With the NHL player lockout having now moved beyond the realm of mere probability into cold, hard fact, hockey fans are likely to be on the hunt for any kind of hockey they can find between now and next year. On the video game front, both Visual Concepts and EA are once again adding new installments to their yearly NHL franchises. ESPN NHL 2K5, Visual Concepts' title, came out on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox earlier this month and proved to be a phenomenal game of hockey. NHL 2005, EA's newest hockey title, looks fantastic, but it doesn't quite compare in terms of its actual hockey gameplay. Sure, the game definitely improves upon certain aspects of last year's NHL 2004, but in other key areas, the game suffers from some occasionally overambitious artificial intelligence and restrictive game design that ultimately makes the game more frustrating than it probably should be. Make no mistake. This is still a solid game of hockey, but it isn't the most realistic or best-playing NHL title out there, and as such, it shouldn't be your first choice for one.
EA-brand hockey is back for yet another year on the ice, although this time, it seems as though the franchise lost some of its firepower in the offseason.
If you played NHL 2004, you'll notice a few subtle but useful control tweaks in this year's game. The first and perhaps most important one is the separation of slap shots and wrist shots into two separate buttons. Other games have given you ways to control exactly what kinds of shot you wanted to send toward the net, but this method is by far the easiest. Now, if you want to send a blistering slap shot from the point on command, you can. And if you want to get in close to the net to send a wrister up top-shelf, you can do that too. NHL 2005 also features a brand-new wraparound shot that is far more like the type of quick wraparounds you would see in a real NHL game. Just press one of the shot buttons while behind the net, and your player will try to push the puck into the corner of the net. If you played the last Midway-produced NHL title, NHL Hitz Pro, you may recognize this exact same shot from that game. However, just because EA didn't invent it doesn't make it a bad idea. So, in fact, it's an immensely useful addition.
Another useful control change is the ability to shift control to a player that isn't in possession of the puck when on offense. By pressing a button, you'll then be in control of another forward while the player in control of the puck moves up-ice. Position yourself correctly and you'll be in line for a quick one-timer. The one downside to this mechanic is that the camera always stays trained on the player who's controlling the puck, so it can sometimes be hard to get a bearing on the controlled player's position. However, once you get the hang of it, this mechanic becomes pretty indispensable.
One big gameplay fix from last year's game is the whole passing system. NHL 2005 still has the same basic two-button passing system from last year, but it's been polished up to fix some of the problems people had with passes just missing to the left or right. The puck still doesn't just automatically go to the closest player's stick, but passing is generally a lot more accurate and easier to manage, so you're far less likely to whiff on what should be an easy and clear pass.
The new two-button-shooting mechanics easily represent the best gameplay upgrade made to this year's title.
EA Chicago has also gone to great lengths to fix some of the offensive bunching issues found in last year's game. Forwards and defensemen on the offensive side of the puck are much better about spreading out in the offensive zone, giving you better chances to set up real plays. However, it could be said that sometimes forwards give you almost too much space. This is especially noticeable when moving through the neutral zone to cross over into the offensive zone. Typically, unless your line is specifically set to crash the net, your line mates will hang a bit too far back, which often leads to you being all by yourself in the zone for at least a few seconds. Normally this wouldn't be too much of a problem, but thanks to the game's overzealous defensive AI, it does become an issue.
No doubt, the defense in NHL 2005 is tough--almost too tough, actually. Basically, getting a breakaway in this game is a near impossibility on any difficulty but the easiest--at least until you've spent quite a lot of time trying to master the various deke moves and speed burst timings. If you're up against even a decently rated defensive pairing, you're likely to get knocked flat on your face before you even get within 10 feet of the net, which typically results in a quick turnover. The defensive AI doesn't even seem to really use the poke-check mechanic inside the offensive zone much at all. This is primarily because it much prefers to just lay you out flat on the ice every single time you get anywhere near the goal. While this might seem like it would make a game a penalty-filled affair, it actually doesn't. In fact, on the default settings, penalties almost never get called at all.
The game's overabundance of checking appears courtesy of a fix that the developer added to help improve checking. Last year, one complaint that players voiced involved the fact that most of the checks in the game seemed more like varying degrees of shoves than anything else. Now you can deliver absolutely brutal hip checks and similarly vengeful moves with the right amount of momentum. Of course, the problem with this is that the team on defense always seems to find a way to hit you with almost maximum momentum, which gives you no time to get behind the net or do anything else you might normally do to try to set up a one-timer. This isn't as much of a problem if you're up against a smaller forward or one of the few less-than-tough defensemen out there, but more often than not, you're going to go down. Basically, your best bet is to get as close as you think you can to the net without getting waylaid so that you can throw a hard slap shot at the net and then hope one of your teammates gets in close enough to throw his stick at the possible rebound if the shot doesn't go in immediately. This is not to say that you will do this every time you get into the offensive zone, but you will find yourself doing this a fair amount--at least early on in your time spent with the game.
The defensive AI in NHL 2005 is a lot more likely to knock you squarely to the ice than poke-check you. And that's not necessarily a good thing.
What's even crazier about this is that in actuality, you don't even really need to worry about setting up plays to begin with--at least not on the default difficulty. More often than not, if you time a big slap shot just right--and if the goalie is anything less than Brodeur-esque in quality--you'll be able to score at least three or four goals a game. Well, why not just bump up the difficulty then? Simply put, because the medium and hardest difficulty settings are absolutely brutal when it comes to defense. Remember all that checking and getting knocked to the ice on the default setting? Multiply that by at least two for every difficulty notch you increase to, which will eventually bring you to a point where it actually looks like defensemen are being sucked into your player. Essentially, there just isn't a very good balance between difficulty levels. The game isn't impossible, by any means, but the overly check-happy defense does make the game a lot more frustrating than it needs to be--especially if you're someone who likes to play a more strategic game.
With all of that said, however, NHL 2005 is still quite a fun game to play, even if it isn't always especially realistic. The speed of the game is excellently paced, making for a fast and furious game of hockey each time out, and aside from some of the previously mentioned issues, the AI typically behaves very well by reacting accordingly when you actually do manage to get a good play set up. It also manages to react very well to some of the coaching setups you can design, like how you can make each line perform a different kind of offense that ranges from crashing the net to working the puck from behind the net. At least the AI does so once all your forwards decide to finally traipse their ways into the zone. The gameplay, as a whole, is a lot of fun, provided you're willing to accept some of the game's less realistic aspects to just appreciate it for what it is--a fast, fun game of hockey.
In terms of game features, NHL 2005 isn't the deepest game you'll ever find, but it's got its share of modes to keep you busy. This year's dynasty mode is definitely where the most developmental effort has gone. However, in some ways, it's also the least attractive of what NHL 2005 has to offer. Most all of the elements from last year's dynasty mode have made their ways into this year's game, including team upgrades and the ever-popular player morale system. The biggest new addition is essentially the factor that drives the whole mode: owner objectives. In the real-life NHL, every team has different goals and objectives. If you're playing for a team like Colorado, ambition and winning a Stanley Cup presents a huge part of what drives your franchise forward. But, if you're on a team like the Chicago Blackhawks, your goals are far more financially driven. So the second it looks like you're not turning a profit, there's hell to pay. NHL 2005 emulates this variation of team goals by ranking each team in three categories: ambition, team, and profit. Ambitious teams want to both make the playoffs and win the cup; team-oriented franchises are loyal to their players and typically stick with the most loyal players, regardless of record or money; and profit-driven teams just want to be in the green at the end of every season, plain and simple.
Depending on what kind of team you pick, you'll have one specific objective handed down to you by the team owner at the start of the season. For example, if you pick the Devils, the owner will want you to make it to the conference finals, and if you choose the Blackhawks, your goal will be to obtain the number one draft pick (no matter what). With each goal, you'll have only two seasons in which to accomplish your mandated tasks. There is most definitely a degree of realism to be found in a setup like this, but in a way, it also sucks a lot of the fun out of the whole process. A big part of the appeal of a dynasty is the chance for a player to take a team that might not be so good and do whatever it takes to take that team to the top. However, the player may just want to take a favorite team and make them dominant, regardless of starting quality. With this mode, you can't really do that--at least not quickly. If your favorite team happens to be one that wants to aim high, then you're in luck. But, if you happen to be a Blackhawks fan, you may not want to wade through however many seasons it takes to make your profit-hungry owner happy enough to finally let you start making your team legitimately successful. Maybe if this whole aspect were optional, that would be one thing, but, sadly, it isn't.
The objectives put forth by team owners in this year's dynasty mode are too restrictive for their own good.
Outside of the whole objective system, there are some other additions that bear mentioning. One of these is the new line-chemistry mechanic. Let's face it: There's far more to making a successful line in hockey than just throwing three good players together. In the case of NHL 2005, each forward and defenseman belongs to one of three categories. Forwards consist of scorers, playmakers, and grinders, while defensemen consist of players who are offensive-minded, defensive-minded, or checkers. Ideally, your goal is to try to mix up the lines as much as possible so that each type of player is represented on each line. Mixing a playmaker and a pair of scorers or a scorer and a grinder is a far better solution than sticking three scorers on a line. This system works pretty well, and it definitely forces you to think about how you will fill your roster when free agency and the draft come around. Unfortunately, it can also be kind of a pain as well.
The irritating aspect of the chemistry system comes from issues pertaining to how each season is simulated. You typically will be simming most of your games from the game's season schedule section, which shows all of your upcoming games. However, when a player gets injured or is otherwise incapacitated, the simulation doesn't stop to let you know that this has happened. Instead, the game will just set up its own lines based on what it thinks is best and will keep them that way until you stop simulating long enough to check your e-mail, where you'll see an injury report from however long ago. Were the lines that the game picked for you at least sensible, then there would be no problem with this. However, about half the time, the game will pick some of the most harebrained lines imaginable (Paul Kariya on a fourth line? What?). Outside of this issue, the chemistry system really does work noticeably well. It's just a shame that you have to micromanage it so closely during your dynasty.