Playing fast-paced pond hockey with bobbleheaded NHL superstars isn't a bad way to kill a few minutes on the couch. If it were an Easter egg buried in a full game like NHL 09, nobody would gripe about 3 on 3 NHL Arcade. But you shouldn't have to pay extra for it. This thrown-together trifle is selling for a 10-spot through the PlayStation Store, which is just outrageous when you consider how little gameplay developer EA is giving you in return.
The title of the game says it all. You play three-on-three hockey (each side actually has three skaters and a goalie) with top stars from today's NHL. All of the action takes place on what looks like a small outdoor rink. You can play solo or with up to five others online or via local multiplayer. Pretty much anything goes once you step onto the ice. There are no referees, no offsides or icings, and not even any face-offs since the puck just gets dropped behind the net after a goal. Goofy arcade action is the main focus here. Skaters race around the ice at Mach speeds, and checks are exaggerated superman slams that send opponents flying through the air. Power-ups further contribute to the comic-book vibe. If you lay down a big-time hit, the falling player pops loose an on-ice goodie that can be claimed by simply skating over it. You can take advantage of these bonuses to shrink the opposition's goalie, to cause one of your players to balloon to a humungous size, to give a player rocket skates, and more.
So as a throwaway add-on to a full-featured hockey game, a mode like 3 on 3 NHL Arcade would be good comic relief. Playing it would be a worthy way to break up a serious playoff run in NHL 09, for instance. And it would be sort of cool to haul it out as a party game when you have some hockey fans over. But there just isn't enough here to warrant the price tag. You get a single mode of play, which pits a made-up red team against a made-up blue team in single-game showdowns to a set number of goals. There is no way to set up a playoff series, whip up a quickie tournament, or anything else along those lines. If you want variety, you have to settle for manually switching up the rosters to see which NHL superstars match up the best with one another.
Not that the current crop of NHL heroes are well represented. There are just 40 NHL players to choose from when setting your rosters, including a measly four goalies. A fair number of big-name players have been dropped in favor of lesser lights, apparently in order to make sure that every team in the league is accounted for. Some of these team reps are questionable. Milan Lucic is the Boston Bruins forward in place of Marc Savard, which makes zero sense, and Nik Antropov is the lone Toronto Maple Leaf instead of more obvious choices like Tomas Kaberle and Jason Blake. Most of the NHL's big guns are present, at least, which lets you load up a team with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jarome Iginla. But even then, player names don't matter. There are no player ratings or unique skills; players are simply grouped into strong, fast, and all-around categories. You might as well be playing with a bunch of no-names, because all the players in each category seem interchangeable. Good luck telling the difference between Joe Thornton and Nik Antropov.
Gameplay has a similar generic feel. This is jet-powered arcade hockey played by big guys on a small ice surface, which leaves little room for you to do anything fancy. Playing solo is particularly wearying. Teammate AI lacks creativity on offense and doesn't bother with defense aside from coming back and standing in the slot like bobbleheaded pylons. Still, you can't complain too much about poor AI, because the cramped rink makes it impossible to do anything anyway. Teammates may not try to get open for passes, but it doesn't usually matter because there isn't any room to get the puck past defenders. Passes are constantly picked off, and those that aren't outright stolen tend to ricochet off skates and sticks like a pinball. Goaltending can be frustrating, too. While your keeper is too often a sieve, your opponent routinely makes crazy acrobatic stops, even while shrunk to the size of Verne Troyer's big toe. The one positive to giving up goals so readily is that games don't often last long. If you play on the default five-goal victory setting, you rarely get deep into the second period.
The presentation is a bit obnoxious, as you might expect from a game with such an extreme-sports attitude. Instead of the bleep-bloop sound effects that usually accompany flipping through menu lists, some guy mimics these noises and makes various swooshing sounds. It's funny for about a minute. Ditto for the arena announcer, who sounds like he's gargling while channeling Darth Vader and Mean Gene Okerlund when he calls out power-up effects and taunts you after losses. Some of the wrestling-style commentary is amusing, but there just isn't enough variety in the quips to keep them from grating on you.
If this were included as an unlockable bonus mode in a "proper" NHL game it might offer a welcome change of pace. Trying to pass off a single, stripped-down mode as a full game is nothing but an insult to hockey fans though. Don't fall for it.