When the developers huddled together to release NHL games this year, do you think they predicted that this year would have been a lockout year? I’m not sure. But it puts to question some of those online features we’ve come to expect from today’s increasingly sophisticated sports games. With the strike in place, what stats will be updated in the game? What types of downloads could you get to get more accurate rosters if the teams are going to stay static? (And technically, there isn’t a team, since there isn’t a season). But I feel like I’m treading on thin water here. I think fans ought to know, though, that they will be missing these parts of the game.
ESPN NHL 2K5 is more of an evolutionary product than a revolutionary one in the series. The presentation is filled with bone jarring sound effects and crowd noise that is specific to each arena. For example, playing my hometown favorite the Maple Leafs will let you hear the cries of Eddie or Go Leafs Go (you hear this from the conductor at every subway stop during the playoffs).
The first thing you’ll need to do when you head into the game, though, is tweak the volume levels. The commentary is completely drowned out by the stadium music. It’s a shame too since Gary Thorns and Bill Clement are always relevant. They talk about the action and while some of their comments are repetitious (every time Sundin shows up, they talk about him being a 700 series airplane), it’s still a whole lot better than some other sports games out there. Heck, at least they mention everyone’s names instead of giving them generic labels. Number 32? The defenseman? Yeah – to me that’s sign of laziness. The only times they were off cue were times when I tended to skip all the animations. Then, like ESPN NFL 2K5, they were about a play behind.
ESPN NHL 2K5 presents a different story in the visual department. The graphics are all great looking, especially the fans, but something is amiss with the action animation on the ice. At times, during collisions between players where one ends up gliding along with one skate, your player can exhibit some pretty stilted and awkward reactions to on ice violence. This makes the game not as sharp as other hockey franchises. Furthermore, there are occasional visual lags – luckily none ever occurred when I was actually in control of players but enough for someone to notice.
The bulk of ESPN NHL 2K5’s strength lies in its gameplay. The franchise mode has been expanded with a scouting report and a minor league system that will let hands on managers cultivate talent. While hockey can be a fast and furious game, those wanting to get on the ice for five or ten minutes will appreciate the party mode. This area of the game features skills-driven tests and the neat thing is you can opt to play them online. A two on two mode also exists to give gamers more direct access to the hockey portion of title without the baggage of team management. Finally, there is a dream team mode that pits pre-selected teams from notable sports figures.
One thing I missed and I know it is rather tough since it doesn’t fit the format, were the half-time replays in ESPN NFL 2K5. Chris Berman did a fantastic job on the Xbox (or an HDD equipped PS2) in highlighting the great plays of the game. I wish somehow they had worked a program as energetic as that into ESPN NHL 2K5 because it makes the replay feature actually useful to the everyday fan. (Not those narcissistic ones who keep reveling about their own play)
Another thing that might need tweaking is the initial difficulty level. With no knowledge of the game, you can pretty much steamroll any opponent with a half decent hockey club (not the Pittsburgh Penguins for example). Put enough shots on goal and you’ll eventually win. The higher difficulty levels will make every game a serious fight. You’ll need to work the puck around the net and try to catch the goalie off-guard. This makes passing a pre-requisite to scoring.
The game, moreover, has AI players that know what to do. If they’re standing in front of the goalie on offense, they’ll automatically help tip in the goals. This is one of those few games where scoring is not put squarely on your shoulders, unlike this title’s sister football product. You can really be a captain and set up the plays. My only complaints are the lack of play on the boards. The AI generally avoids coming into that situation. There’s a lot of checking and stealing from center ice but the AI players don’t usually use dump ins to set up the offensive attack.
Finally, ESPN NHL 2K5 features a Skybox that is similar to the Crib in ESPN NFL 2K5. Both allow you to view trophies and milestones you’ve accrued and using that currency, you’ll be able to purchase some arcade-like power-ups.
Speaking of currency, one of the things Sega did this year with the ESPN franchise is set the price entry level to a low $19.99 US. That’s affordable for everyone – cash strapped college students, mortgaged out adults and even younger children saving pennies from their allowance. I hope I will see this trend continue. Like the argument my colleague, Jeff Haynes, put forth about this title’s sister football game, you’re not getting an inferior, reduced or compromised product at all. This is the full game. It was released early to pre-empt Electronic Arts’ hockey title. In these days, you only hear games slipping deadlines, not beating them. But some additional weeks of testing might have caught those glaring errors like the default volume level.
For most hockey fans, though, this could be the only hockey they will see this winter. ESPN NHL 2K5 is as fine a choice to fill that void as anything else.