Visually, NHL 2004 looks superb, as the player models, arenas, and in-game animations are excellent all around.
Where NHL 2004 truly succeeds is in terms of depth. Specifically, NHL 2004 includes a multitude of game modes. If you just want to play a quick game, you can simply choose the play now option. However, if you're up for a lengthier gameplay session, you can opt to play through a season, the playoffs, an elimination tournament, or the newly redesigned dynasty mode. This year's dynasty mode is easily the deepest ever designed for an NHL game, and it lets you take on the dual role of both coach and general manager for your chosen NHL franchise. At the beginning of the dynasty mode, you're told that your team's owner has fired most of the coaching staff and has sold off the bulk of the team's facilities. It's up to you as GM to rebuild the franchise--from scratch--and take your team to glory.
All of the usual conventions for a dynasty mode apply in NHL 2004, including player/CPU trading, free agent signing, roster management, and the like. However, duties are now split up between the GM and the coach. Coaching duties basically entail managing your team's lines, assigning jersey numbers, and monitoring the league schedules. The real bulk of the mode's duties lie on the general manager's side. Duties for the GM include signing, releasing and trading players, monitoring less tangible aspects (like team morale), and maintaining the day-to-day finances of the team. As you start your franchise from scratch, your players' morale generally tends to be on the lower side of the league, and, more often than not, they won't be playing to their full potential. To fix this problem, you have to upgrade your staff and facilities by gaining experience points.
Experience points are earned in the dynasty mode by initiating and performing transactions and making various business decisions. Simply winning games earns you a few experience points each time, but to get bigger additions to your GM's experience level, you need to make big trades, sign major free agents, do well in the NHL draft, and, most importantly, win Stanley Cups. Each time you hit a certain number of points, you earn a new upgrade for your team. Upgrades are split into two categories: staff and facilities. Staff upgrades include changes to your scouting, medical, coaching, marketing and legal personnel. On the facilities side, you're able to upgrade your equipment room, travel methods, team gym, practice rink, and locker room. Each category has its own specific advantage. For instance, upgrading your medical staff allows for a one week faster recovery period for injured players, whereas upsizing your practice rink increases your players' attributes for home games. As you go, you're also able to adorn your general manager's office with various rewards, like new furniture, carpets, and other items, to give your office a more personalized feel.
NHL 2004's newly-designed fighting system manages to finally capture the realism of an authentic hockey fight, but without a lot of falling all over the place.
In the dynasty mode, you're also able to do things, like set dates and lengths for team practices, set ticket prices for regular season and playoff games, and sign TV contracts based upon how many superstar players you have on your roster. All in all, there's a whole lot to do in this mode, and it should keep players entertained for a long while as it does go for a full 20 seasons. However, if there's one complaint to mount against this mode, it's that you always start out in the dredges of the league. While it's a lot of fun to try and build a team from the ground floor, sometimes you might just want to leap right in with a team that's already good and just dominate for as long as the mode will allow. Perhaps an option to turn off the experience-building system might have been a nice touch, but, really, this is only a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things. It's still a really great and deep dynasty mode.
Graphically, NHL 2004 looks really spectacular--especially when it comes to animation. Hits are incredibly spectacular--particularly in those instances when someone gets knocked into the bench or gets absolutely leveled to the ice. The animation for skating is also extremely well done, and watching the players move up and down the ice looks amazingly realistic. The player models in NHL 2004 are also really great, with accurate body builds and very well-designed player faces. All of the game's arenas are designed with perfect detail and actually resemble their real-life counterparts. The crowd graphics are quite good--though the frame rate on the crowds is notably lower than the action on the ice, which looks a bit odd in certain camera shots. Additionally, the EA Sports style of presentation is readily apparent throughout the game, complete with all the slick menu designs and overlays that you've come to expect over the years. The Xbox and GameCube versions of the game both look superb, with the Xbox version having the expectedly cleaner and brighter look but only to a very minor degree.
The game's AI is much improved this year, especially in the defensive game, but also on the offensive side of the puck.
NHL 2004's audio presentation is also of excellent quality. Most of the in-game sound effects appear to be holdovers from last year, but, considering how great last year's game sounded, this is not at all a bad thing. Play-by-play commentary is still provided by Jim Hughson, but, this year, former color commentator Don Taylor has been replaced by Craig Simpson, a former NHL player and two-time Stanley Cup winner. While Simpson is definitely a better overall fit for the game, there really isn't enough of him to make an impact. He rarely says much outside of post-period summaries and makes occasional glib remarks about basic hockey strategies. Hughson is competent, though unspectacular. For the most part, he manages to be technically correct, but his constant over-emphasizing of player's names, along with the repetition of his lines, can wear thin pretty quickly. The game's soundtrack consists of a number of licensed artists, like the Deftones, The Ataris, Gob, Adema, and Alien Ant Farm. Though the songs themselves aren't necessarily a perfect fit for the sport of hockey, the soundtrack is consistent for its genre and, overall, works just as well as any of the other EA Sports games to feature licensed music.
To sum up NHL 2004, it's simply a great game of hockey. The new additions to the gameplay, all-new dynasty mode, and upgraded graphics all provide a really excellent experience. Although the game does fall just shy of beating out ESPN NHL Hockey as the current champion of simulation hockey titles, any previous fan of EA's NHL series will find very little to complain about in this installment and should absolutely check it out.