The coolest ice gets.
Okay, pop quiz. Girls are to diamonds as guys are to
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.
season, Sega comes back with the ESPN license for yet another round of hard
hitting, in-de-face hockey. With ESPN NHL Hockey (essentially
2K4), 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.
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
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.