These days, if you're a fan of the sport of hockey and video games, you're living the good life. Developers have been upping the ante on their hockey titles far more substantially in the last few years and are really working hard to make their NHL titles better so they can compete with the NFL, NBA, and MLB offerings. One of the main causes for this increase in quality hockey titles is competition--or a sudden appearance thereof. EA's long-running NHL franchise has always been successful, but last year, Sega finally brought out an NHL title worthy of competing with EA's in NHL 2K3. This year, both companies have clearly worked hard at improving their respective games, each trying to get an edge over the other. ESPN NHL Hockey is the latest in Sega's series, and, for all intents and purposes, it is simply one of the best hockey games ever designed. EA's answer to ESPN is NHL 2004, and, in a few fundamental ways, the game actually does manage to beat out the opposition, though ultimately it falls a bit short of being the best overall package. It's still a really great hockey game in its own right, though.
NHL 2004 is an excellent follow-up to last year's NHL 2003, improving a number of key aspects of the gameplay and graphics.
If you've ever played any of the EA NHL games, you'll feel pretty well at home with NHL 2004. Most of the basic controls are the same, but there are a couple of welcome additions. Last year's game introduced the concept of right-analog deking, which lets you dodge and weave between defenders by moving the stick however you may need to. Now, you can use the right stick to check players as well. When on defense, simply skate up to the player you wish to check, and then tap the stick in his direction. Depending on how much momentum you've built up, you can either shove the opposing player off the puck, or you can absolutely crush him into the boards. This checking system does take a bit of getting used to, as you have to be pretty precise in picking your directions for a hit. Overall it works very nicely. Of course, you still have the option of using button-based checking as well.
The other new addition to NHL 2004's control scheme is two-button passing. With two-button passing, you can either use a standard pass, or you can use a saucer pass to get the puck to one of your teammates. Saucer passing is useful for getting the puck past defenders, as you can lift the puck off the ice and over an opponent's stick. It's a little looser than a standard pass, but, ultimately, it should be. It's really a great addition, especially when you consider how hard standard passing can be. You have to be very precise in your choice of directions and in the level of power you put behind passes, as defenders are very quick to intercept even slightly mistimed or misdirected passes. Saucer passes still require pretty precise timing, but, directionally, you have a bit more freedom.
The new dynasty mode lets you perform many of the tasks of a real-life NHL general manager.
Another aspect that EA greatly endeavored to upgrade in this year's title was the overall grittiness of the sport. They have done just that! NHL 2004 is a brutal game of hockey, through and through, with bone crunching checks and a greatly improved fighting system. The right analog checking really helps in terms of making it a little more free-form and not restricting you to hitting whoever happens to be right next to you. There's more to it than this system, however, as the game features a gaggle of new hitting and checking animations that are superbly realistic. In fact, every time you send a player crashing to the ice or when you get sent there yourself, you definitely feel it.
As far as the new fighting system goes, it's easily the best around. Hockey fights are sort of a tough thing to re-create, as most of them usually just involve a couple of wildly thrown punches, teamed with a lot of jersey pulling and falling down. In terms of video game fights, most systems have been a total joke. They usually ape standard fighting games and end up looking like matches between a couple of Rock'em Sock'em Robots. The new fighting system, developed for NHL 2004, emulates realistic hockey fights but without all the falling down.
Essentially, fights occur based on how agitated a player is. If your team is losing, getting knocked around a lot, or is generally in a bad place, eventually one of your tougher players will become enraged to the point of wanting to fight. When that happens, you can either choose to ignore the fight, or you can engage in it by pressing the select button. Once that happens, the two players throw off their gloves and lock in a grappling stance. During the fight you're then able to punch high, punch low, block high, or block low. Keep in mind that a lot of the fighting is timing based. Block at an inopportune time or place, and you'll get walloped. Likewise, try to throw too many punches, and you'll get blocked and immediately nailed upside the head. All told, it's actually a pretty well done system, and the option of engaging in or ignoring fights is really useful if you don't feel like breaking up the flow of the game.
The new Dynasty mode lets you perform many of the tasks of a real-life NHL general manager.
NHL 2004's player AI is also a big improvement over last year's problematic AI, which didn't really have much going on in terms of the defensive game. This is definitely not the case anymore. On either side of the puck, CPU players are a whole lot smarter this year and are especially more adept at breaking up your plays and keeping you from getting a straight line to the net. This does make the game quite a bit more difficult than you'd expect, and, even on the default difficulty, it'll likely take you a while to get accustomed to having to deke past some really tough defenders. On the flip side of the coin, it'll take a while to get accustomed to keeping opposing teams from just blazing right past you and setting up easy one-timers for the score.
You can't hang all of NHL 2004's relative difficulty on its AI though, because, really, a challenging game is always better than an unchallenging one. Ultimately, even if the game's AI were much easier to deal with, you'd still have trouble creating big plays--mainly because it can be very hard to handle the puck. Obviously, since you play hockey on ice, puck control is difficult to begin with. However, in NHL 2004, it's a little too easy to just have the puck slide all over the place. Players periodically skate right by the puck, missing it altogether. As mentioned before, passing is also quite difficult, so the combination of difficult puck control and precise passing makes it a tough task to create any kind of play. Ultimately, it's going to come down to whether or not you want to take the time to really master the system. It still provides great gameplay, but it's definitely not quite as user-friendly as ESPN's game.