ESPN NHL Hockey Updated Impressions

We take a look at some of the new features in Visual Concepts' latest hockey title.

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Today, we had an opportunity to spend some time looking over PlayStation 2 and Xbox builds of ESPN NHL Hockey, the latest addition to the Sega Sports NHL franchise. Upon first glance, ESPN NHL Hockey appears to play much the same as last year's game, retaining the same overall style and functionality. More than anything else, the gameplay appears to have been tweaked ever so slightly to affect the few problem areas seen last year. The biggest gameplay tweak is clearly in the goalie AI, which, while still very tough, has been adjusted to make scoring much more realistic. Gone are the days of having to play multiple triple-overtime games in a row. In addition to this, each player in the game has been adjusted to work in a much more role-specific manner, meaning that the CPU-controlled tough guys will spend a lot more time checking and fighting than they ever have before, and the pure goal scorers will duck and dodge around the ice much easier, taking far better advantage of the game's new deke system, which gives you a lot more control over the puck when playing as a good puck-handling player.

Several new features were shown off in these builds of ESPN NHL Hockey, including the skybox, which is effectively the hockey franchise's answer to ESPN NFL Football's crib mode. In the skybox, you'll be able to access a host of unlockable items, including hidden game modes, classic teams, jerseys, and gear. You'll also be able to view the trophies you earn, play air hockey, and access a jukebox similar to the one in ESPN NFL, though without quite as many songs available. Of course, in the Xbox version of the game, you will be able to access songs from the Xbox hard drive and play them on the jukebox.

In addition to the skybox, ESPN NHL Hockey features new skills and minigame modes. The skills mode effectively recreates exhibition events from the All-Star game, including such challenges as hardest shot, accuracy shooting, puck control, and fastest skater competitions. These skills tests can be played either in single-event form, or in a series. The minigames portion of ESPN NHL includes a shootout competition and a mini-rink mode, which essentially is a two-on-two hockey game in a much smaller rink, with much bouncier boards and hitting turned up significantly higher.

ESPN NHL Hockey is still currently on schedule for a September release. We'll have further coverage of the game in the near future.

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