NHL 2005 Review
Make no mistake. NHL 2005 is still a solid game of hockey--but it shouldn't be your first choice for one.
With the NHL player lockout having now moved beyond the realm of mere probability into cold, hard fact, hockey fans are likely to be on the hunt for any kind of hockey they can find between now and next year. On the video game front, both Visual Concepts and EA are once again adding new installments to their yearly NHL franchises. ESPN NHL 2K5, Visual Concepts' title, came out on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox earlier this month and proved to be a phenomenal game of hockey. NHL 2005, EA's newest hockey title, looks fantastic, but it doesn't quite compare in terms of its actual hockey gameplay. Sure, the game definitely improves upon certain aspects of last year's NHL 2004, but in other key areas, the game suffers from some occasionally overambitious artificial intelligence and restrictive game design that ultimately makes the game more frustrating than it probably should be. Make no mistake. This is still a solid game of hockey, but it isn't the most realistic or best-playing NHL title out there, and as such, it shouldn't be your first choice for one.
If you played NHL 2004, you'll notice a few subtle but useful control tweaks in this year's game. The first and perhaps most important one is the separation of slap shots and wrist shots into two separate buttons. Other games have given you ways to control exactly what kinds of shot you wanted to send toward the net, but this method is by far the easiest. Now, if you want to send a blistering slap shot from the point on command, you can. And if you want to get in close to the net to send a wrister up top-shelf, you can do that too. NHL 2005 also features a brand-new wraparound shot that is far more like the type of quick wraparounds you would see in a real NHL game. Just press one of the shot buttons while behind the net, and your player will try to push the puck into the corner of the net. If you played the last Midway-produced NHL title, NHL Hitz Pro, you may recognize this exact same shot from that game. However, just because EA didn't invent it doesn't make it a bad idea. So, in fact, it's an immensely useful addition.
Another useful control change is the ability to shift control to a player that isn't in possession of the puck when on offense. By pressing a button, you'll then be in control of another forward while the player in control of the puck moves up-ice. Position yourself correctly and you'll be in line for a quick one-timer. The one downside to this mechanic is that the camera always stays trained on the player who's controlling the puck, so it can sometimes be hard to get a bearing on the controlled player's position. However, once you get the hang of it, this mechanic becomes pretty indispensable.
One big gameplay fix from last year's game is the whole passing system. NHL 2005 still has the same basic two-button passing system from last year, but it's been polished up to fix some of the problems people had with passes just missing to the left or right. The puck still doesn't just automatically go to the closest player's stick, but passing is generally a lot more accurate and easier to manage, so you're far less likely to whiff on what should be an easy and clear pass.
EA Chicago has also gone to great lengths to fix some of the offensive bunching issues found in last year's game. Forwards and defensemen on the offensive side of the puck are much better about spreading out in the offensive zone, giving you better chances to set up real plays. However, it could be said that sometimes forwards give you almost too much space. This is especially noticeable when moving through the neutral zone to cross over into the offensive zone. Typically, unless your line is specifically set to crash the net, your line mates will hang a bit too far back, which often leads to you being all by yourself in the zone for at least a few seconds. Normally this wouldn't be too much of a problem, but thanks to the game's overzealous defensive AI, it does become an issue.
No doubt, the defense in NHL 2005 is tough--almost too tough, actually. Basically, getting a breakaway in this game is a near impossibility on any difficulty but the easiest--at least until you've spent quite a lot of time trying to master the various deke moves and speed burst timings. If you're up against even a decently rated defensive pairing, you're likely to get knocked flat on your face before you even get within 10 feet of the net, which typically results in a quick turnover. The defensive AI doesn't even seem to really use the poke-check mechanic inside the offensive zone much at all. This is primarily because it much prefers to just lay you out flat on the ice every single time you get anywhere near the goal. While this might seem like it would make a game a penalty-filled affair, it actually doesn't. In fact, on the default settings, penalties almost never get called at all.