Gretzky NHL Hands-On

Even an NHL lockout can't keep Gretzky NHL down. We hit the ice with the PSP puck game.

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SAN FRANCISCO--At a Sony PSP press event held this evening, we had the chance to sit down with Wayne Gretzky for a little one-on-one time. It wasn't the Great One himself, unfortunately, but rather, it was the newest handheld hockey game that bears his formidable name. Gretzky NHL is one of the many first-party sports games being launched for the Sony handheld, and this was our first time with the game since it was announced as a launch title.

If you were one of the few who saw the Gretzky NHL game for the PS2, also published by Sony but developed by Page 44 Studios, Gretzky NHL will be very familiar. Indeed, the game has some of the same mechanics that worked pretty well with the console version of Gretzky, most notably the manual aiming control that places a red target icon on the net when preparing to let a slap shot loose. Controlled by using the PSP's left analog stick, this icon will let you shoot high or low on either side of the goalie. It works best when you've got the goalie beat on one side, leaving a big open hole.

All 30 NHL teams are present and accounted for in Gretzky NHL, though you'll also be able to control both the Eastern and Western all-star teams if you so choose. The main game modes include exhibition, where you can take on the computer in a single game, season mode, for those looking to play a full year's worth of hockey, and online play, which we'll get to in a bit. In season mode, you'll select your team, choose to play either a full 82-game season or a lockout-friendly 29-game campaign, and decide rules such as overtime type, whether to use a fantasy draft, and so on. Once your season has begun, you can play each game on the calendar as it comes along, or you can choose to simulate days or weeks at a time, which lets you quickly get through a season if you wish.

In-game, Gretzky NHL runs at a quick pace that's more akin to arcade hockey games, such as the more recent versions of EA's NHL franchise. Passes are pretty quick, and long up-ice passes seem to be the order of the day. Despite the huge PSP screen, it's actually pretty easy to completely overshoot the puck with your controlled player, and the artificial intelligence doesn't seem to accommodate this by "vacuuming" in the puck once you're near it. What this means is that you'll need to get right on top of the puck to gain possession. While this isn't a big gripe, it caught our eye and remains something that will require practice to acclimate to. Shot windups take longer than expected, too, so be sure you've got some clean ice both ahead and behind you before winding up for a big slapper at the five hole.

If presentation is your thing, Gretzky NHL will be sure to please, as the game has a slick and attractive look. There are eye-catching menus and nice graphical touches, such as fog hanging over the ice during pregame warm-ups and a variety of angles for replays, which can be changed on the fly by pressing the circle button. Audibly, Gretzky may be lacking in terms of quantity--there's no play-by-play or color commentary--but it's not necessarily lacking in terms of quality. The sounds of skates on ice, sticks clacking together, and big shots ringing out in the arena all sounded fine. A bit of player chatter or crowd heckling would have been nice to hear, however. Graphically, player models looked fine, though they weren't as detailed as those found in NBA, another PSP launch title. Finally, the game has several camera angles to choose from, from a coach cam that presents a more-or-less top-down view, to a player cam that we found basically unusable due to its close proximity to the ice.

Though Wi-Fi Internet access was not available during our play session with Gretzky, we did have a chance to check out the game's wireless ad hoc network play and found it worked well. That same hopped-up pace of play is still in effect, and the game suffered no slowdown in our tests, even when things bunched up in front of the net.

Using the Wayne Gretzky name to fully licensed effect, the game includes a number of Gretzky challenges, which are essentially record-keeping features that track specific achievements in the game, such as faceoff wins, goals scored in a season, or big hits landed in a game. Each challenge is worth points that can be used to unlock things like alternate and vintage team uniforms, as well as famous teams on which Gretzky played during his career, including everyone from the '79 Oilers to the '99 Rangers (though the 1996 St. Louis Blues are understandably absent).

With a variety of offensive and defensive playcalling options, manual and CPU-controlled line changes, attractive menus, and a solid online game, Gretzky NHL looks to be coming along nicely for the PSP launch in late March. If anything, it will give fans of the now-grounded fastest sport on ice an outlet in which to pour their misery. Look for our full review of Gretzky NHL when the game is released.

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