ESPN NHL Hockey (Xbox) review
"I was with a group of friends at a party, the Xbox was set up, and the owner of the system owned the game as well. We settled down, got comfortable, and got ready for some two-on-two action. I'll stop you right there: we were fully clothed. I promise. Back to hockey then?"
When I saw the name ESPN on the hockey game I was about to play, I wasn't sure what to make of it. I mean, ESPN are those American sports guys. I'm Canadian, and we live and love hockey - it's our game. What the hell was ESPN's name doing on a video game hockey simulation? That being said, I realized than any hockey game released up to this point (including the awesome oldie NHL Hockey 94 for the Sega Genesis), had probably been developed by a crew of Yankees, so my prejudice was certainly pointless and misplaced, like all prejudices. In any case, my disdain for the ESPN name notwithstanding, I plunged headlong into this newest Xbox hockey offering, throwing caution and apprehensiveness to the wind. I usually approach hockey simulation games with a smug look on my face and a shrug on my shoulders, much like a Brit might when approaching an American produced soccer sim: ''These fools won't likely get it right… again. Would that the days of NHL Hockey 94 returned…'' Yes, I usually wax nostalgic, tears turn my face pasty, and a deep-seated bitterness swirls and builds from deep down in the bowels of my gut. Then I say, ''Screw it!'' and leave the game un-rented.
But this time I had no choice. I was with a group of friends at a party, the Xbox was set up, and the owner of the system owned the game as well. We settled down, got comfortable, and got ready for some two-on-two action. I'll stop you right there: we were fully clothed. I promise. Back to hockey then? So I pretended to be cool with the idea of ESPN, managing with great effort to tuck away the incorrigible hockey snob side of me for the time being. Certainly the alcohol helped.
The verdict was in early: ESPN is tons of fun. I'm not sure that it feels just like hockey should, but it comes very close, and probably a bit closer than earlier efforts from the team of Visual Concepts and Sega, such as the previous year's offering, NHL 2K3. As always, the game is a glut of option screens and eye-blurring, near infinite customization. You can play exhibitions, full seasons, playoffs, all-star games - hell, you can even play two-on-two backyard pond hockey. Button functions can be assigned as you see fit, but luckily for those who are intimidated by too much initial choice, the default button settings are very intuitive. Button presses are all pressure sensitive, so that a tap on the shot button will release a quick wrist shot, while holding it down longer will unleash the much more powerful, but quite a bit more unwieldy, slap shot. Air passes over the outreaching sticks of defensemen, slick dekes around hopelessly flopping goaltenders, bone-crushing up-and-over body checks on speedy incoming forwards - it's all here.
As with any sports game, the ability to produce real and exciting offense is the crux of any potential fun to be had with ESPN. You already know they succeeded, but how? Previous instalments in the series made scoring overly difficult - much like the problem that is actually affecting today's real life NHL. Goalies wear suits of incredibly advanced, light and tensile armour and cover the net like Saran Wrap over last night's grimy chili. It's bad enough that the illegal obstruction (this also found its way into the game) that goes on limits scorers' abilities to simply get to the net, without the added frustration of having to chip away at the Berlin Wall once they arrive at the net with puck in tow. Luckily, this bit of unnecessary and unwelcome realism has been adjusted without inserting the dreaded 'cheap goal loop' that plagues so many of even the better hockey games.
The goal loop describes a scenario where approaching the goalie from a certain angle and aiming at a certain spot will always net you a goal, regardless of which player you're using and how hard the shot is. ESPN offers these hot spots and angles on the ice, but a poor shooter - whether poor by his statistics or by your inept control - will be stopped by the goaltender or will hit the post or even miss quite a bit. This aspect of the game is the absolute most crucial element if you're to have any fun at all as a hockey fan - whether you're casual or hardcore. If you can score by doing the same cheap little play every time, everything else godly about the game is made negligible, and the title disposable. We've seen it happen countless times.
On the other hand, it makes good sense that real hockey scoring plays like breakaways and two-on-one rushes should yield a goal more often than not when carried out carefully and skillfully, and ESPN does a good job of giving you the goal when you work hard to gain the position needed to execute. And therein lies all the difference: the game makes it a challenge to beat very capable defensive computer AI in order to set up shop at the hot spots. So to recap: you won't always score from the hot spots, but you will most of the time. It's not cheap, because it's a fight to get to the hot spots in the first place. And certainly that is how it should be. The art of sports video game scoring asks a fine balance and ESPN has responded by treading the tightrope quite admirably.
With the meat of the game tasting so flavourful, the rest is easy. We expect that a game released in 2003 would have all the fixings (so often the fixings are presented perfectly to adorn raw meat), and it does. The crowd noise, organ music, commentators, and the on-ice sounds of the hits and stops and starts and the most beautiful on-ice sound in the game: that of the puck clinking off the post and in - are all brilliantly observed. The commentary loops of course, but not so much that you get too annoyed too quickly with what they've got to say. The graphics and animations are smooth and fluid; dekes and shot wind-ups look particularly realistic.
You'll prefer to play ESPN NHL Hockey with as many friends as possible, but solo play isn't a bore either. There is so much to discover and many of the options lend themselves to short, easy solitary pick up and play sessions, such as the skills competition that involves such contests as the ''hardest shot'' and the ''breakaway'' competitions. My suggestion is a very simple one: if you own an Xbox and love the game of hockey, own ESPN NHL Hockey. It comes highly recommended, even from a bloody Canadian, and God knows hockey is all we do.
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 01, 2004)
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