The coolest ice gets.
Okay, pop quiz. Girls are to diamonds as guys are to
A.) Crystals B.) Picnics C.) SportsCenter/ESPN
If the correct answer didn't jump off the screen and land in your lap, you must be one of those poor souls whose cave at the rear end of nowhere has been deprived of modern man's finest invention, cable television. After all, ESPN is a sporting man's best friend.
This season, Sega comes back with the ESPN license for yet another round of hard hitting, in-de-face hockey. With ESPN NHL Hockey (essentially2K4), they've trotted the Great Zamboni onto the ice and smoothed out a bunch of the bumps from last year's game. The result is a highly polished ice-capade that shines so brightly, you'll need a pair of shades to play.
As expected, the standard sports modes - Quick Game, Exhibition, Season, Playoffs, Franchise and Tournament - kick things off. The Franchise mode is much like last year's, not offering much new but still getting the job done with Fantasy Drafts, full trade and sign ability and the nice front office interface. And when those battles are won you can try your hand at the new All-Star game Skills like 1 on 1, Hardest Shot, Breakaway Relay, Accuracy Shooting, Puck Control and Fastest Skater.
There are even a few mini-games for you to check out, including the cool Mini-Rink, which lets you skate it out on a smaller rink with plenty of bounce. Pond Hockey is another fast-action mode, similar to the Mini-Rink but taking place on a frozen lake. You'll even be able to play some Air Hockey.
All of these modes would be useless if it were not for ESPN Hockey's total control package. Place shots exactly where you want them with intuitive shot control, deke your way around defenders with the deke control stick and punish your opponents with big hits. It's simple and effective and works well. The aforementioned extra challenges, such as Accuracy Shooting, will also aid you in becoming the most feared player on the ice. If only real hockey was this easy to learn.
The 2K sports games have never looked bad, and this years'NHL is no exception. Improving further upon last season's offering,ESPN Hockey shows improved player modeling and one-ups the wear and tear on the rink. Naturally, the Xbox puts on the better show of the two, but the PS2's visuals are still nothing to sneeze at.
The AI has also been improved and computer-controlled opponents do a decent job at basic strategy. The CPU finally remembers to pull the goalie in those last ditch situations. That goalie, by the way, isn't quite as ruthless as last year, which is a good thing since so many gamers complained about it. Still, there seems to be a pretty steep curve between the Rookie and Pro levels. Newbies beware.
As you play through ESPN Hockey, you'll earn challenge points for meeting certain criteria. There are three challenge levels, which are unlocked one at a time. A few of the challenges can be completed at the Rookie level, but you'll need to go Pro to gain the bulk of the points. Start off small and earn 5 points from a Big Hit or win the Conference Finals and grab 200 points. Whatever you do, just keep picking up those points.
Where do you spend 'em? Try the new Skybox, roughly the same thing as you'll find in ESPN Football. Here you can buy a collection of unlockables, which include a closet full of throwback jerseys, classic teams, mystery teams, old-style goalie masks and even a few more mini-games. It adds some extra incentive to play'as if the game needed it.
As with any sports game, ESPN Hockey is at its best when played with a friend or three. The Xbox is ready to go for four players, while the PS2 requires the Multitap for up to eight. Both versions fortunately are playable online, so you'll get a chance to take on complete strangers no matter which version you pick up.
One weakness you'll find in ESPN Hockey's armor is more of the Rock "em Sock "em robot fighting that seems to plague hockey games. It's funny to watch, but with just a few simple moves, you would think the dev boys and girls would be able to make it run a little smoother.
After all is said and done, ESPN NHL Hockey looks like another winner. The series continues to make improvements year after year to the delight of hockey fans everywhere. If they can just clean up the fighting and add some extra fire to the Franchise, we'll definitely be seeing this series' "A" game.