No season? No problem.
Last year, Tampa Bay struck down the NHL with a mighty thunderbolt and snatched Lord Stanley's Cup away from Calgary's flaming grasp. But unlike the old adage, lightning can, in fact, strike twice. As evidence, I present ESPN NHL 2K5, another bolt from heaven courtesy of Sega and Visual Concepts.
For the new season, ESPN NHL 2K5 has kicked up the gameplay with a handful of new features while simultaneously dropping the price to join the rest of the outstanding ESPN 2K5 series. This news alone is cause to celebrate, especially considering the problems they're having with the real NHL. As it stands, this might be the best hockey option you'll have all year, gaming or otherwise.
NHL 2K5 gives you all the modes from past iterations with a few extras thrown in as added incentive. Stop by for a Quick Game, stay and play for the entire Season, skip the season and head straight to the Playoffs, or take on the world in an International Tournament.
All you wannabe managers will also be glad to hear that 2K5 has improved its franchise game, so much so that rookie managers will almost certainly become overwhelmed before the first puck ever drops. There are plenty of improvements here, including (but not limited to) coaching staff selections, monetary contracts and a hefty minor league division. The biggest change comes with the ability to locate new recruits. Feel like checking out some upcoming talent from around the world? Then make use of the "Live Scouting System," which lets you travel the globe to watch your prospects in action and set up drills to get a better picture of what they can and can't do. It makes the experience much more immersive than just staring at a bunch of stats and adds more depth to this hockey juggernaut.
Franchise gaming is all well and good for single player gaming, but the heart of any sports game is in the multiplayer. New for 2K5 is a Party mode, which pits you and some friends in a collection of15 mini-games. Race through obstacles in the Gauntlet, take your shots on goal in Trigger Happy or mark your territory on the ice in Turf War. Though not entirely compelling, the games are decent fun and offer a break from the more hardcore simulation gameplay that guides the rest of NHL 2K5. Not a bad distraction at all.
Another new mode is the Dream Team Challenge, in which you'll lead an NHL team against a cornucopia of fantasy teams to climb the tournament ladder. It's yet another drop in 2K5's bucket of mode madness.
Modes mean little without good action though, and luckily the core gameplay remains largely unchanged since last year. Slam players up against the boards, steal the puck with a well-placed poke check, perform line changes with the push of the D-pad or just turn on the turbo for a breakaway down the ice. It all worked well before and works well again.
Last year's Total Control package makes a return and is joined by a nice little tweak: "Intense Contact Controls." Say goodbye to the days of punch/block fighting and hello to much more satisfying fisticuffs. Rather than making players stand still and just swat at each other, 2K5 allows for some freer movement. You're able to dodge and weave in and out much more effectively than before, leading to a much better brawl.
ESPN 2K5 's A.I. continues to do a good job keeping things realistic. Computer controlled players will pin your guys up against the board, knock "em down in the middle of the rink and generally keep you from traipsing through the game like Gretzky. The learning curve is still pretty steep, but with five difficulty settings (Amateur, Rookie, Pro, All-Star & Hall of Famer), you won't have trouble finding some comfortable competition.
The visuals in 2K5 are mostly the same as last year, with clean player models, 3D crowds and ice that begins to show wear throughout the game. The Xbox version looks a little better than the PS2, but that's no shocker.
The game sounds pretty good, too. The commentary from Gary Thorne and Bill Clement isn't particularly thrilling, but as long as it gets the job done (which it does) and isn't amazingly idiotic (which it isn't), there isn't much to complain about. Xbox owners will be pleased to discover that 2K5 allows for customized soundtracks, in case the standard rock tracks aren't your bag.
ESPN's skybox also makes an appearance with a ton of unlockables and mini-games to explore. Just like the previous games, 2K5 awards players with challenge tokens for achieving certain goals. When you've picked up the requisite number of tokens, you can spend them on a seemingly countless number of classic teams, old-school jerseys and offbeat arenas.
When you combine the depth of gameplay, breadth of modes and quality of delivery with the salary-cap friendly $19.99 price tag, it's easy to see how ESPN NHL 2K5 stays on top of its division. If there was ever a time that hockey fans needed a good game, that time is now, and that game is this one.