Released back in November of last year, Gretzky NHL 2005 for the PS2 was a fairly unassuming and generally unremarkable game of hockey. The game played well enough, but the whole thing felt entirely dated, like a throwback to hockey games on the original PlayStation. Now, 989 Sports has brought Gretzky to the PSP as one of the first sports games for Sony's new handheld system. In theory, Gretzky could have easily worked as a handheld game of hockey, but the compromises 989 and codeveloper Page 44 Studios made to get this game to work with the PSP hardware ultimately end up wrecking much of the fun.
The basic gameplay controls in Gretzky NHL are lifted straight from its PlayStation 2 counterpart. They consist of one-button hitting, one-button passing, one-button shooting, and one-button puck dumping. There are a few unique deke moves you can pull off here and there, and there's a basic give-and-go passing system, but the control scheme is still mostly rudimentary, though that's not a bad thing necessarily. There are also a couple of nifty little innovations included in the gameplay, most of which are relatively minor but are still welcome. For example, the game includes a unique shot-targeting system. Once you hold down the shot button, a little target icon appears where your shot is currently headed. Before you release, you can move that target icon around to try to angle a better shot. It isn't nearly as much of a shooting crutch as it might sound, because you still have to carefully place your shots. However, it's a neat little tool to have.
On the PS2, Gretzky was a fast-paced, high-scoring affair. On the default difficulty, it wasn't uncommon to see eight to nine goals per team in a game. For the PSP version, it seems as though the defense has actually stiffened up quite a bit, namely with regard to the goalies, who, even in rookie mode, are now capable of stopping nearly every shot you throw in front of the net. Of course, a big part of this might have something to do with the fact that trying to set up a good shot in the game is almost impossible thanks to some loose handling and an absolutely atrocious frame rate. The loose handling of both the puck and your player is something you can get used to over time, though it's much, much too easy to just skate right past a loose puck simply because you can't position your guy properly. And as far as setting up solid checks goes, you might as well forget about it. Furthermore, you'll never get used to the game's choppy frame rate. When skating around, the choppiness of the action will frequently confuse you and make it difficult to really figure out what's going on around you. This makes trying to set up things, like proper power plays and one timers, exercises in frustration.
Many of the available game modes in Gretzky NHL 2005 have been stripped out in the PSP version, though it's not too hard to understand why. You've got a basic quick game, an exhibition mode, a season mode, and online play at your disposal. The season mode is a single season only, with no budgetary limits at all, that allows you to just sign and trade players to your heart's content. The lack of a franchise mode isn't altogether surprising, but it is disappointing. The online component of the game is about what you would expect. Over a wireless Internet connection, you can take on a single opponent in an online game, or if your buddy has the game and is nearby, you can engage in a local game between the two systems. Though you won't find any additional slowdown or similar issues in online or wireless games, you'll still have to sift through the unforgivable frame rate, which sucks pretty much all the fun out of the multiplayer as well.
The last feature the game includes is the Gretzky challenge mode. Similar to the "Madden Challenge" or the crib/skybox challenges in the ESPN games, these are little goals and challenges you have to achieve and overcome while playing each mode of the game. They can range from simply getting a hat trick to shutting out an opponent. Completing these challenges earns you points that you can use to unlock assorted content bonuses, like alternate and classic jerseys. And just in case you were wondering when exactly The Great One's influence would actually become apparent in the game, there are multiple versions of Wayne Gretzky included. There's an Oilers-era Gretzky, a Kings-era one, a Rangers-era one, and even a Team Canada one. Of course, each of the four versions is rated through the roof, and each can put up some serious points if he's placed on a team. Sadly, the inclusion of the four Gretzkys is about the only real boon in the game's unlockables mode. There really aren't all that many jerseys to unlock, so there's a generally pretty limited scope of content to choose from.
If it weren't for the frame rate, Gretzky might qualify as a pretty-good-looking game. It's obvious where 989 pared down the graphics to make it run on the PSP, but overall, things like player models, animations, and arenas all look pretty nice and detailed. However, had the developer sacrificed a little more in the way of graphical detail to try to make the game run well, the gameplay would have fared much, much better. As it is, you end up with near-PS2 quality graphics and a PlayStation-era frame rate. Not good. There's no commentary, but that's not a criticism. The commentary in the PS2 version was mostly boring and uninformative, so the absence of it here is not a bad thing. Apart from that, you'll hear some solid in-game sound effects and a host of generally inoffensive but not particularly good rock tracks to fill out the soundtrack.
Gretzky NHL is likely to be the only option for hockey on the PSP for a good long while, but unless you're absolutely chomping at the bit for some NHL action, you shouldn't bother with it. Simply being the only hockey choice doesn't excuse things like the awful frame rate, the sloppy puck handling, and the generally lackluster gameplay that Gretzky NHL offers. You're better off without this one.