Ice to see you.
The temperature outside is dropping, the days are getting shorter and Fall is in the air. That means it's hockey season, which also means that the annual battle of the hockey video games is at hand. We recently checked out the awesome ESPN NHL Hockey, and now get a glimpse at the old workhorse from EA in NHL 2004.
The game returns to all three consoles following a mediocre 2003 season, and the new year brings with it a new line of features and improvements. Is it enough to hip-check the stiff competition? Let's hit the ice and find out.
Like other recent EA Sports games, the modes are plentiful and handled well. In addition to staples like Exhibition, Season, Playoffs and Tournament modes, NHL 2004 features a hefty, revamped Dynasty mode for those who dream of running their own team. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is not only to win the Stanley Cup, but to make it to the GM Hall of Fame by successfully managing a team over the course of 20 years.
Just about every aspect of GMing is covered. You'll need to draft your players, schedule practices and even deal with the financial aspects of running a team. You'll have to manage your star players and work on getting the best TV contract possible. All you GM wannabes will love this mode, and hats off to EA for giving hockey the same kind of treatment they routinely give to Madden. With so many options to tweak and depth to consider, Dynasty mode is what separates NHL 2004 from the competition.
Another nice new touch is My NHL, which allows you to customize a team with your own created players and special jerseys. Set up your very own Dream team and take them through any of the game's modes all the way to the Stanley Cup.
Controlling your boys is pretty easy thanks to EA's improved "Total Control" scheme. As always, basic control can be picked up in a heartbeat, with the advanced game containing the keys to greater success. It's not quite as smooth as the control in ESPN NHL, but saucer passes, manual dekes and a few well placed Big Hits will give you more than enough ways to handle the job. Right analog-stick puck control is here as an extra option, though it's not as useful as it sounds.
Learning how to play is made easier through a series of training videos as well as strategies hosted by Canucks head coach Marc Crawford. From Powerplays to Penalty Killing, EA hooks you up with many of the tools you'll need to put your opponents down. It's just too bad they couldn't get Devils' coach Pat Burns. He obviously knew how to win last season.
While the game handles nicely, it doesn't escape without a few bruises and black eyes. For starters, both the audio and visuals haven't changed much since last season. The commentary is still as dry as ever, almost to the point of being a carbon copy of the old tracks, while no noticeable improvement has been granted to the visuals.
NHL 2004's multiplayer game is adequate, but EA's weird PS2 online exclusive deal thingie rears its head yet again. Xbox and Gamecube owners have been left out in the cold while the PS2 version supports online play, complete with tournaments and leagues.
NHL 2004 also has a few unlockables, but nothing like what you'll find in ESPN. The obligatory Big Head mode along with Chipmunk commentary and some Dynasty mode upgrade points are about all you'll find.
I take special interest in hockey game fighting, and why not? Fighting and hockey go together like Coors and twins. Usually, this part of the review is an exercise in disappointment with at least one reference to a particular beloved childhood game, but this time it's different. Rather than herky-jerky, biff-baff punches, we get a much better looking slugfest that just feels a lot more realistic. You mainly just throw high and low punches along with the occasional block, but it's still the best fighting I've seen since, well, this.
NHL 2004 does a fantastic job for the hardcore hockey fan with endless hours of play in Dynasty mode, but it can't quite match the competition when it comes to delivery and mechanics. The lack of online play for Xbox owners once again makes me want to holler at EA for their irritating deal with Sony, but despite its small faults, NHL 2004 is still one hell of a hockey game.