As the year rolls on, the likelihood of a real-life hockey season seems to dwindle bit by bit thanks to the impending player lockout. Indeed, hockey fans haven't had a whole lot to smile about lately, and, in fact, they've become even more uneasy when it was recently made known that all of the major hockey titles being released this year were bumped up on the release calendar in anticipation of said lockout. This could have conceivably been a disaster, because a quicker release usually means a rushed development cycle. ESPN NHL 2K5, the latest in developer Visual Concepts' critically revered hockey series, is the first NHL title out of the gate this year. Assuming you'll want the bad news first, we'll say that it's definitely apparent that certain areas of the game could have undergone a few more weeks of development so that the final product could have been more polished. However, the good news is that the few rough spots are overshadowed in every conceivable way by what is essentially the best game this hockey franchise has ever put out. And with the game retailing for the same budget pricing as its sister title, ESPN NFL 2K5, there simply isn't any excuse for a hockey fan to be without ESPN NHL 2K5.
Where ESPN NHL 2K5 lives and dies is with its gameplay. To merely call ESPN NHL 2K5 the most accurate representation of the sport of hockey on the market would be a crime. It also happens to be the most fun you'll have playing hockey on a console. The speed of the game is absolutely perfect by default, the behavior of players both offensively and defensively is wholly realistic, the controls are extremely smooth, and the scoring in the game has finally reached a solid balance between utterly impossible and much, much too easy. This is largely thanks in part to what would appear to be a big effort by the game's developers to finally make the difficulty settings properly balanced without requiring you to constantly tweak sliders just to make certain aspects of the game feel proper. Of course, there are tons and tons of sliders in the game that allow you to tweak practically every imaginable aspect you could think of, but, thankfully, this year you simply have them as options rather than as necessary evils. In fact, all you'll really need to do gameplay-wise is bump the difficulty up to pro or all-pro from the default level of amateur, and odds are that you'll be set for a good, long while.
On the flip side of the coin, ESPN NHL 2K5's gameplay is mechanically a whole lot like last year's ESPN NHL Hockey. There are a couple of additions, such as the new right-analog-stick-based "dirty moves" system, as well as a new fighting engine. Fundamentally, though, these aspects aren't really that big of an upgrade from last year's game. The dirty moves system is conceptually interesting. Basically, if you're in a desperate situation and need to absolutely stop a guy from scoring--or if you just want to play a little overly rough--you can tap the right analog stick to perform a sort of halfhearted cheap shot (like a hook), or you can press in the right analog stick button to deliver a more punishing blow (like an elbow shot). Of course, this will often lead to a trip to the sin bin, but when you absolutely have to take a guy out, the moves are effective. The one downside to this, however, is that you will see a lot more hooking penalties and similar types of infractions throughout a game. In fact, perhaps you'll see a few more than is really realistic.
The new fighting engine implemented for 2K5 is a massive upgrade from the horrid fighting in pretty much every other Visual Concepts hockey game up to this point. Fighting is based around a new tension meter, which is sort of similar to what last year's NHL 2004 had. Performing more checks and hits and otherwise irritating your opponents will cause the meter to continuously rise. Once both teams have reached their peaks, two players will drop the gloves. When fighting, you can duck, grab, punch, uppercut, and, yes, even taunt your opponent. Each punch and grab you perform takes away a bit of stamina from your player, so you have to be a bit more careful, and you can't just button-mash. From a pure fighting standpoint, this engine is still pretty disjointed--with kind of a herky-jerky feel to the action--though you do feel far more in control of what you're doing than in past games. The one nice thing, though, is that you can basically move anywhere on the ice. This allows you to kind of skate around while baiting your opponent--before you go in for an attack. This component would be a lot cooler if the fighting were better, however.
And that's really about all that's been added to ESPN NHL's gameplay mechanics. There's also a new option to press the L button while skating to skate backward, effectively letting you skate with proper defenseman technique. But beyond the scope of these few changes, this year's game plays a whole lot like last year's. If you were hoping for some big sweeping gameplay changes, you just aren't going to find them here, because last year's game was strong enough that it didn't really need much tweaking. However, as we said before, it seems as though a big chunk of the game's development time went toward balancing the game, which we consider to be a huge success. The new gameplay balance, along with the couple of mechanical tweaks, are actually pretty substantial enhancements.
ESPN NHL 2K5's gameplay is very tight, but its numerous modes and features are just as impressive. To put it bluntly, there has never been a more feature-rich game of hockey than this one, and nearly every included feature is a winner. Let's start with the franchise mode, which has been built from the ground up this year. What's new? Practically everything. For starters, the game now features real monetary contracts rather than the old points system that was used previously. You can add signing bonuses, design incentives for players, and even structure contracts to be even, front-loaded, or back-loaded. Then there is the new coaching system, which actually lets you hire a whole staff, from the head coach, right down to your player scout. There's also a whole new minor-league system that actually lets your minor-league players go through a regular minors season, which gives you the chance to see firsthand how a player performs down in the minor leagues rather than just calling up players simply based on rating. The list of improvements goes on and on, and it ranges from new, improved CPU trade and player-signing logic to apparent fixes for old, lingering issues.
However, one aspect of ESPN NHL's franchise mode sticks out most of all, and that is its new draft scouting mode. In ESPN NHL 2K5, you now have more control over your draft than ever before. Starting early in the offseason, you'll begin by plotting out a travel itinerary for your team. Your itinerary gives you the chance to fly all over the world--from North America to Eastern Europe and from Scandinavia to Asia--to check out all of the hot, young prospects in the league. Once there, you can schedule workouts with any players you please, and depending on how much time you spend there, you can get a complete picture of how that rookie stands up. But that's not all. You also have the ability to play a game between some of the best prospects for a region, so you can actually get a feel for what each player excels at, and you can see where each one is weak. Once you've gone through all of your allotted scouting days, you should have a crystal clear picture of who should be on your draft board. The best part is that the mode is incredibly intuitive and easy to use.
With all of this praise heaped on the franchise mode, it might seem like the mode is simply flawless. Unfortunately, that's not quite the case. The mode is absolutely stellar, but there are a few notable issues with it. For one, the new contract system, while much more realistic than before, lacks one key feature--the ability to gauge a level of interest from a player when negotiating a contract. When you start out negotiations, you tend to just start at the same level of contract each time, and you just have to keep offering more and more money until the player finally agrees. A simple interest meter or even a menu dictating what that player is seeking would have been a huge help, but instead you're forced to trial-and-error your way through each player signing, which is especially annoying during the free agency period, because you can only make one contract offer per week. Furthermore, you can't ever actually see what other teams are offering as opposed to what you're offering.
Another issue falls on the injury system during simulations. Nine times out of 10, the injury that pops up makes sense, but every once in a while, a seemingly serious injury, such as a broken foot, will only take a few days to heal. Moreover, each time an injury occurs, you're basically required to go in to manually redesign your rosters and lines, since the choices the game makes for you are usually pretty bad--seemingly because the game chooses solely by position rather than by rating. Considering that most forwards have the ability to shift around positions well enough in the event of an injury, it seems pretty silly that a 75-rated center would get left on the scratch list over a 68-rated right wing. While these few issues are certainly a detraction from the overall quality of the mode, ESPN NHL 2K5's franchise mode is an incredible improvement over recent years past, and it will most certainly provide you hours upon hours of hockey management glee.
Pretty much all of the preexisting modes that made their debuts in last year's game, such as the skills competitions from the NHL All-Star game and the skybox mode, are here again. Predictably, the skills games are exactly the same as last year, but the skybox has some new stuff, including a whole slew of unlockables that feature classic jerseys, classic teams, some wacky rinks, and the ever-popular Heritage Classic game. Outside of unlockables, the skybox doesn't have much else new, save for a new shuffleboard minigame that's about as much fun as the playable air hockey table that debuted last year.
ESPN NHL 2K5 isn't without a few new tricks up its sleeve as well. For starters, there's a new dream team mode. Dream teams are teams made up of players chosen by the game's individual developers, various ESPN personalities, and some NHL stars as well. Bill Clement has his own team, as does Jeremy Roenick, cover boy Martin St. Louis, and even Chris "Boomer" Berman (whose team is apparently made up entirely of players whose names Boomer thought "sounded funny"). The mode itself is a ladder tournament where you play each of the 20 dream teams in succession. Beat them and they're unlocked in the game. If this doesn't sound like more than a mildly amusing distraction, that's because it isn't. The mode is kind of a neat idea, but the team rosters are rather repetitive, since a lot of people just selected the best players possible for their respective teams. Still, it's fun for at least one full play-through, and it's a much better way of incorporating famous personalities than ESPN NFL 2K5's dreadful celebrity component. And this time around, you won't have any talking heads barking at you while you play.
Perhaps the best new addition to ESPN NHL 2K5, and easily the most surprising, is the game's highly entertaining party mode. There are a few different games contained in party mode, including an arcade-style hockey game (that isn't quite up to the level of last year's NHL Hitz Pro but still provides a solid, simplified arcade hockey experience), an elimination mode, and a battle mode, which is really the standout aspect of the party mode.
Battle mode consists of 15 different games that you can engage in with up to four players. At the beginning, you'll start by choosing the number of events you want to play in succession, and then you'll choose a team and a representative player from your team. Choosing a player is actually important, because some of the battle mode games require more checking skill, whereas others require speed and finesse. Each game is played at a frenzied pace, and the rules and setups can be really ludicrous. One game is a simple scoring challenge where all four players are vying for the same puck. Each player has to try to score as many goals as possible while being constantly attacked by three other players--and at the same time, each must also avoid a wall that keeps popping up to block the net. Another game is a race through a time-based obstacle course where you're being chased by the other three players. Your three opponents will constantly check and hook you to try to slow you down. And then there's the hysterically hit-heavy game of tag, where the first player checked is effectively "it." While "it," that player's score decreases steadily until he can check another player and pass off his "it" status. Out of all of the 15 games contained in battle mode, not every single one is an out-and-out winner, but they are all at least reasonably fun--and some of the better ones are absolute blasts when played with your friends.
ESPN NHL 2K5 is once again online for both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and this year, leagues similar to the ones found in ESPN NFL 2K5 are featured in the game. Live rosters are stored on the online servers, allowing you to make trades within your leagues, keep track of injuries, and check stats and results via the ESPN Video Games Web site. There's also the usual head-to-head play featured in the game, as well as the ability to play minirink, skills competitions, and the battle mode games online. Generally speaking, both versions of the game perform pretty well online. We had a few dropped games on both the Xbox and the PS2, and the Xbox seemed to be a little on the laggy side in a couple of games, but we didn't run into any other problems.
Neither the graphics nor the sound categories have seen a ton of improvement over last year's title, but that doesn't mean that both areas of ESPN NHL 2K5 aren't still impressive. The player models seem to have really seen the least amount of attention when it comes to upgrades this year. When comparing them side by side with last year's models, they look almost identical, save for slightly shinier helmets and more-detailed jerseys. The game still animates very well and captures the look and feel of a live hockey game extremely well, too. The one big addition to this year's game is the inclusion of an abundance of in-game cutscenes that are similar to the ones found in ESPN NFL 2K5. You'll see fully 3D crowds reacting to goals scored and power plays; you'll see teams in the locker room between periods discussing strategies and getting taped up; and you'll even see the ever-popular girls with T-shirt guns skating onto the ice to send T-shirts flying up into the crowd. These are really nice touches. Unfortunately, though, they don't appear online.
For the most part, both versions of ESPN NHL perform fine, though both suffer from bits of frame rate drops at times, especially during face-offs. Between the two versions of the game, the Xbox version is actually only a slight winner, because both versions look truly superb for their respective platforms. The PS2 version doesn't just feel like a cheap port graphically. Instead it pushes the visual capabilities of the system pretty well.
There isn't too much new to speak of in regard to sound in ESPN NHL 2K5. The one nice feature added is the ability to have custom soundtracks play in your home arena on the Xbox version of the game. It works basically like ESPN NFL's custom soundtrack option, though it does seem a little less configurable. The commentary is, once again, ahead of the pack when it comes to not only hockey games, but also to all sports games in general. This year's commentary is more repetitive in comparison to last year's title, but it does feature a lot of new commentary. Once again, the team of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement delivers. The one flaw that the overall sound design suffers from, however, is a severe imbalance in audio levels on the default settings. The in-arena effects are way, way too loud, and by default they completely drown out the commentary, which is initially too quiet anyway. It will take some messing with the sliders, but you can get everything sounding normal. Once you do, the game sounds great--especially if you partake of the in-game Dolby Digital support on the Xbox.
While there may not be a real season to keep hockey fans occupied this year, you can rest assured knowing that you will still have one of the best hockey games to ever hit the market. Hopefully it will ably fill the real-life hockey void for you. Visual Concepts and Kush Games have once again delivered an incredible hockey package that's filled with more game modes than you'll probably know what to do with. And once again they've orchestrated the best hockey gameplay you're going to find anywhere. If you're still on the fence for any reason, the incredible $19.99 price tag should be more than enough to convince any sane person that this is a game worth owning. Simply put, if you like hockey, you need to own ESPN NHL 2K5.