Experienced sports management simmers will immediately see the similarities between FaceOff Hockey 2004 and the latest edition of Diamond Mind Baseball. Like its hardball-centered predecessor, .400 Software Studios' take on pro hockey is extremely powerful, exacting in regard to stat generation and authenticity, and incredibly, frustratingly hard to use. The developers may have designed a serious hockey simulation for the serious hockey fan, but the dated, almost DOS-like interface and absence of nifty accessories, like career play, make it an acquired taste.
Still, it's a good bet for shinny nuts who demand pinpoint accuracy in their hockey games. While this game may be a new take on the old FaceOff Hockey series developed by David Landsman's Land-Sports, it retains the same dedication to exactitude. Nobody else gets the NHL quite like Land-Sports, an achievement that was recognized back in 2001 when EA Sports hired the company to provide ratings for its NHL games. That same focus can still be seen today, although issues with regard to the interface and options may turn off casual hockey fans.
For starters, the menu system is straight out of 1994. Aside from the opening splash screen typical of .400 Software Studios productions, there is little representative of the modern, easy-to-use text-based sports simulation. Unlike most games of this ilk offered today, there is no step-by-step process to walk you through seasonal play and to take you from training camp through the Stanley Cup playoffs. You choose a player database and immediately have to go about configuring a league, complete with a dozen or so options ranging from the number of teams to the overtime format. The standard NHL setup is the default setting, with actual NHL players on the rosters of clubs with phony nicknames (Toronto, for instance, is home to the St. Pats, which is at least a tribute to the team's previous name), although you can tweak to your heart's content. Then comes the setup of your chosen club, roster assignments, setting lines, and the decision of when to pull your goalie in simmed games, and so forth.
There is no assistance to walk you through these choices, so novices beware. Even veterans with a background in text-based sports sims will have a bit of a rough time getting going here, since the absence of guidance forces a lot of fiddling with menus for the first few hours of play. Everything could have been arranged better. Why is the season schedule presented in a small box rather than in an easy-to-read calendar? Why are vital team functions, such as managing the roster and setting lines, split into different menus? What is the point of having an entirely separate menu for the sole purpose of appointing captains and alternates? Much of the interface could have been simplified just by deleting unnecessary screens and combining functions.
There are even a few noteworthy bugs. Both goalies on a roster can occasionally be injured or suspended, halting a season dead in its tracks. Databases can apparently be corrupted during installation, and then the game is unable to find player lists. This forces a reinstall, which implies the programming is sloppy. You need to rename a file in order to get the help files (a separate download) to properly display in the game. And when you're setting up leagues, error messages frequently pop up saying vaguely threatening things about access violations. The game never actually crashes due to these errors, although a lot of functions that should work occasionally don't, for reasons known only to those responsible for this arcane interface.
But even with all that, FaceOff Hockey 2004 simulates professional hockey games better than any other game on the market. There is no career option, so play here is strictly focused on replaying single seasons; but, it is worth struggling with these limitations to experience a game engine that generates lifelike player and team statistics. Assign the right ice-time percentages to your four lines on the coaching strategy screen and you get accurate numbers across the board in terms of scoring and shots on goal.
There is a lot of flexibility here, too, as strategies can be edited for every team. If you want to mirror the lines and tactics that Mike Kitchen brought to the St. Louis Blues when he took over from Joel Quenneville this past spring, you can do so. As an added touch, you can even set up coaches and give them personalities, such as master strategist, studious, vocal, and that old Pat Quinn-styled favorite, ref-berater. The only issue is that most of these values are left blank, forcing you to do a lot of fine-tuning with teams if you want to experience an accurate NHL simulation. Even with this absence, games take on a lifelike sheen. Traditional rivals even tend to get involved in fight-laden affairs. One game we simmed between divisional opponents Dallas and Detroit was marked by 126 minutes in penalties and a three-on-three brawl in the final minute--the score was out of control.
Player default settings are pretty solid. Check the box scores after a night of action around the league and you'll discover that the right players are finding the twine and clocking the most minutes on the ice. Big scorers like Alexander Mogilny and Markus Naslund routinely lead the league in scoring. Numbers reflect player attributes as well. Natural scorers, such as Glen Murray, typically count more goals than assists, and playmakers, such as Doug Weight, get credit for a lot more helpers than goals. Ice time is also dead-on. Top forwards always clock in at around 17 to 25 minutes a night, while stud defensemen, in the style of Adam Foote, patrol the blue line for around 30 minutes a game. Purists might quibble about inflated offensive numbers--scoring is well above that of the current dead-puck era--although, this might be a blessing in disguise since so many of those purists long to go back to the more wide-open NHL of the 1980s and early 1990s.
These mostly accurate statistics are generated no matter how you simulate games. You can whip through a day's schedule in seconds or tear through a full week, month, or season with a single click. Speed is such that you can easily sim two or three seasons in a single evening of play. Manually playing games, of course, takes more time, but it holds its own rewards, as you can step behind the bench and shift lines. Textual play-by-play is well done, setting up both a sense of flow and adding tension to the proceedings. Roaring crowd noise also gives you an air of sitting rinkside. But as satisfying as playing solo is, it's even more entertaining to go online and take part in online leagues. There is a strong community of FaceOff series owners out there and many ongoing leagues.
Still, FaceOff Hockey 2004 remains something of a fixer-upper. There is a lot of promise here if you're willing to do some work in the beginning and set up all the necessary league files, but the learning curve is steep and the interface unforgiving. No other text-based game provides such an authentic simulation of NHL hockey, but players must accept a lot of rough edges.