Thanks to the new chemistry system, line balancing is something you'll have to work on carefully, because just shoving a bunch of scoring forwards onto one line won't make for a positive result.
Poorly autopicked lines and a lack of during-simulation notification aren't the dynasty mode's only problematic aspects. The last and perhaps silliest issue belongs squarely in the realm of the offseason. NHL 2005 has no real progressive offseason to speak of. Rather, you just sim through the offseason calendar until you eventually happen upon the draft, where you blindly pick rookies using info that varies in accuracy depending on the quality of your scouting staff. While this isn't very interesting, what's perhaps dumbest of all is that there aren't even the right number of rounds in the draft. There are only five, to be exact.
Once you get past the draft, July 1 comes, and the free agency period starts. And this is where the biggest oversight of the game occurs. You see, NHL 2005 has no real free agency negotiation component. Once free agency begins, you can just cherry-pick your way through all of the best players (assuming your owner won't freak out about your roster expenses). No free agent ever even entertains another offer, unless you lowball him too badly, at which point he just won't negotiate with you for the rest of the year if he rejects three of your offers. But, provided you're willing to pony up the dough, you can basically steal all the best players without any other team ever interfering. This sort of offseason management used to be the norm, but standards have changed, and, at this point, it all just seems pretty lazy by comparison.
But, hey, the dynasty mode isn't all bad. One of the best aspects of this year's dynasty mode is a part that we weren't totally sold on last year: the team upgrades system. Basically, as you win games and progress through each season, you'll earn money for your upgrade budget, which you can spend on a host of on-ice and off-ice upgrades that range from better travel arrangements (which increase player stats for road games) to better assistant general managers (who can help increase the likelihood of a trade being accepted). There's a much wider variety of upgrades this year, and also, unlike last year's game (where your team started out badly lacking in terms of stats due to a shortage of upgrade points at the beginning), this year's game presents no immediate pressure to upgrade your team heavily, because your team starts out about where it should in year one. The only negative aspect about the upgrades is that eventually they become just a little bit too effective, causing your team to almost overperform, to a degree. While this definitely bodes well for your record, it kills a bit of the game's statistical realism.
NHL 2005 also includes a fully revamped practice scheduling system, since last year's system was more than a little cumbersome. Now you can basically set up specific types of practices that benefit specific statistics for your players. Light workouts benefit breakout and morale stats, whereas full-contact practices gear up your team's defense and checking. While this is definitely better than last year's erratic practice scheduling, there also isn't a whole lot do it. You don't set up particular days for practice, so, presumably, it all just happens automatically. It might have been nice had EA added a little more management to the practices beyond just allowing you to select a practice and then leaving it be until you feel like changing it. However, as it is, what's here works well enough.
World Cup hockey is available in NHL 2005, so if you want to re-create Canada's big win, you can do so.
When it comes right down to it, NHL 2005's dynasty mode has several enjoyable components, but, ultimately, it feels poorly balanced. It seems like a lot of fundamental things just kind of got left on the drawing board, and what ended up in the final game simply doesn't feel like a fully realized mode. It's solid enough to entertain those who might want something a little different from their dynasty modes than the typical fare, but if you're stringent about your dynasty mode quality, you'll probably find this one more than a little flustering.
As any true hockey fan knows, this year was the year of the World Cup of Hockey, and in NHL 2005, you have the opportunity to play through the whole tournament in the World Cup mode. All eight of the tournament's international teams are featured with fully accurate rosters. Additionally, if you pick a team with more available players in the game from that team's country, at the beginning of the mode, you can replace any players you please, letting you design the ultimate international team. In a sense, this mode is really just kind of a glorified tournament mode, but considering how big of a deal this year's World Cup turned out to be, it's very cool being able to play the tournament properly, in addition to having the opportunity to earn a big cup--and a winning celebration at the end of it all.
The online play in NHL 2005 is fairly lacking in both features and performance.
The only other new mode addition in NHL 2005 is the Free4All mode. This is basically a quirky, little minigame where up to four players occupy the same section of ice while all trying to score on the same goalie in an every-man-for-himself style of play. There are a couple of rule options you can set, such as whether you're playing to a certain number of goals or are just trying to score as many goals as possible within an allotted time frame. You can also throw a defenseman or two into the mix to try to counteract your scoring chances. No doubt, Free4All is a fun mode, and it's very fun, in fact. However, it does lack lasting playability, because it's just one minigame. So when you consider that the competing NHL title, ESPN NHL 2K5, has 15 different minigames to choose from--all of which can be played online (while Free4All, incidentally, can't)--Free4All seems a tad pale in comparison.
Speaking of online, the Xbox, PS2, and PC versions of NHL 2005 are all online this year. Unfortunately, that's about all you can say for them, because, while they are online, the online functionality in all three versions is pretty sad. The two console online modes feature basic head-to-head play, leaderboards, friends lists, and other typical options. The actual online performances leave more than a little to be desired, however. Under a variety of broadband conditions, both the PS2 and Xbox versions suffered from some pretty bad lag that resulted in a lot of mistimed shots and checks. Furthermore, every action seemed to be at least a half second behind each button press. The PS2 version also suffered from some nasty frame rate chop online. The PC version has all the types of online functionality found in last year's game, so there's head-to-head play, tournaments, and online clubs to play with, as well as the EA Messenger and leaderboards. The PC version is a little bit better about the lag, but it suffers from the same brand of ugly frame rate chop that the PS2 version suffers from.
The differences between the three versions of the game, beyond the online capabilities, are pretty slight, but there are a few. Graphically, all three console versions of NHL 2005 look as you would expect, with the Xbox version offering the most graphical polish and the PS2 version offering the least. Both the PS2 and GameCube versions also suffer from a bit of in-game frame rate drop, which the Xbox version seems to be devoid of. The PC version definitely trumps all of the console versions in terms of graphical quality, but it doesn't always control as well. We tried a couple of different dual analog gamepads, and, generally, the control sensitivity always seemed a bit too loose, even when we messed around with the settings. It still plays well on the PC, but the game definitely seems better suited for a console.
NHL 2005's visuals are probably its strongest asset. It's readily apparent from the get-go that a whole lot of development time went into further improving last year's excellent player models. The most detail is found in the faces, which are absolutely amazing--and not just in the facial mapping either (though that aspect is pretty incredible by itself). Even the animation used for facial expressions that are seen during cutscenes is really something else. NHL 2005 also contains fully modeled coaches for the first time, and they look really good. Compare John Tortarella in real life to his in-game counterpart and you'll see what we mean. The on-ice animation is better than last year's game, though not by leaps and bounds. Checking is definitely improved in terms of sheer brutality, and there are a few nice, new goalie animations. Otherwise, it looks like pretty standard stuff.
You simply won't find better-looking hockey players than those found in this game.
On the flip side, sound is the category where NHL 2005 fares the least well. The commentary duo of Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson is back for another year, and between the two of them, the commentary is pretty unspectacular. Much of Hughson's lines seem like retreads of previous years, and Simpson rarely ever interjects himself enough to make any sort of impact. The game's soundtrack consists of the usual EA Trax mishmash of bands. However, there is only a very short list of songs (only nine to be exact), and at least a couple of them are repeated songs from the Madden NFL 2005 soundtrack. Furthermore, the Xbox version doesn't even support custom soundtracks, which is just plain sad. On the plus side, the on-the-ice action sounds plenty good, but that's really the only aspect of the game's audio that comes across well.
In many ways, NHL 2005 comes off as something of a halfhearted effort. The game looks and plays as slickly as ever, but there are more than a few aspects of the game that seem like they were just kind of thrown together. In the end, while NHL 2005 is most certainly still a very good game overall, any NHL fan hoping for improvement over last year's offering is going to be pretty disappointed.