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.
Outside of gameplay, ESPN NHL Hockey adds several feature improvements to the series, including a revamped franchise mode. This year's franchise mode includes most of the same upgrades found in ESPN NFL Football's franchise, including an e-mail system that sends you notices about team injuries, current playoff statuses, and trade deadlines. Even simple words of encouragement (or non-encouragement) are emailed from the team owner. This mode also features the same presentation as found in previous ESPN entries, complete with the office-style environment, desk, computer, and the like. While the new franchise is certainly much more aesthetically pleasing, it still contains a few of last year's quirks. For one, the computer-controlled teams rarely ever pick up free agents, and trade offers from computer-controlled teams are few and far between. Additionally, the mode still uses a points system for player salaries rather than actual monetary values. Granted, none of these issues is particularly detrimental to the mode. They do detract a bit from the overall realism.
There are two new gameplay modes in this year's game: skills and mini-games. Skills mode is a re-creation of the exhibition competitions held during the NHL All-Star weekend. You find a number of different competitions, including the hardest-shot competition, a shoot-out relay, a puck-control challenge, a fastest-skater competition, and a shooting-accuracy challenge. Each challenge has its own unique mechanics and style. For instance, the shooting-accuracy challenge requires you to take down a number of targets, placed inside the goal, in a set amount of time, whereas the puck-control challenge gives you a specific route to follow--complete with many weaving twists and turns--that you must quickly navigate without losing control of the puck. Some skills contests even require drastically different controls than the normal game--like the hardest shot competition. This contest requires you to shoot the puck by quickly pulling back and then pressing forward on the right analog stick. All of the skills competitions can be played as single events, as team versus team challenges, as progressive formats (whereby competition becomes increasingly difficult as each goal requirement is met), and as online contests. The skills contests are really quite a lot of fun, and they add a unique flavor to this year's game that previous NHL games have never captured.
Mini-games mode is a similarly unique mode. However, most of the mini-games are not based on any specific elements from the NHL. The roster of mini-games include pond hockey, mini-rink, shootout, and super-speed hockey. Shootout is basically just a stand-alone version of a regular in-game shootout, where five of the top liners from two teams go one-on-one with a goalie and try and score on him. Super-speed hockey is similarly obvious, given its name. Super-speed is basically just a heavily sped up game of hockey. Pond hockey puts your players on a frozen pond, in the middle of nowhere, and lets your top scoring line, defensive line, and goalie go at it against another team in a game of (practically) no-rules hockey. Mini-rink is a bizarre mode that puts you in a two-on-two game on a smaller-sized rink. The hitting is turned way up, and the bounciness of the boards is equally jacked up. It basically ends up being hockey inside a big rubber rink. As in the skills mode, each of these games adds an original and cool flavor to the ESPN NHL experience, and each is also very fun--especially in multiplayer mode.
Another addition to ESPN NHL Hockey is the game's skybox mode. Skybox is modeled after ESPN NFL's crib mode, and it effectively acts as a hub for the game's unlockables, stat tracking, and other random features. As the title would suggest, the skybox mode is designed to look like a legitimate skybox in an NHL arena. Inside you'll find all sorts of fun stuff, from an air hockey table that you can actually play to a trophy case for any awards and trophies you win in the franchise mode (including Lord Stanley's Cup) to the list for NHL Hockey's various gameplay challenges. Gameplay challenges work similarly to the ones in ESPN NFL Football, whereby accomplishing various challenges allows you to earn tokens that can be used to purchase unlockable items. Challenges are all over the map and range from the slightly difficult--like getting five assists in a game or scoring on a power play--to the insanely difficult--like getting a shutout on hall of famer-level difficulty.
Really though, these challenges wouldn't mean much if there wasn't anything cool to unlock, and, fortunately, ESPN NHL Hockey has plenty of neat stuff to discover. Most of the unlockables consist of a ton of classic jerseys. They range from some of the more garishly designed jerseys of the '70s and '80s to jerseys for teams that exist today in different forms, like the Winnipeg Jets and the Minnesota North Stars. Sadly, the Hartford Whalers jersey is nowhere to be found. Besides jerseys, however, there are also lots of classic teams to unlock, including the 1984 Edmonton Oilers, the 1994 New York Rangers, and the 2002 Carolina Hurricanes. In addition, you can also unlock classic goalie masks and a couple of additional mini-games for the mini-games mode.
Last year's NHL 2K3 saw the debut of the series on Xbox Live, and ESPN NHL Hockey follows suit by providing online play for both the Xbox and PS2. Both games essentially have the same online features, with rankings based upon the difficulty of games and opponents you play. Both have downloadable content, with the skills and mini-rink games available for play. And both offer normal online gameplay. In terms of performance, the Xbox version appears to suffer from significantly less lag than its PS2 counterpart, which tends to stutter on just about every network configuration. Additionally, the PS2 appears to suffer from more connection drops than does the Xbox. To be fair, though, it is of note to mention that connection drops seemed to have presented more problems as the game was hitting shelves than they are presenting today. (It appears that Sega has implemented some fixes on the server side.) Unfortunately, the lag problem hasn't really gone away. Another, slightly more minor issue to note is the fact that the game doesn't save your preferred settings for online play. This means that your control scheme, line-change, strategies, and similar setups will always return to whatever the game defaults to upon your first play. Each time you enter a new game, thereafter, you have to change your settings. This oversight is not a huge deal, by any means, but it is a bit of an annoyance. Issues aside, the online play is still a lot of fun and is most certainly worth your while.
One of the biggest sticking points about NHL 2K3 was the fact that while the gameplay was great, the game's visual presentation simply lacked in just about every conceivable way. ESPN NHL Hockey features a fully redesigned graphical engine. The end result of this overhaul is a much improved overall look to the game. The game's player models are really great--especially when it comes to player faces. Nearly all the top NHL players have extremely realistic-looking facial maps. Details that range from accurate facial hair placement to proper missing teeth have all been implemented. The game's arenas are all equally superb-looking, with fully-degradable ice, new particle effects that reflect more realistic ice spray, and all the basic details you expect to create a realistic-looking hockey arena. ESPN NHL Hockey also features lots of really excellent animations--especially in cutscenes. All player movements, both during the game and in cutscenes, are extremely realistic and very well motion-captured. In fact, none of it seems out of place or extraneous. Between the Xbox and PS2 versions of the game, the Xbox version is definitely the better-looking, as it demonstrates cleaner textures, better lighting, and a slightly higher capacity for storing replays.
Besides the basic in-game graphics, ESPN NHL Hockey really lives up to its namesake by including much of the same style of ESPN presentation that ESPN NFL Football does. The game's stat menus, the overlays, the cutscene transitions, and the ESPN SportsCenter desk (displayed on the game's main menu) all mimic the look and feel of an ESPN broadcast to a wonderful degree.
Visuals aren't the only aspect of ESPN NHL Hockey that do a fantastic job of re-creating an authentic ESPN NHL broadcast, however, as the game's audio presentation also does a truly top-notch job. This is especially true of the commentary. Veteran hockey commentators Gary Thorne and Bill Clement provide the voice work for the game, and, hands down, their commentary is simply the best ever found in a hockey game. It could arguably be the best commentary work in any sports game period. Their dialogue is practically flawless, with well-put-together play-by-play action and a perfectly designed dose of color-commentary, where necessary. Additionally, player-specific discussions and statistical data are handled incredibly, and rarely will you ever find a hitch or editing mistake of any kind. The commentary isn't the only aspect of the game's sound that's well-done, though. All of the in-game effects and crowd sounds have been given a huge boost this year. Crowds are extremely responsive. They actually boo and even fall silent when goals are scored against the home team and chant incessantly when momentum is building. There's also plenty of new in-arena music that plays during a game, including Queen's classic anthem "We Will Rock You." None of the game's remaining music is recognizable in any way, but it still works well.
Though it's not impossible to find fault in ESPN NHL Hockey, you'd be hard-pressed to find enough faults to call this game anything but excellent. Its extremely well-crafted gameplay, host of new modes and unlockables, upgraded presentational aspects, and truly amazing commentary easily outdo any issues the game might suffer from. The sum of its parts add up to one of, if not, the finest hockey games ever created. 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.