Reviewed: December 6, 2003
Released: November 20, 2003
Yet another entry into the burgeoning sports market this season, NHL Rivals 2004 is Microsoft’s debut attempt at rounding out their XSN sports empire with a hockey franchise. If we were to put on some blinders and ignore the rest of the competing hockey games this winter Rivals would be a great game, but in the face of some extremely stiff competition from ESPN NHL Hockey and even Midway’s NHL Hitz Pro, Rivals slips down a few pegs from greatness to simply good.
For an introductory effort Rivals delivers a fully comprehensive hockey package with all of the multiple game modes, control features, real-time coaching, insightful commentary, and a soundtrack that will delight anyone who grew up in the 80’s. Combined with some Xbox Live support for content download and XSN support, you won’t be wanting for content, maybe just some more polished gameplay.
Rather than attempt to “reinvent the wheel” NHL Rivals 2004 plays much like all your other hockey choices this year creating a playing field as smooth and even as the ice you are skating on. The pacing and accuracy seems to fall somewhere in the middle of ESPN and Midway’s offerings delivering a comfortable, but somewhat average mix of arcade and simulation that never truly achieves either.
Controls are solid and conventional with wrist shots, one-timers, and quick passing with the right stick, but there are some disturbing issues with dekes and face-offs that are serious enough to bring the gameplay score down an entire notch. Many of the controls seem automatic or at least don’t offer you enough interaction to make you feel you are actually in control of the game in real-time. Rather, your inputs seem to trigger a preset move that you watch unfold before you.
The face-off system is problematic at best having you hit the A, B, or X button to hit the puck, tie up the other player’s stick or do a body block. Your success at winning isn’t so much about timing or execution rather than picking the play that wins over their chosen move.
Dekes are equally as primitive with no create-a-deke feature (something the competition does offer) and there are only less than a half-dozen dekes you can perform based on the timing of the B button and the speed you are moving when you tap it. Also tied to your skating speed is the power of your slapshot and position on the ice.
One nice feature is the pivot control that lets you spin 180-degrees with a quick press of the trigger. Skating backwards is a great defensive posture for checking the guy with the puck but don’t look to be backhanding any goals with any regularity. Still, it’s a great way to move the puck down the ice and keep the opposing team confused. Another great feature is the pop-up coaching interface that allows you to change your team strategy on the fly without pausing the game or wading through complex menus.
The player AI is surprisingly good and modeled on behaviors and playing trends of the athletes performing the moves. Don’t be surprised to see your favorite players acting and playing just like they would in a real NHL game. Knowing their real-life playing style can help you to analyze your game strategy and develop tactics.
NHL Rivals 2004 is deceptively clever in that it gives you all the modes, content, and appearance of great gameplay but true hockey fans will see through the smoke and mirrors. It’s a great spectacle to watch but there is little substance or effort required to achieve it. You have your traditional Single Game, Season, Tournament, and Playoff mode plus the exciting Instant Rivalry that drops you into a game between any of several famous NHL opposing teams.
Xbox Live and System Link options offer plenty of additional and highly customizable gameplay. You can play friendly pick-up games with up to six players in non-threatening locales like a snowy pond landscape or generic indoor ice rink, or play in ranked games to boost your global position on the XSN charts. Diehard players will certainly want to explore the online tournaments and with the ability to connect up to six Xboxes and host ten players, the potential for human interaction is massive.
NHL Rivals 2004 is one of those games that look fantastic from a distance - just look at the first screenshot, which looks like it was captured off an ESPN broadcast. This is fine since that is usually the preferred camera view to play from. After all, if you get too close to the ice you loose sight of your team members and strategy goes right out the window. Usually, developers use this to their advantage and skimp on the up-close visuals - not so in Rivals.
Zooming in for replays and the up-close face-offs and occasional fights, the players are all highly detailed with realistic jerseys and recognizable facial features. There is plenty of polish with reflections, lens flares, and the best 3D crowd you could ever want in a game, but there is also a lack of realistic lighting or shadows. The outdoor pond hockey is breathtaking and captures all the raw appeal of the sport.
Oddly enough, it seems for every nice graphical feature there is something to detract from it. Animations are very rough at times with a disturbing lack of transitional frames between moves or automated sequences. This makes many of the players “pop” from one position to the next. The camera manages to keep up with the action and there are no framerate issues to report.
The scores and other informational displays like player info and stats are all presented with typical broadcast flair as our pre and post game camera angles. HDTV support puts a nice polish on the product but in the end the good cancels the bad and you are left with a nice, but not great, visual presentation.
I seldom consider music to be a huge factor in a sports title. Commentary and crowd noise are all I need when I play any of these games, but when Microsoft tosses in some of the best hits of the century I have to take notice. With groups like Sammy Hagar, Boston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Survivor, Journey, Styx, and Pat Benetar, just to name a few, appearing on this game (and the official soundtrack CD) you’ll probably never even need to worry about the custom soundtrack feature.
Commentary is surprisingly insightful with analytical play-by-play from Sam Rosen and John Davidson in the booth and Dick Fain providing intermittent coverage from the ice. Hockey is a very fast game and the commentary seems to lag from time to time and Dick is “master of the obvious” most of the time. The interactive crowd manages to stay on top of the action much better than the broadcast booth.
Sound effects like skates scraping on ice, the slap of a puck, the cheers of the crowd, are all presented in wonderful 5.1 Dolby Digital surround, putting you right inside your favorite arenas and right down on the ice. Rivals definitely sounds as good as it looks, maybe even a bit better.
As with any sports game you have all the inherent value of the genre with plenty of modes and lengthy season and tournament gameplay. Taking the game online is certainly the next level and opens this game up for infinite potential assuming you can come to grips with the core gameplay.
Arriving last on the scene, chances are most hockey players have already played one of the other possible hockey offerings this year and you won’t have much incentive to partake of Rivals 2004. If you are a loyal Microsoft zealot or just want to round out that collection of XSN games this season then definitely grab a copy. It’s not the best there is but it still has plenty of solid gameplay available for those that want to stick with it.
Everything is here for great hockey; it just lacks the flair or polish of the competition, but in all fairness, this is a debut effort as opposed to the other games that have been around for years. Even features that Rivals boasts about are expected staples in those other games, and multiplayer gaming is only as good as the single-player game that backs it up.
As with any new product you have to expect a few areas in need of improvement and I am confident that NHL Rivals 2005 will be one to watch for next year.