NHL 2004 Preview

NHL 2004 is nearly here, and our full preview gives you an idea of what to expect from all three console versions.

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EA's NHL series has been around longer than any other, dating back to the days of the SNES in the early '90s. Throughout the years, the franchise has seen its share of ups and downs--with some iterations of the game being praised as the best ever created and others being met with less-than-stellar reactions. Last year's NHL 2003 was a great game, by all accounts, but with Sega Sports' NHL franchise showing a vast improvement over all of its predecessors, hockey fans began to turn their attention away from EA's franchise. For NHL 2004, EA Sports has gone to great lengths to improve its game by adding lots of depth--both in gameplay and game modes--and much improved graphics. We recently spent some time playing near-complete builds of all three console versions of NHL 2004, and what we've seen thus far has been very impressive.

NHL 2004 is far more hard-hitting and grittier than any previous entry in the series.
NHL 2004 is far more hard-hitting and grittier than any previous entry in the series.

One of the biggest concerns about EA's NHL series is the arcade-inspired nature of its gameplay. In NHL 2004, you won't find many arcade elements at all--rather, everything about this year's game feels simulation-style through and through. The overall pacing of the game feels a bit slower by comparison, with less frenzied, exaggerated action. However, if you still want a faster, crazier game, the gameplay sliders will provide you with just that.

The game's controls have changed a bit this year, implementing two new functions: two-button passing and right-analog control. Two-button passing refers to the game's dual-button passing system: one for standard passing and the other for saucer passing. Saucer passes fly higher than normal passes and can be used to lift the puck off the ice and over an opponent's stick. Both buttons are pressure sensitive, so pressing them harder or softer will determine how far your pass goes. The right-analog control system can be used on either side of the puck. It controls deking, when on offense, and hitting, when on defense. Right-analog deking lets you move and dodge the puck around in a freestyle manner, and it comes in especially handy when trying to fake out a goalie. When checking, you can move in any direction. So if you've got two players next to you, and you want to get the guy on the left, just tap left and you'll shove him off the puck. Both of these functions are button-controlled as well, though the right analog stick definitely seems to give you a better sense of control.

The actual fighting looks very realistic. The two players are routinely grappling, punching, and blocking each other while trying to stay upright on the ice.
The actual fighting looks very realistic. The two players are routinely grappling, punching, and blocking each other while trying to stay upright on the ice.

NHL 2004 is far more hard-hitting and grittier than any previous entry in the series. Lots of effort has gone into emulating the tighter, more defensive style of playoff hockey, and it seems that the effort wasn't for naught. With the new right-analog-stick checking system, knocking your opponents silly has become easier and more satisfying than ever. Want to send an opposing player over the boards or crashing onto the ice? Just build up a head of steam, using the speed boost, and let him have it. As the game features a host of new checking, hitting, and collision animations, you'll get a pretty good variety of ways to take your opponents out of the game.

The hard-hitting nature of the game doesn't stop there, however, as NHL 2004's fighting system is easily shaping up to be the best of its kind. Fights are triggered by a player's level of agitation. A number of different things can agitate a player, including goals scored against that player's team, hits received by that player, and having a star player on his team. Once the agitation meter has reached its peak, a meter will appear in the bottom of the screen asking you if you want to activate a fight. When fighting, you have high punch, low punch, high block, and low block buttons to work with. The actual fighting looks very realistic. The two players are routinely grappling, punching, and blocking each other while trying to stay upright on the ice.

Adding even further to the game's inherent toughness is its tightened AI. A big complaint about last year's game was that the defenders weren't particularly smart, and they didn't make plays that were at all realistic. In NHL 2004, this issue appears to be a thing of the past, as we found the opposing AI to be very tough on the mid-level difficulty setting and higher. Defensemen and defensive-minded forwards will close in on you if you get too close to the net, rarely giving up breakaways. On the other side of the puck, offensive-minded opponents are much better at jumping on scoring chances and are especially more adept at putting together solid one-timer situations.

Outside of gameplay, the biggest update in NHL 2004 is the newly designed dynasty mode. In this year's dynasty mode, you take control of both the coaching and general manager duties associated with an NHL franchise. At the beginning of a new dynasty, you create a new GM for your team, you choose his name, and you choose his face from a group of in-game photos. Once you're in, you'll learn that your owner has fired nearly all of the staff, and it's up to you to build it back. The only way to do so is to earn experience points. Experience points are earned through tasks performed in your dynasty. Tasks, like winning games, making trades, and signing draft picks, can earn you points. Points are then used to purchase upgrades for both your staff and facilities. Staff upgrades include better scouting, medical, coaching, and marketing and legal teams. Facilities upgrades include better equipment rooms, travel methods, gym equipment, practice rinks, and locker rooms.

Outside of gameplay, the biggest update in NHL 2004 is the newly designed dynasty mode.
Outside of gameplay, the biggest update in NHL 2004 is the newly designed dynasty mode.

All of these upgrades affect your team. They range in scope from gaining attribute points through the procurement of better training equipment to gaining morale points for assigning new lockers. Upgrades aren't the only aspect of the dynasty mode that will affect these points either. Morale, for instance, can also be affected by how much ice time you're granting a player. If a high-stature player isn't getting the ice time he feels he deserves, then his morale will drop significantly. Assigning the length of and the frequency of practices is another key task that will affect player morale. If you assign too many practices without a day off, players become dissatisfied, and if you allow too many days off, your players become lazy and complacent. Keeping your players in high spirits is important, as teams with low morale lose a lot more games. However, it's equally important to make sure they're working hard to reach their full potential.

Aside from the dynasty mode, NHL 2004 has all the standard modes you'd expect from a modern-day hockey game, including exhibition, tournament, season, playoffs, create-a-player, and custom team modes. The game also features 39 teams from three of the top European elite leagues, including the Elitserien, SM-Liiga, and DEL leagues. These leagues can be managed similarly to the dynasty mode, although the leagues don't offer as many options. Aside from these teams, the game also features all of the standard international teams, including teams representing the US, Canada, Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland, and more.

The EA NHL franchise has always been known as one of the best-looking NHL games around, and it appears that NHL 2004 is poised to take the overall title. The player models are coming together extremely well and feature some of the most realistic body designs and animation we've seen. New animations are readily apparent throughout the game, and they include lots of new hitting and deking animations, as well as some new goalie moves. NHL 2004 easily has some of the best skating animation we've seen to date. The in-game arenas also look quite nice and include lots of detail in the ice and in the various elements found in them. The one sticking point we noticed was in the crowd graphics, which, while more detailed than in previous years, still look a bit off. The frame rate on their movements looked pretty bad. This is especially true of the PS2 version. Additionally, we noticed a couple of minor texturing glitches here and there during cutscenes. Hopefully EA will clean these few issues up before the game's release.

The EA NHL franchise has always been known as one of the best-looking NHL games around, and it appears that NHL 2004 is poised to take the overall title.
The EA NHL franchise has always been known as one of the best-looking NHL games around, and it appears that NHL 2004 is poised to take the overall title.

In terms of the game's audio, NHL 2004 sounds great. Since this is an EA Sports title, the game features an EA Trax soundtrack (now standard), that includes songs from the Deftones, Alien Ant Farm, Bowling For Soup, Adema, Gob, and The Ataris. While not all of these songs make a ton of contextual sense in a hockey game, for the most part, they fit in pretty well and don't detract from the atmosphere of the game. The game's commentary is much improved this year, as former NHL left wing and two-time Stanley Cup winner Craig Simpson replaces Don Taylor in the broadcast booth. The overall tone of the commentary is far less humor-based this year, and, instead, sounds much more like a realistic hockey broadcast. Though it isn't perfect yet, it's still an improvement.

All in all, NHL 2004 has shown us a lot of potential. The new gameplay mechanics and greatly improved dynasty mode should be greatly appealing to any simulation hockey fan, and, with the PS2 version set to feature all the benefits of the EA Sports Online system, any fan of the EA brand of hockey should be plenty pleased with what this year's iteration has to offer. NHL 2004 is set for release later this month, and you can expect a full review of the game in the near future.

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