With this year's hockey season already pretty much in the tank due to the lockout, and with two major hockey titles already on the market for the last couple of months, most hockey fans have probably already made a choice when it comes to what game they plan to spend the long, melancholy months ahead playing. Thus, the timing of 989's first hockey title in more than two years, Gretzky NHL 2005, seems more than a little suspect. Yes, 989 has actually dug up The Great One from whatever desk he's been sitting behind for the last several years so it could slap his likeness on its latest attempt at a playable NHL game. The good news? Gretzky is far and away better than any of 989's previous hockey attempts in its ill-fated Faceoff series. However, the bad news is that Gretzky still isn't anywhere near as good as the current crop of competition, and it simply lacks the features and depth needed to be considered one of the big boys.
Perhaps the main reason Gretzky is so much better than 989's previous efforts is because 989 didn't actually develop it. The game was produced by Page 44 Studios, which has lent its developmental efforts to several old-school NHL games. This is also possibly why the game feels kind of old-school in its style of play. The gameplay itself hearkens back to the old days of PlayStation-era hockey. It's a quickly paced and high-scoring affair, which is not exactly the tune the modern-day NHL typically sings. However, there's plenty of hard hitting and tight checking in the game as well, so it isn't all razzle-dazzle offense. But the game's style of play is definitely more akin to NHL Hitz than to the strict simulation hockey of a game like ESPN NHL 2K5, despite the fact that Gretzky presents itself as a simulation offering. Fortunately, it's pretty fun, aside from the fact that it tends to shirk realism in most cases.
The controls in the game are very easy to pick up. They consist of one-button hitting, one-button passing, one-button shooting, and one-button puck dumping. There are a few unique deke moves you can pull off here and there, and there's a basic give-and-go passing system, but the control scheme is still mostly rudimentary, though that's not a bad thing necessarily. There are also a couple of nifty little innovations included in the gameplay, most of which are relatively minor but are still welcome. For example, the game features a shot-strength meter that builds up when you hold down the shoot button. Obviously, building up a huge shot tends to decrease your accuracy, but if you get it on net, the shot is much tougher for the goalie to stop. Furthermore, the game also includes a unique shot-targeting system. Once you hold down the shot button, a little target icon appears where your shot is currently headed. Before you release, you can move that target icon around to try to angle a better shot. It isn't nearly as much of a shooting crutch as it might sound, because you still have to carefully place your shots. However, it's a neat little tool to have around.
Unfortunately, for all the nostalgia Gretzky's gameplay might bring out in you, it also has more than a few significant issues that mar the experience. For one, the controls in the game, despite their simplicity, just aren't very responsive at all. This is mainly due to an issue encountered when trying to get off a quick wrist shot, which is next to impossible. There always feels like there's at least a half-second delay from when you press the shoot button to when the shot is actually taken. Of course, when you're in a crowded offensive zone, this can be a deal breaker. Gretzky 2005 is also too much of a score-happy game to be even marginally realistic. The game defaults to rookie mode, which is going to be almost insulting to any slightly experienced hockey fan, because it is entirely possible for each team to drop eight to nine goals per game on that level with no trouble at all. Even with the difficulty cranked up all the way, it's still pretty easy to average about five goals a game even against the toughest of defenses.
The main reason why the game is such a shoot-out every time is because the defensive artificial intelligence just isn't all that great. Defensemen have a bad habit of going too far into the offensive zone, which subsequently leaves openings for easy offensive breakaways for the opposition. Sometimes defensemen have to be replaced on breakouts by nearby wingers while they desperately try to catch up. Defensemen will also sometimes just camp out in front of the net, and periodically they won't move while you zip past them to position yourself in front of the goalie. No player should have any problem tossing between 35 and 45 shots in front of the net every single time out, once you get a feel for where the defense's weaknesses are. And that's not good, because the goalies aren't really that smart either. They're basically good enough at stopping straight shots, but they have a bad tendency to get hung up when traffic gets close to the net, leaving too many wide-open opportunities on one side or the other. Sometimes a goalie will also seem to get frozen in a butterfly animation while trying to scoot from one side of the net to the other, and by the time he gets to the proper side, the puck is already in the net. There's also about a three-second delay between when a goalie passes the puck to another player and when he is capable of stopping another shot, which basically means that if the puck is intercepted in that time frame, he has no shot at stopping it.
In terms of play modes, Gretzky 2005's package, save for a couple of minor exceptions, is straight from 2001. You've got your basic quick game, a practice mode, a tournament mode, and a very bare-bones franchise mode. The thing about the franchise mode is that it has all the basics. You can trade players, sign free agents, draft rookies, play through multiple seasons, and manage and edit lines to your heart's content. But really, that's about it. There's no real budgetary-limitation system in the game to speak of. There is a financials chart you can check out that measures your profits and expenses against the rest of the league, but exactly how accurate that chart is and exactly what kind of shape you're in with the owners is never really that clear. The mode does throw in the one interesting twist of letting you get fired by the owners if your team is underperforming or if you're being reckless with spending. But again, how and exactly when this happens seems to be somewhat random.
The franchise mode is also kind of buggy and inexact when it comes to stats and things of that nature. Since the game is naturally a high-scoring affair, the simulation games reflect that, so you'll rarely ever find a starting goalie in the game with a season-long goals against average of less than 3.00. You might also notice some bugs in terms of stat-tracking, too. We experienced a couple of playoff series where goalies ended up with GAAs of more than 19.00 after having faced several hundred shots over the course of a single best-of-seven series. The franchise mode also lacks any sort of real free agency system. As a result, once the free agency period hits, you can just sign away whoever you like without any real negotiating to speak of, and even once the period is over, most players under a 90 rating will stay in the pool for most (if not all) of the season. The draft has flaws, too, which namely involves ratings for rookies. The first 10 to 20 draft picks are nearly always rated in the 80s, which is ridiculous, because most rookies never even see NHL action until at least a few years are spent in the minor leagues. This multitude of issues basically makes the franchise mode pale in comparison to what else is currently on the market.
Gretzky's online implementation is also a little on the subpar side, though it's far better than the franchise mode. Once you sign in, you can immediately jump into a lobby and start playing against other people, or you can create a tournament for up to 64 teams. That is, of course, if you can ever find 64 people playing the game. We never found more than a handful while testing it. Apart from that, though, all the usual online features are available, like voice chat, leaderboards, rankings, and so on. It's a functional online mode, and it didn't seem to have any outstanding performance issues. However, it's also not all that remarkable.
To be fair, there are a couple of nonstandard features in Gretzky NHL 2005. One is the game's rivalry mode, which lets you put together a rivalry between two teams before letting you play a series of games between them. During this mode, you try to both achieve specific goals and set records throughout its course of play. Unfortunately, that's about all there is to this mode, so it gets old fairly quickly. The other addition to the package is the inclusion of EyeToy support. In the create-a-player mode, you can use the EyeToy to map your own face onto your created player. This is a pretty cool addition, though the generally low-resolution images the EyeToy captures look a little funny. Still, it's a nice bonus.
The last feature the game includes is the Gretzky challenge mode. Similar to the "Madden Challenge" or the crib/skybox challenges in the ESPN games, these are little goals and challenges you have to achieve and overcome while playing each mode of the game. They can range from simply getting a hat trick to shutting out an opponent. Completing these challenges earns you points that you can use to unlock assorted content bonuses, like alternate and classic jerseys. And just in case you were wondering when exactly The Great One's influence would actually become apparent in the game, there are multiple versions of Wayne Gretzky included. There's an Oilers-era Gretzky, a Kings-era one, a Rangers-era one, and even a Team Canada one. Of course, each of the four versions is rated through the roof, and each can put up some serious points if he's placed on a team. Sadly, the inclusion of the four Gretzkys is about the only real boon in the game's unlockables mode. There really aren't all that many jerseys to unlock, so there's a generally pretty limited scope of content to choose from.
Though not exactly impressive, Gretzky NHL 2005's graphics are perfectly serviceable. The character models are pretty good, though some of the players' faces are more than a little off from their real-life counterparts. The animation in the game is mostly good, though there is a distinct lack of proper transition animation, leading to some herky-jerky movements when switching from one type of animation to another. There are also a number of pretty blatant clipping issues that pop up, especially during replays. Goalies move through nets, players move through each other, and more. The arenas all look good, and some of the ice effects you'll see in replays are actually pretty top notch. The game's frame rate stays consistent throughout, and the array of camera options is pretty nice. All told, the game looks good.
Gretzky's audio presentation isn't quite as good, however. The in-game sound effects are all fine, but the remaining portions of the presentation aren't. The game's soundtrack is similar to other current sports games' soundtracks because it presents licensed music from a bunch of middling alternative rock acts that seem a little out of place on a hockey game. The songs range from good to terrible, and all of them seem contextually incorrect for the game. In-game commentary is provided by the duo of Mike Emrick and Darren Pang, and none of it is terribly worthwhile. Neither man has anything terribly informative to say, and sometimes one of the two will simply be wrong about a situation on the ice. There also isn't an especially good flow to their dialogue, which gives the impression that the commentary was more of an afterthought than anything else.
In a lot of ways, the fact that Wayne Gretzky is the cover athlete for this game is incredibly appropriate. That's because Gretzky NHL 2005 is a game that feels like an aging veteran trying desperately to get a leg up on the far more youthful and spry competition. Don't misunderstand, however. This isn't a bad hockey game. But when you compare it to the incredibly good ESPN NHL 2K5 and the admittedly less stellar but still solid NHL 2005, Gretzky NHL 2005 definitely feels like its missing a few key components from the overall equation. You could certainly do worse when it comes to PS2 hockey titles, but you could also do quite a bit better, too.