The developers have finally nailed the proper difficulty balance, leaving you with more time to actually sit and play the game rather than wasting your time on tweaking sliders over and over again.
Pretty much all of the preexisting modes that made their debuts in last year's game, such as the skills competitions from the NHL All-Star game and the skybox mode, are here again. Predictably, the skills games are exactly the same as last year, but the skybox has some new stuff, including a whole slew of unlockables that feature classic jerseys, classic teams, some wacky rinks, and the ever-popular Heritage Classic game. Outside of unlockables, the skybox doesn't have much else new, save for a new shuffleboard minigame that's about as much fun as the playable air hockey table that debuted last year.
ESPN NHL 2K5 isn't without a few new tricks up its sleeve as well. For starters, there's a new dream team mode. Dream teams are teams made up of players chosen by the game's individual developers, various ESPN personalities, and some NHL stars as well. Bill Clement has his own team, as does Jeremy Roenick, cover boy Martin St. Louis, and even Chris "Boomer" Berman (whose team is apparently made up entirely of players whose names Boomer thought "sounded funny"). The mode itself is a ladder tournament where you play each of the 20 dream teams in succession. Beat them and they're unlocked in the game. If this doesn't sound like more than a mildly amusing distraction, that's because it isn't. The mode is kind of a neat idea, but the team rosters are rather repetitive, since a lot of people just selected the best players possible for their respective teams. Still, it's fun for at least one full play-through, and it's a much better way of incorporating famous personalities than ESPN NFL 2K5's dreadful celebrity component. And this time around, you won't have any talking heads barking at you while you play.
Perhaps the best new addition to ESPN NHL 2K5, and easily the most surprising, is the game's highly entertaining party mode. There are a few different games contained in party mode, including an arcade-style hockey game (that isn't quite up to the level of last year's NHL Hitz Pro but still provides a solid, simplified arcade hockey experience), an elimination mode, and a battle mode, which is really the standout aspect of the party mode.
The party mode may look a little silly, but it's actually more fun than it seems like it should be.
Battle mode consists of 15 different games that you can engage in with up to four players. At the beginning, you'll start by choosing the number of events you want to play in succession, and then you'll choose a team and a representative player from your team. Choosing a player is actually important, because some of the battle mode games require more checking skill, whereas others require speed and finesse. Each game is played at a frenzied pace, and the rules and setups can be really ludicrous. One game is a simple scoring challenge where all four players are vying for the same puck. Each player has to try to score as many goals as possible while being constantly attacked by three other players--and at the same time, each must also avoid a wall that keeps popping up to block the net. Another game is a race through a time-based obstacle course where you're being chased by the other three players. Your three opponents will constantly check and hook you to try to slow you down. And then there's the hysterically hit-heavy game of tag, where the first player checked is effectively "it." While "it," that player's score decreases steadily until he can check another player and pass off his "it" status. Out of all of the 15 games contained in battle mode, not every single one is an out-and-out winner, but they are all at least reasonably fun--and some of the better ones are absolute blasts when played with your friends.
ESPN NHL 2K5 is once again online for both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and this year, leagues similar to the ones found in ESPN NFL 2K5 are featured in the game. Live rosters are stored on the online servers, allowing you to make trades within your leagues, keep track of injuries, and check stats and results via the ESPN Video Games Web site. There's also the usual head-to-head play featured in the game, as well as the ability to play minirink, skills competitions, and the battle mode games online. Generally speaking, both versions of the game perform pretty well online. We had a few dropped games on both the Xbox and the PS2, and the Xbox seemed to be a little on the laggy side in a couple of games, but we didn't run into any other problems.
Neither the graphics nor the sound categories have seen a ton of improvement over last year's title, but that doesn't mean that both areas of ESPN NHL 2K5 aren't still impressive. The player models seem to have really seen the least amount of attention when it comes to upgrades this year. When comparing them side by side with last year's models, they look almost identical, save for slightly shinier helmets and more-detailed jerseys. The game still animates very well and captures the look and feel of a live hockey game extremely well, too. The one big addition to this year's game is the inclusion of an abundance of in-game cutscenes that are similar to the ones found in ESPN NFL 2K5. You'll see fully 3D crowds reacting to goals scored and power plays; you'll see teams in the locker room between periods discussing strategies and getting taped up; and you'll even see the ever-popular girls with T-shirt guns skating onto the ice to send T-shirts flying up into the crowd. These are really nice touches. Unfortunately, though, they don't appear online.
For the most part, both versions of ESPN NHL perform fine, though both suffer from bits of frame rate drops at times, especially during face-offs. Between the two versions of the game, the Xbox version is actually only a slight winner, because both versions look truly superb for their respective platforms. The PS2 version doesn't just feel like a cheap port graphically. Instead it pushes the visual capabilities of the system pretty well.
Though the graphics haven't shot up in quality in any major degree from last year's game, ESPN NHL 2K5 still looks superb.
There isn't too much new to speak of in regard to sound in ESPN NHL 2K5. The one nice feature added is the ability to have custom soundtracks play in your home arena on the Xbox version of the game. It works basically like ESPN NFL's custom soundtrack option, though it does seem a little less configurable. The commentary is, once again, ahead of the pack when it comes to not only hockey games, but also to all sports games in general. This year's commentary is more repetitive in comparison to last year's title, but it does feature a lot of new commentary. Once again, the team of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement delivers. The one flaw that the overall sound design suffers from, however, is a severe imbalance in audio levels on the default settings. The in-arena effects are way, way too loud, and by default they completely drown out the commentary, which is initially too quiet anyway. It will take some messing with the sliders, but you can get everything sounding normal. Once you do, the game sounds great--especially if you partake of the in-game Dolby Digital support on the Xbox.
While there may not be a real season to keep hockey fans occupied this year, you can rest assured knowing that you will still have one of the best hockey games to ever hit the market. Hopefully it will ably fill the real-life hockey void for you. Visual Concepts and Kush Games have once again delivered an incredible hockey package that's filled with more game modes than you'll probably know what to do with. And once again they've orchestrated the best hockey gameplay you're going to find anywhere. If you're still on the fence for any reason, the incredible $19.99 price tag should be more than enough to convince any sane person that this is a game worth owning. Simply put, if you like hockey, you need to own ESPN NHL 2K5.