Put it on ice.
I'll dispense with the pretense and come right and say it: there is no NHL season this year, and that sucks. The pain, sadness and frustration of a whole year off ice is evident in the eyes of every cold-blooded hockey fan.
But cheer up, because there's definitely a cure for the lockout blues – video games. And right on cue, EA is back with NHL 2005. Is it worth your top dollar? Well, yes and no. While NHL 2005 certainly makes some improvements from last season and is by and large a solid game, it's not much more.
The gameplay has taken a turn for the better with some noticeable changes to the offensive game. You'll still find the quick, almost arcade style of play that was found in previous games, but a handful of control upgrades have added some strategy. In a nod to EA's own NBA Live series, NHL 2005 lets you take shots on goal with two different buttons, one for wrist shots and another for slap shots. This makes it easier to put the puck right where you want it, be it a rocket from the blue line or a flick in the middle of traffic. Also helpful is the wraparound shot, which will take you to the net as you cruise past. It's much smoother than past games and the play flows a little more like it should. The saucer pass button from last season has been eliminated, but you really won't miss it that much.
Another interesting control change is the ability to switch to an offensive player who doesn't have control of the puck. As part of the Open Ice Control package, this allows you to set up picks and one-timers from an outside perspective. Of course, you could still ignore it completely and keep the puck to yourself the whole time, which is usually a better idea. Defensively, Open Ice Control allows you to call for a double team. Just remember to use it wisely, since one more guy attacking the puck means one less guy patrolling the ice.
While the control tweaks get props, the defensive A.I. has been cranked up a shade too much. It seems like every trip towards the net involves some sort of check just past the blue line, effectively breaking up the offensive flow and in turn stifling the action. This stiff defensive line also means that you won't find too many breakaway opportunities, so you'll have to come up with a good strike plan in order to get a clean shot on goal. Beating the defense is a far from an impossible task, but it just feels like the balance is a little off when the CPU performs so well even at the lower difficulty levels.
The game's basic modes make a return and are joined by a few newbies. In honor of this year's World Cup, the aptly named World Cup mode lets you to take on the world's best teams. Another new mode called Free4All provides an every-man-for-himself, arcade version of hockey. Unfortunately, this one suffers in comparison to the arcade mode found in ESPN NHL 2K5. Seeing as how that game is not out for the Gamecube, though, it's not as big of a deal.
Besides, the hardcore rink geeks will spend most of their time in Dynasty mode, in which armchair GMs can run through ten seasons of franchise construction. One interesting change to this year's game is the "owner objective." You get this at the beginning of each season, and as we've already seen this year, not all owners have the same bottom line. Profit is a major deciding factor, perhaps even more so than winning, and depending on what your owner wants, as the GM you'll have to deliver. It's an interesting take on the symbiotic relationship between owners, GMs and players.
The ability to spend cash to upgrade your team as the season progresses is here again, offering all kinds of enhancements to give your team an edge. Morale plays a significant factor; you'll need to do your best to keep the core of your team happy. Perform poorly and attributes along with morale will take a dive.
Also new is an e-mail system to keep you abreast of your team's performance and events around the league. As exciting as it sounds, it's no big deal, really only something you'll need to remember to check regularly for important news. Overall, the GM experience from has improved since last year, but not by much.
Graphically, NHL 2005 more than holds it own. From the team-specific intros to the accurate player faces and great animations, NHL 2005 is clean and pretty. I'd love to see some damage modeling to showcase the bumps and bruises you'll inevitably accumulate along the way, but otherwise, the game has few visual shortcomings.
The music is mostly pop/rock, which is great if you're into the genre and pretty harmless otherwise. The same commentary team from last year, Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson, is back with more dull, uninspired play-by-play. I have no idea why these guys keep getting the call; maybe they managed to get some early termination penalties into their original contracts. Smart move.
NHL 2005 also falls flat in its paltry extras. Beyond the new modes, there isn't much here to keep your interest. No huge list of unlockables or treasure chest of mini-games anywhere.
NHL 2005's arcade tendencies separate it from other simulation style games and the control tweaks do well to enhance what is definitely a solid game. Since the better ESPN series is not out for the Gamecube, NHL 2005 is really the only choice for owners of the purple box.