ESPN NHL Hockey is the latest addition in Sega Sports and Visual Concepts' critically-acclaimed NHL 2K series of games. Though they aren't known for releasing their sports titles in conjunction with actual pro seasons' opening days or in anticipation of a competitors sports title, Sega and Visual Concepts have managed to make ESPN NHL Hockey the first game out of the gate for the 2003-2004 NHL season by releasing it nearly a full month before the season-opener. While this might inspire the thought that perhaps the game might have been rushed or is unfinished in some fashion, this is definitely not the case. ESPN NHL Hockey is, in fact, a spectacular follow-up to last year's NHL 2K3, building upon all of the best aspects of that game and correcting the bulk of its flaws.
ESPN NHL Hockey features some of the most well-crafted hockey gameplay ever created.
If you're unfamiliar with the NHL 2K gameplay mechanics, here's a quick rundown. The game has a pretty user-friendly control scheme. Pass, shoot, dump, and puck protection functions are all handled by using the four main buttons. The right trigger press lets you execute speed bursts, while the left trigger acts as a modifier that gives you a couple of alternate functions for some of the buttons. The right analog stick controls dekes. Each function is pressure sensitive, so, for instance, if you're shooting the puck, just tapping the button will perform a quick wrist shot, whereas holding the button down will perform a hard slap shot. The D pad also serves as a line change/strategy change button, assuming you have manual strategies and line changes enabled in the game's options menu. When you're on defense, you use three of the four main controller buttons to check, poke check, and change players. You use the right analog stick to skate backwards. You can also grab the puck and shot block or knee drop using the second R or L triggers on the PS2. You can do perform the same actions on the Xbox by using the black and white buttons. All of these schemes can be adjusted, as necessary, but the default controls are quite intuitive.
One of the best things about NHL 2K3 was the fact that, for the most part, nearly everything you could do in real hockey found its way into the game. ESPN NHL Hockey is no different. You can perform vicious checks into the benches, pin opponents on the boards, design elite penalty killing and power-play strategies, and so on and so forth. The game is also very difficult--not because of cheap AI or impossible goalies either. Rather, the game is intensely strategy-focused, just like the real game. Simply grabbing the puck, running down to the end of the ice, and shooting in the direction of the net as hard as you can just won't cut it. Instead, you need to devise smart strategies to get your guys in front of the net to set up the one-timer, and you need to use your deke moves to fake out the goalie.
The game features a new skills mode, with various competitions based on the exhibition contests held during the NHL All-Star weekend.
Speaking of goalies, one of the primary complaints about last year's title was that the goalies in the game were simply unbeatable, and, upon the first couple of plays in ESPN, you might assume the same. Ultimately, though, the goalies are not unstoppable. Rather, you'll likely have the most trouble navigating your way past defensemen, as the game's defensive AI is very tough. If you can break past them, however, all it will take is a well-designed play to beat the goalie. No longer will you constantly have to deal with triple overtime scoreless games. Even on the harder difficulty levels, once you get a feel for the defense, you can get a number of high scoring games.
All in all, the gameplay in ESPN NHL Hockey presents some of the most accurate and addictive hockey action ever created--though, ultimately, many people will be initially turned off by the game's somewhat unwieldy difficulty levels. Though there are five different difficulty levels in the game, the first two are pretty much a breeze, and the three that follow are significantly harder. While it would be nice to not have such a drastic difference between difficulty levels, the game's various gameplay sliders do a fine job of adjusting those aspects you might have trouble with on the harder levels.
Outside of gameplay, ESPN NHL Hockey adds several feature improvements to the series, including a revamped franchise mode. This year's franchise mode includes most of the same upgrades found in ESPN NFL Football's franchise, including an e-mail system that sends you notices about team injuries, current playoff statuses, and trade deadlines. Even simple words of encouragement (or non-encouragement) are emailed from the team owner. This mode also features the same presentation as found in previous ESPN entries, complete with the office-style environment, desk, computer, and the like. While the new franchise is certainly much more aesthetically pleasing, it still contains a few of last year's quirks. For one, the computer-controlled teams rarely ever pick up free agents, and trade offers from computer-controlled teams are few and far between. Additionally, the mode still uses a points system for player salaries rather than actual monetary values. Granted, none of these issues is particularly detrimental to the mode. They do detract a bit from the overall realism.
The skybox mode is modeled after ESPN NFL's crib mode, and it effectively acts as a hub for the game's unlockables, stat tracking, and other random features.
There are two new gameplay modes in this year's game: skills and mini-games. Skills mode is a re-creation of the exhibition competitions held during the NHL All-Star weekend. You find a number of different competitions, including the hardest-shot competition, a shoot-out relay, a puck-control challenge, a fastest-skater competition, and a shooting-accuracy challenge. Each challenge has its own unique mechanics and style. For instance, the shooting-accuracy challenge requires you to take down a number of targets, placed inside the goal, in a set amount of time, whereas the puck-control challenge gives you a specific route to follow--complete with many weaving twists and turns--that you must quickly navigate without losing control of the puck. Some skills contests even require drastically different controls than the normal game--like the hardest shot competition. This contest requires you to shoot the puck by quickly pulling back and then pressing forward on the right analog stick. All of the skills competitions can be played as single events, as team versus team challenges, as progressive formats (whereby competition becomes increasingly difficult as each goal requirement is met), and as online contests. The skills contests are really quite a lot of fun, and they add a unique flavor to this year's game that previous NHL games have never captured.
Mini-games mode is a similarly unique mode. However, most of the mini-games are not based on any specific elements from the NHL. The roster of mini-games include pond hockey, mini-rink, shootout, and super-speed hockey. Shootout is basically just a stand-alone version of a regular in-game shootout, where five of the top liners from two teams go one-on-one with a goalie and try and score on him. Super-speed hockey is similarly obvious, given its name. Super-speed is basically just a heavily sped up game of hockey. Pond hockey puts your players on a frozen pond, in the middle of nowhere, and lets your top scoring line, defensive line, and goalie go at it against another team in a game of (practically) no-rules hockey. Mini-rink is a bizarre mode that puts you in a two-on-two game on a smaller-sized rink. The hitting is turned way up, and the bounciness of the boards is equally jacked up. It basically ends up being hockey inside a big rubber rink. As in the skills mode, each of these games adds an original and cool flavor to the ESPN NHL experience, and each is also very fun--especially in multiplayer mode.