of the gate for the 2003-2004 NHL season by releasing it nearly a full month before the season-opener. While this might inspire the thought that perhaps the game might have been rushed or is unfinished in some fashion, this is definitely not the case. ESPN NHL Hockey is, in fact, a spectacular follow-up to last year's NHL 2K3, building upon all of the best aspects of that game and correcting the bulk of its flaws.
If you're unfamiliar with the NHL 2K gameplay mechanics, here's a quick rundown. The game has a pretty user-friendly control scheme. Pass, shoot, dump, and puck protection functions are all handled by using the four main buttons. The right trigger press lets you execute speed bursts, while the left trigger acts as a modifier that gives you a couple of alternate functions for some of the buttons. The right analog stick controls dekes. Each function is pressure sensitive, so, for instance, if you're shooting the puck, just tapping the button will perform a quick wrist shot, whereas holding the button down will perform a hard slap shot. The D pad also serves as a line change/strategy change button, assuming you have manual strategies and line changes enabled in the game's options menu. When you're on defense, you use three of the four main controller buttons to check, poke check, and change players. You use the right analog stick to skate backwards. You can also grab the puck and shot block or knee drop using the second R or L triggers on the PS2. You can do perform the same actions on the Xbox by using the black and white buttons. All of these schemes can be adjusted, as necessary, but the default controls are quite intuitive.
One of the best things about NHL 2K3 was the fact that, for the most part, nearly everything you could do in real hockey found its way into the game. ESPN NHL Hockey is no different. You can perform vicious checks into the benches, pin opponents on the boards, design elite penalty killing and power-play strategies, and so on and so forth. The game is also very difficult--not because of cheap AI or impossible goalies either. Rather, the game is intensely strategy-focused, just like the real game. Simply grabbing the puck, running down to the end of the ice, and shooting in the direction of the net as hard as you can just won't cut it. Instead, you need to devise smart strategies to get your guys in front of the net to set up the one-timer, and you need to use your deke moves to fake out the goalie.
Speaking of goalies, one of the primary complaints about last year's title was that the goalies in the game were simply unbeatable, and, upon the first couple of plays in ESPN, you might assume the same. Ultimately, though, the goalies are not unstoppable. Rather, you'll likely have the most trouble navigating your way past defensemen, as the game's defensive AI is very tough. If you can break past them, however, all it will take is a well-designed play to beat the goalie. No longer will you constantly have to deal with triple overtime scoreless games. Even on the harder difficulty levels, once you get a feel for the defense, you can get a number of high scoring games.
All in all, the gameplay in ESPN NHL Hockey presents some of the most accurate and addictive hockey action ever created--though, ultimately, many people will be initially turned off by the game's somewhat unwieldy difficulty levels. Though there are five different difficulty levels in the game, the first two are pretty much a breeze, and the three that follow are significantly harder. While it would be nice to not have such a drastic difference between difficulty levels, the game's various gameplay sliders do a fine job of adjusting those aspects you might have trouble with on the harder levels.