ESPN NHL Hockey Preview

Sega Sports and Visual Concepts are back on the ice once again, and we have the lowdown on what to expect in this year's NHL title.

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Last year, Visual Concepts' NHL 2K3 was hailed by both critics and hockey fans alike as, quite simply, the most realistic hockey game on the market. 2K3 marked the first inclusion of the ESPN license in the NHL franchise, as well as the addition of a number of new gameplay elements that truly captured the excitement and precision of a real-life hockey game. What the game lacked, unfortunately, was the solid and attractive presentation elements found in Visual Concepts' other sports titles, as well as the level of polish featured in EA's NHL 2003. For this year's installment in the franchise, titled ESPN NHL Hockey, VC has switched developers--opting to go with NCAA College Football 2K3 developer Kush Games--and done its best to capitalize on the ESPN license. Additionally, many tweaks have been made to further improve the overall gameplay experience, and much work has gone into polishing the graphics, sound, and online play. We recently spent some time with near-complete builds of the PS2 and Xbox versions of ESPN NHL Hockey, and what we've seen of the game shows an extremely high level of promise.

ESPN NHL Hockey features all the same modes contained in last year's game, along with a slew of new ones.
ESPN NHL Hockey features all the same modes contained in last year's game, along with a slew of new ones.

ESPN NHL Hockey features all the same modes contained in last year's game, along with a slew of new ones. The biggest of these new modes is easily the skybox mode. Effectively the spiritual counterpart to ESPN NFL Football's crib mode, the skybox mode allows you to unlock and collect items, track stats and achievements in the game, and generally mess around inside a room modeled after a real NHL arena skybox. ESPN NHL doesn't contain the sheer number of unlockable items that ESPN NFL does, but it still has quite a few cool things to obtain, such as a myriad of classic jerseys--including the '91 Winnipeg Jets jersey, as well as LA Lakers-inspired '68 LA Kings uniform--as well as hidden classic teams, unlockable minigames, and vintage goalie masks. Items are unlocked by achieving specific goals in the game, such as winning a certain number of face-offs or scoring a goal within the first minute of a game. The difference between the two games' methodologies is that rather than just gaining a specific item for each goal achieved, every goal awards you a certain number of tokens that you can, in turn, use to purchase the unlockable items.

ESPN NHL doesn't contain the sheer number of unlockable items that ESPN NFL does, but it still has quite a few cool things to obtain.
ESPN NHL doesn't contain the sheer number of unlockable items that ESPN NFL does, but it still has quite a few cool things to obtain.

There are a number of other new gameplay modes in ESPN NHL Hockey as well. One of these is the skills mode, which is actually a number of different challenges, each based on exhibition games featured during the NHL All-Star weekend. The roster of challenges includes such events as a hardest-shot competition, a shoot-out relay, a puck-control challenge, a fastest-skater competition, and a shooting-accuracy challenge. These challenges can be played in a progressive fashion, with one event coming after another has been completed; as a one-player challenge, where you select one player from the entire roster of players in the game and play in one of the events, with progressively harder difficulty each time; or as a single event, where you choose two teams and each team's starting five players take on the event, with a combined average score at the end determining the winner. We found each of these challenge events to be quite well done, and an excellent aside to the normal game.

Beyond the skills mode, ESPN NHL Hockey also contains a number of minigames. Some of these games are pretty basic, like a stand-alone version of a hockey shoot-out and a super speed mode, which is a normal game with the speed turned up to a psychotic pace. The rest of the minigames have a little more to them. Pond hockey is exactly what it sounds like--you pick your teams and play on an iced-over pond in a slightly more leniently ruled game. The most bizarre of these games, however, is clearly the mini-rink game. Mini-rink entails a much more compact hockey rink and the two top forwards from each team you select going at it. Hitting is turned way up in this mode, and the boards along the sides of the rink are practically made of rubber, so, as you can imagine, it's a pretty crazy experience.

While ESPN NHL Hockey does have numerous game mode upgrades, the core gameplay that made last year's game so great has been left relatively untouched. However, one key change has been made in regard to scoring. The goalies in NHL 2K3 were insanely tough, and the goalie skill gameplay sliders didn't do much to alleviate that difficulty. In ESPN NHL, the goalies are significantly more realistic in their strengths and weaknesses, meaning that while they're still tough, each goalie will be much more like his real-world counterpart. So, if one goalie is good in all areas except rebounds, you'll definitely get a lot more rebounding pucks off that particular goalie. Additionally, one-timers and well-placed goals won't be arbitrarily blocked just because a goalie is good. If you find yourself in a situation where you've made a very well-timed play, this year, you're much more likely to be rewarded for your effort.

While ESPN NHL Hockey does have numerous game mode upgrades, the core gameplay that made last year's game so great has been left relatively untouched.
While ESPN NHL Hockey does have numerous game mode upgrades, the core gameplay that made last year's game so great has been left relatively untouched.

ESPN NHL Hockey is online this year for both the Xbox and the PS2, and as such, it contains most of the same online features found in the other ESPN titles. Each game will feature downloadable content, voice chat, and the upgraded ranking system, which now factors in whether you regularly take on tougher opponents or you spend all your time beating down inexperienced players. Presentation-wise, the online mode looks significantly better than in last year's game, and it definitely shows a lot more polish. The voice chat support also appears to have been cleaned up for the most part, as none of the distortion found in last year's game was readily apparent to us when we played.

NHL 2K3 wasn't exactly a graphical showcase, but it was still a pretty good-looking game. Kush Games has greatly overhauled last year's graphics engine for ESPN NHL Hockey, and the result is quite impressive. The player models in ESPN NHL look superb, with realistic builds, extremely fluid animations, and astonishing faces. Lots of little touches have been added as well, including much better-looking degradable ice textures and new particle effects that create some very authentic-looking ice spray. We did note a couple of little graphical glitches here and there, but overall, the game is looking very solid. Like in ESPN NFL Football, the ESPN license has found its way into this year's game in a greatly improved fashion. Every aspect of the presentation--including stat menus, overlays, and even the opening menu screen, which displays the ESPN SportsCenter desk--gives off a very genuine ESPN vibe.

Kush Games has greatly overhauled last year's graphics engine for ESPN NHL Hockey, and the result is quite impressive.
Kush Games has greatly overhauled last year's graphics engine for ESPN NHL Hockey, and the result is quite impressive.

Even more impressive than the game's graphical improvements are the changes made in the realm of audio. NHL 2K3 featured some pretty underwhelming commentators who annoyed much more than they informed. In this year's game, ESPN NHL commentators Bill Clement and Gary Thorne provide the in-game commentary, and what we've heard of it so far is really quite spectacular. The commentary flows better than most any we've heard in a sports game, and it really blurs the line between a game and an authentic TV broadcast in a number of ways. On top of the addition of great-sounding commentary, the in-game effects have been greatly improved across the board. Crowds are significantly more reactive in ESPN NHL Hockey, appropriately exploding when a home-team goal is scored, gasping when a player gets on a breakaway, and even chanting a marquee player's name when he performs well. Lots of different music plays in the arena during cutscenes and breaks in the action, including the age-old sports anthem "We Will Rock You" by Queen.

Overall, ESPN NHL Hockey is shaping up amazingly well. The game is extremely polished in terms of both presentation and gameplay, and, simply put, it's a whole lot of fun to play. Any fan of the Sega Sports NHL franchise should be looking forward to what ESPN NHL Hockey will have to offer this September. Stay tuned for a full review of the game in the coming weeks.

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