NHL 2004 Impressions

We take a close look at EA Sports' next NHL hockey game for the PC.

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Recently, we were able to get a good look at NHL 2004 for the PC. The upcoming NHL game from EA Sports will have a number of new features for all platforms, though it will have a handful of PC-specific features, such as the ability to form online clubs in multiplayer via the EA Sports Online service, as well as the ability to import your own MP3 music files to play instead of the in-game music, if you care to.

NHL 2004 will have a few different play modes, including a standard "play now" (quick exhibition match) mode, a season mode that lasts for a single year, and a dynasty mode, which will let you play as the general manager of a hockey team over a 20-year period. The game will also have three new international teams available for play--Sweden, Germany, and Finland--though you'll be able to create custom teams of your own by changing your jersey colors and importing logos into the game. You'll also be able to create a custom stadium by changing the colors of your benches and the kinds of chants your crowds will call out at games.

According to EA Black Box producer Kerry McGaffney, NHL 2004 is "going sim." The new hockey game will emphasize more-realistic plays and will even have five different realism sliders that affect player and puck behavior on the ice. The game will have improved, more-aggressive player AI that will do a better job of looking for openings and will attempt to wrest the puck from you. At the same time, NHL 2004 will "detach" the puck from the player so that you won't be guaranteed complete control of the puck just by having a player touch it. You'll still be able to use hard and soft passes to get the puck to your teammates, but unlike in previous games in the series, you can now pass even if you don't have a man open; if you're being mobbed by players from the opposing team, you can slap the puck away to a corner to get some breathing space. You'll also be able to play certain parts of the rink by assigning players to defend a certain area--players will act and react not based on offensive or defensive strategies, but rather based on whether or not they've got the puck. And if you want to get tough, you can use NHL 2004's improved deke, which lets you actually select which guy's face you want to plant an elbow in, rather than let the computer choose one randomly.

NHL 2004 will even feature a revamped fighting system that will include grappling as well as simple punches, and this year, even goalies can get into the act. One of the most common complaints about fights in previous games in the series was that they would happen automatically, even in multiplayer matches--in NHL 2004, fights can be initiated only when players choose to initiate them, so you won't abruptly get drawn into a fight at random. Fighting in NHL 2004 has been redone with new, more-realistic animations that were motion-captured with multiple actors, rather than having one guy punching at the air and another guy on a separate set acting like he just took a hit. As it turns out, you don't even have to start a fight to put another player out of commission, since NHL 2004 will also let you deke another player up over the bench or slam him right through the glass, though you'll end up with a penalty if you get too aggressive. NHL 2004 is scheduled for release this September.

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