Konami's Blades of Steel on the NES stood as one of the greatest names in hockey for 10 years, until its name was desecrated by the 1999 and 2000 versions for the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Konami bought the rights to the ESPN license and hasn't wasted any time in releasing games for each of the big four sports, saving the Blades of Steel name from any further damage. Konami's latest interpretation of the NHL is ESPN National Hockey Night for the PlayStation 2, and while the name may have changed, the song remains the same.
National Hockey Night includes the majority of gameplay options you've come to expect from hockey games, with few extras. There is an exhibition mode for up to two players, a season mode with full statistical tracking, a create-a-player mode, and a playoffs mode for the impatient. The seasons can be 29 or 82 games long, and while the game clock can't be adjusted, the rate at which it dwindles can be accelerated to compensate. Statistics are tracked in 10 categories, and players get on hot or cold streaks as the season wears on. The extensive create-a-player option allows you to max out the player's abilities in six different categories, choose from four different facial textures, and adjust the player's height and weight. All 30 NHL teams are included, but the rosters are only current to the beginning of this season. There is no Mario Lemieux, and Owen Nolan is still found on San Jose's roster. The lack of a franchise mode or any other extras like a breakaway mode or skills competition is disappointing. Then again, it doesn't matter how many gameplay modes National Hockey Night has, because they're all marred by its atrocious gameplay.
National Hockey Night plays like a hockey game made by someone who has never stepped on the ice. The confusing control scheme it employs, which may only be changed to an even more-confounding configuration, is the most forgivable of its problems. One issue that can't be overlooked is the lethargic player control. The inability to cut sharply or pirouette makes it impossible to perform wraparounds, fool the goalie, or keep from continually running into the boards face first. The lag between button presses and the action being performed onscreen is woefully long. Players wait to wind up for a slap shot until the shoot button is released--resulting in three-second-long slap shots that have less power than the wrist shots. Lining up an opposing player for a check is nearly impossible, and even when it does occur, the players harmlessly bump off one another unless a separate check button is pressed. This lack of aggressive play sucks a great deal of excitement out of the game, and it's further compounded by the computer's insistence on holding the puck after every save. Playing with manual line changes is difficult because the interface will not pop up during breaks in the action. Instead you're forced to watch repetitive cinemas of the computer's players leaping over the boards while your tired line remains on the ice for yet another shift. Another major problem is the hit detection for the blue line. Offsides is often called even if the puck remains in the offensive zone. The ignorant computer AI will often cause players to stand still despite a loose puck resting a mere stick's length away. National Hockey Night is the worst-playing game of hockey to be released in recent memory. In a genre that relies heavily upon solid gameplay to provide enjoyment, National Hockey Night's worst trait is a fatal one.
One aspect of its hockey franchise that Konami has taken the time to improve on is the graphics. The presentation mimics a real ESPN NHL broadcast, right down to the statistical graphics and camera angles. National Hockey Night defaults to a side camera angle, but there are nine different views to choose from. The player models are well proportioned thanks to a wealth of polygons, but some texture warping takes place on the jerseys, and the blank expression on every player's face won't fool anyone. During breaks in the action, players are shown talking strategy, acting agitated, or hopping the boards to join the action. After goals, players will open their mouths to scream and cruise past the bench to celebrate with teammates. Real-time fighting cinemas are shown when two goons find each other on the ice, but you aren't given any control over the fight. Konami claims that there are 800 animations in the game, but after playing the game for several days, that seems a little optimistic. The few animations that are included take far too long to complete, often leaving your goalie out of position to glove rebounds or your forwards waving their sticks in the wind. Particle effects are used for ice sprays, but they make the players look like they're wearing gas-powered skates, and the real-time reflections in the ice cut the players off at the knees, making for an awkward appearance. National Hockey Night does manage to zip along with a speedy frame rate, but with the game's obnoxiously inept control, it makes little difference. While the graphics aren't as poor as those of Sony's hockey game, FaceOff, they don't begin to approach what EA accomplished with NHL 2001.
The right to use real ESPN announcers is a fringe benefit of acquiring the ESPN license, but Konami could have gotten more bang for its buck. The broadcast team of Bill Clement and Gary Thorne normally handles the announcing duties for ESPN's marquee NHL matchups. Konami managed to get Thorne for the play-by-play in National Hockey Night, but Steve Levy replaces Clement. Thorne will occasionally offer some insight into the history between the two teams playing, but Levy's misplaced commentary is moronic and repetitive. The crowd sounds authentic enough, but there are no team-specific chants and the sounds of checks are subdued.
If you're looking for a hockey game for your PlayStation 2, scratch ESPN National Hockey Night off your list and pick up EA's NHL 2001. National Hockey Night's graphics are solid, but its no-frills gameplay modes and abysmal control leech the fun from the game, leaving a superficial shell behind. If Konami tunes the gameplay and adds a few modes for next year's edition it might have a contender on its hands. But as it stands, ESPN National Hockey Night isn't even worth a curiosity-satisfying rental.