If you followed the suggestions from gaming companies, you might think that the sport of hockey was once a black hole, full of brutish, stick wielding thugs. Fights and hard body checks were the norm, and any grace associated with the sport was farcical at best. That is, until its savior, the great Gretzky came along. Born with extraordinary talent, Gretzky infused the game with beauty, style and charm that chased away the garish facets of the sport, remaking it in his own image. (Granted, Gretzky is nowhere near as beatific, but considering how he’s handled in video games, he might as well be an athletic messiah.) So it only seems right that in the year that the NHL league is cancelled, Gretzky delivers another game to the masses. With a slap shot onto PSPs, here comes Gretzky NHL from 989 Studios.
You get the standard modes within Gretzky NHL that you expect from sports titles now. There’s a quick match for immediate play, exhibition match for non-season play, and online via Ad Hoc or Infrastructure play. There’s also a restricted season of 29 games or a regular season of 82 matches, where you can manage a draft, trade players and handle injuries. Apart from this, there are minor features called Gretzky Challenges, which are event specific tasks that you’re given across matches. Fulfilling these challenges nets you points that can be redeemed for unlockable items, such as jerseys or Gretzky from different eras in his career.
Similar to its console counterpart, Gretzky NHL focuses primarily on fast paced action centered on passing and quick slap shots. While it’s easy to pass pucks over to nearby players, you’ve got tighter control with specific icon passing. This can help when you’re trying to perform quick give and go shots or lining up a board rocking bullet off your stick. Not only do you have control over the direction of a shot, you also handle the power placed behind it. This can help maneuver shots around body checking defenders or aggressive stick checks from the other team, although you’ll have to watch the tempers of your players as well, as a large fight could break out on the ice.
With all that said, though, there are significant issues with Gretzky NHL. The first, and most apparent one is the lack of any significant franchise mode. Handling minor trades, simple drafts and injuries is one thing, but the season mode doesn’t go nearly far enough to satisfy a hockey fan. Next comes the serious lack of direction for teammates or even playmaking for offense or defense. Not only can this result in a scattered, relatively uncoordinated series of sliding around on the ice, it can also result in unintentional offsides or icing penalties that are completely out of your control. This can be extremely infuriating when you think you’re free to score, just to have a foul called.
You may also notice a seemingly supernatural ability on the part of the goalies on both sides to stop shots from just about any single athlete on the ice. Not only does this seem unrealistic, but it also feels like making a shot on goal is practically a miracle during play. This isn’t even something that can be blamed on the analog stick, which can take some time to get used to because of a control scheme that doesn’t feel as fluid as you’d hope for dekes or quick moves around defenders.
Then again, the largest culprit against Gretzky is a significant drop in frame rate that renders the game a sluggish mess. The characters animate nicely, although their faces aren’t as detailed as other 989 PSP titles, and while the players on ice make a number of relatively accurate moves, you’ll detect a definite amount of slowdown, particularly when the game is trying to track a number of players on the screen at the same time. This can often result in confusion when the game suddenly snaps back to its standard speed, making play feel accelerated after a sudden bout of “bullet time”. Sound effects, while decent, aren’t going to be enough to save the technical glitches of the game. Sure, there are plenty of arena noises, sound effects like skates scraping the ice and the loud crack of the puck being launched during a shot, but you’re still missing play by play from announcers to add to the sports experience. Additionally, while there are a number of rock songs for the soundtrack, these are relatively forgettable and not noteworthy enough to balance out the virtually silent play.
Overall, if you need a hockey fix, you’d probably be better served looking towards a console version to satisfy your needs. While it does have unlockable features and a great cover athlete to find and play with, the limited game options hampers the game significantly. However, if you have to take your ice to go, Gretzky is solely an option for those diehard Great One fans that can’t help but feel an overwhelming desire to bang the boards with an icon.