'Tis the only season.
News that the hockey season had been cancelled didn't hit very hard in sunny California, but in climates too icy for sports other than hockey and binge drinking, protests arose from fans and livers alike. With no NHL season, what's a hockey fan to do in 2005?
Well, if they've just dropped $250 on a new PSP, they can have their hockey season in one hand and a stiff drink in the other thanks to Sony's new Gretzky NHL. While it doesn't replace the missing season or compete with its console kin, it's not a bad start to portable skating.
The modes are fairly limited, letting you play Exhibition games or a full hockey Season. The exhibitions are easy to jump into and perfect for commercial breaks, while a season can run either 29 or 82 games. Players have the option of participating in a fantasy draft as well as making trades with other teams, but don't expect Gretzky NHL to put you in the manager's chair or present you with any tough decisions.
The options in Gretzky NHL's season mode are geared more toward letting you customize the game in any way you want. If you feel like making life hard, you can engage in a fantasy draft and then play with the pieces you pick up. Alternately, you can jump into the misnamed Pro Manager mode and swap players between teams to your heart's content. I don't mean barter or trade; you can literally place any player on any team without consequence. "Pro" Manager, indeed.
Even so, Gretzky NHL lacks any sense of offline cultivation. Where most modern sports games can practically become a hobby, you'll find little to do in Gretzky that you didn't do in the first two hours of play. If you want replay value, you're going to have to play this game online.
The Ad Hoc feature allows you to connect directly to another player's PSP, so if you and a friend work in nearby cubicles or share a study hall, you can easily jump online for a quick match any time you both feel the mood. If your friend is in a meeting or ditched detention, you can jump online and challenge other gamers around the country via the PSP's wi-fi connectivity. Nice...
...sort of. Once you're online, you'll be dumped straight into a lobby with no options other than challenging other players. You can't view any news or leaderboards, but at least you get a ranking. This is crucial, because if you were to play this game regularly for six months, your ranking is all you would have to show for it.
When you get down to playing Gretzky NHL, you'll discover a relatively straightforward hockey game with a few minor problems. Movement is easy and fluid thanks to the analog stick, although players who prefer the D-pad will be disappointed to find its buttons allocated to strategic commands. The control generally feels a little bit floaty, but hey, you're controlling guys on ice; they aren't supposed to be able to turn on a dime.
The Circle button is responsible for three kinds of shots based on how it's pressed: a tap is a snap shot, a double-tap is a wrist shot and holding it down powers up a slap shot. Dekes are very effective and well-animated, drop shots are fine, and checks can be quite satisfying, albeit tough to land. Passing can be done with the X button or using 989's icon passing system, which maps your players to different buttons and makes then accessible by holding down the L-trigger. It's more precise, but less intuitive.
While the computer will help direct your pass toward another player, everyone on the ice not actively controlled by you seems generally unaware of the puck. Teammates will skate right past the darn thing without making any effort to recover it, forcing you to toggle through players and go after it yourself. It's irritating.
The CPU will ignore a puck now and then as well, but it does a great job running plays against you and corralling your strikers against the boards. The goalies are tough as nails, requiring some pretty tricky shots. Gretzky NHL is easy to pick up and play, but hard to beat.
Gretzky NHL's visuals are a bit mixed. The action can be viewed from four camera angles of varying proximity, a couple of which are useful while still providing an up-close, attractive view. The player models animate well except when checking and the camera transitions are nice and quick. However, some of the load times are ruthless and the framerate has a tendency to drag when the screen fills up with players.
If the graphics are merely mediocre, the sound pretty much stinks. All your hear during play are announcements over the stadium PA, skating noises and some occasional organ music. Yup - no commentary at all (which might not be such a bad thing, really). During the menus you will encounter your usual terrible, angsty music with hilariously bad lyrics, but such seems to be the fate of every modern sports title.
Gretzky NHL is a decent first entry into PSP hockey, although it lacks single-player depth and has a few notable control issues. Provided you can get online, there's some good fun to be had - just don't expect it to fill the locked-out hole in your life.