Reviewed: November 8, 2003
Reviewed by: Travis Young
Released: September 9, 2003
It’s times like these I really enjoy my chosen hobby of gaming and it gets even better when I get to stand on the mountain and shout the praises of SEGA and Kush Games for delivering the best damn hockey game ever created for a console. Of course I am talking about ESPN NHL Hockey.
Sega has been delivering great sports titles since the days of the Dreamcast. Once they decided to drop the hardware and concentrate on multi-platform software development things have only gotten better. This year they’ve added the ESPN brand name to their sports titles, but rather than relying on those four magic letters to sell the game they have actually infused the game with the very essence of ESPN, the presentation, the style, the music, the commentary. No other sports title has ever achieved this level of authenticity; both in the re-creation of the actual sport and the way millions of fans view it.
I could dazzle you with a bulleted list of features, but suffice to say that just about every aspect of this game has been enhanced and improved upon from last year’s efforts (which weren’t too shabby to begin with). Graphics and sound are vastly improved and the entire presentation has been given the ESPN treatment with menus, display screens, and visual overlays that can (and will) fool the casual observer into thinking you are watching an actual ESPN broadcast.
To enhance the game experience there are some innovative features like the Skybox, a special area in the game that lets you hang out between games, sort of like your own virtual clubhouse where you can view records, manage your unlocked bonus goodies, and even engage in a friendly match of Air Hockey. There is a Trophy Room and a special viewing “chapel” for the coveted Stanley Cup. (insert angelic choir music here)
ESPN Hockey offers several game modes starting with a clever Challenge mode that presents you with various “challenges” during normal gameplay. Completing these challenges earns you points that you can spend on various items like jerseys, new teams, and vintage gear.
NHL Hockey offers all the traditional game modes that we’ve come to expect from the annual sports re-release but this year there are a couple new additions that break new ground and will certainly become a staple in future sports titles. The Skills challenge are a set of mini-games if you will, that serve as both a tutorial and a great way to hone your skills in skating, shooting, and just about every aspect of the sport. The great thing is that you really don’t realize you are learning until you get back into the game and find your skills have immensely improved.
Also added to the mix are a nice selection of Mini-Games that range from Mini Rink and Shootout to the unlockable Pond Hockey and Super Speed. All of these are great fun for single or multiplayer matches.
The core of NHL Hockey is the Franchise mode but it just doesn’t get as complex as it should, at least when compared to the other hockey games out there. The game seems to be targeted more toward the “playing” rather than the “managing” aspects, the draft system is a bit weak and the CPU doesn’t quite grasp the intricacies of free agents or making smart trades. Even so, you can tweak the Franchise system with difficulty sliders and the Fantasy Draft is always a welcome addition.
With all of the fantastic game modes waiting for the aspiring ice jockey Kush has gone the extra mile to tweak and improve the rest of the gameplay. While last year’s effort was amazing, this year’s gameplay is about as close to perfection as you can get. Any lingering issues have been addressed, control has never been smoother, and you won’t believe the precision or level of configuration this game has to offer.
You can choose from several presets and levels of complexity but what surprised me most was the Advanced setting, while obviously “advanced” offers the most comprehensive set of movement and play controls while keeping everything perfectly intuitive. Anyone who learns the game in this mode will never settle for anything less.
The opponent AI has been enhanced to the point where you will swear you are playing a human. Sure, you can dumb down the difficulty and walk all over the game but if you seek a realistic challenge then NHL Hockey is ready to deliver. You will need to work all of the ice and use your entire team in a group effort to effectively move the puck and get it in the net.
AI has been tweaked for both the offense and the defense, which translates into tougher (but realistic) goalies that will have you strategizing to setup that perfect shot. While other hockey games all center around scoring, NHL Hockey makes every aspect of the sport fun. You’ll achieve the same level of satisfaction making that rebound, winning the face-off, or taking control of a wild puck.
The only hockey game that looks better than ESPN NHL Hockey on the PS2 is NHL Hockey on the Xbox and only by the slightest of margins in the subtlest of details. The ice is the star of the show and offers a smooth reflective surface when the game starts. As the game progresses and the ice gets scuffed and as that thin layer of ice-dust coats the surface the reflections will diminish.
The stadiums that house the ice look equally as fantastic with the Jumbotron hanging above center ice and some of the best looking spectators protected by some of the best looking Plexiglas that creates just the right amount of distortion. Even though all of this is superfluous eye candy it all helps to create the ultimate hockey experience.
Players look fantastic, created from some of the best human models ever seen in a sports video game. Every last detail from their uniforms and protective gear down to their photo realistic faces will have you convinced you are watching the real game on ESPN. But it ain’t over yet. Just wait until you see these guys in motion. The animation is truly breathtaking, fluid, and flawless, composed of several individual segments then chained together in seamless perfection.
I’ve already mentioned the ESPN flair imparted into this title. It begins with the menu system and carries over into the informational displays, player profiles, scoring overlays, television camera angles, and all the fun, high-tech fades and wipes ESPN veterans are used to. The gameplay cameras are just as good with several options to choose from that dictate both angle and fixed zoom level.
When you’ve been playing sports games for the past ten years like me you get kind of jaded, so when a game comes along that sounds as amazing as NHL Hockey it almost sends a shiver down my spine.
When I say it’s “amazing” I not only mean the quality, but also the content beginning with the broadcast booth staffed by ESPN veterans, Gary Thorne and Bill Clement. Just having these guys doing the voices lends an incredible amount of credibility to the project but what blew me away was the level of accuracy maintained throughout the entire game. These guys fire off the comments in pace with the action then they will make insightful comments on the entire play as it is shown in the instant replays. You’d swear these guys are sitting on the couch with you.
There is a lot of original commentary as well, mainly player and team specific comments which is a double-edged sword. While it gives you a refreshingly original commentary track the first few times you play the game, sooner or later you are going to hear the same comments over again.
The atmosphere is reproduced to perfection with amazing crowd sounds that exist on multiple levels. Cheers and boos reflect the ref calls and action on the ice relative to the teams and who is playing at home. Other subtleties will astound you like when the crowd starts chanting a player’s name that just made a great play.
Music is a mix of signature ESPN theme music combined with a modest selection of licensed tracks that play in short clips during the game. These are played over the PA system just like the real game and add that much more authenticity.
If you love hockey then you have come to the right place. ESPN NHL Hockey is going to give you virtually endless replay, not only with the core game modes but the new Skill and Mini-Game modes. The point reward system will have you striving to earn those points so you can go shopping for all that bonus material that is more about bragging rights than anything else.
NHL Hockey also comes with a very strong online component. While I almost always prefer the structured community of Xbox Live over the P2P setup of the PS2 I had no trouble hooking up with other hockey players online. The network code is highly optimized and there was seldom any noticeable lag or other issues while playing online with a cable modem. You can even use a USB headset to enhance your online experience.
The PS2 version also supports the multitap, so you can setup some impressive multiplayer games consisting of 4-on-4 offline or how about 16-player matches online. That even beats out the Xbox’s limitation of eight players using a link cable or Xbox Live.
SEGA and Kush Games have taken the sport of hockey to the next level. ESPN NHL Hockey is a near-flawless gameplay experience that is marred only by a slightly deficient Franchise mode, but when you have a game that exudes this much quality in just about every other facet I’m more than happy to overlook it. Besides, what would they have to fix for next year’s inevitable sequel?
Needless to say, if you aren’t already on your way to the store to pick up this outstanding game what are you waiting for? It doesn’t get any better than this.