ESPN NHL 2K5 Review (Xbox)

At the time that I am writing this review, the chances of us seeing an NHL season in 2004 appear to be about as thin as Mark Messier’s hair. With no love lost between the Owners and the NHLPA, a lockout is looming with no bright spot on the horizon. So how do the hockeynuts and puck-heads in the world quench their thirst for the “Coolest Game on Earth?” Sega/VC and Kush Games take the frozen floor again with their version of the NHL with "ESPN NHL 2K5". With a $19.99 price tag and growing momentum in the console gaming war, Sega/VC are ready to take another swipe at the competition’s market share with this year’s hockey offering. They’re breaking in on goal…they deke…they shoot….

There’s an old adage that says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, the talented team at Kush Games took it a step further by saying, “If I don’t have to fix it, I’ll just improve it.” And that’s what they did! Ok, ok, it’s not fair to say that 2K4 was without flaws. Last year’s version had goalies that played like the love-child of Patrick Roy and Manon Rheaume with Terry Sawchuck as their Godfather. Super Goalies, Uber-Goalies, whatever your forum of choice chose to call them are gone from this year’s release. That’s not to say that the goalies are swiss cheese. Depending on the difficulty level, I found you can find a healthy dose of goals (Pro and below) or goalies that stand on their heads (All-Star and up) depending on the style you prefer. While I personally subscribe to the “default settings are the way the Developer intended you to play it” philosophy, especially when writing reviews. You certainly have room to adjust sliders to your liking, although I personally am happy with no adjustments.

So what’s new in 2K5 to make it more than just a roster update and a goalie AI adjustment? Well, the two new additions that really pushed this title over the top for me are the “Full Stick Control” on defense and a little something they’re calling “Intense Contact Control.” I loved what Kush Games has done this year on defense. While the saying, “Defense Wins Championships” isn’t always attached to the up and down style in the NHL, the bottom line is you can’t score if you can’t shoot. Now players are rewarded for taking a team with gifted defensemen. As the opposing team starts the rush down ice, you take control of your best D-man and prepare to break up the play. Holding the Left Trigger, you can now use the Right Thumbstick to sweep your stick from side-to-side in an attempt to jar the puck loose from the onrushing attackers. Make that clutch poke check and start the break the other way. Brilliant use of the controls and a very effective technique that, takes some mastering, but is well worth the time.

“Intense Contact Control” really applies to two areas of gameplay. During standard defensive gameplay, the Right Thumbstick, when not used in conjunction with the L Trigger, now performs a high impact, yet very often a referee’s attention grabbing maneuver. It may be a hook, a grab, or something just short of a smack to the back of the melon. While it doesn’t always draw two minutes, very often you’ll find yourself on the way to the “sin bin” with the other team’s aggression up, but an effective statement made.

The other area that falls into the “ICC” title is the new fighting engine. While still a little clumsy, it’s a far more free-flowing version that allows you to circle with your opponent to gain the right angle for attack. Win a fight and your team gets unlimited speed burst for a limited amount of time. My only two complaints with the new system are that too many non-fighters are fighting. It’s not uncommon to see a squabble between Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman. And, second, that there is no option to choose not to drop the gloves in order to avoid the five minute major. I can’t afford to lose Nick Lidstrom late in the third period of a tight game just because the aggression meter is up. There’s something to work on for 2K6.

The game modes themselves are a nice mix of old and new. Franchise mode, the staple in any modern sports title, has received a facelift to help mirror the real game more than it has in year’s past. Like the baseball title for ESPN, the first thing you have to do when firing up a new franchise is hire a staff. Head Coach, Scout, Minor League Coach, even Goalie Coach are in there. They all have their own attributes and pricetag. Be smart about how you staff your team, especially if you’re planning on taking your franchise out across multiple seasons. By the way, you heard right, the year of the points based contracts are gone. We’re dealing in real dollars and cents this year. They’ve actually borrow a lot of the great financial/contract enhancements that we saw in the ESPN NFL 2K5, next year I hope they borrow the “Player Interest Meter” as well. You know how moody those Slovakians can be!

The rest of franchise mode stays pretty true to the standard formula that VC has had success with. It uses the email system as a navigation tool. Screens and menus are pretty intuitive overall. I could use a little more flash and ESPN style presentation on the off ice aspects of the game. How about an NHL 2Night segment? How about a virtual Barry Melrose? Maybe it’s too tough to digitize a mullet.

Perhaps the biggest surprise out of the box was the addition of the new Party Mode. While “Mario Party” probably isn’t likely to miss any sleep, this little mode has been an unexpected treat, especially for those who play with a group of friends or family. Some friends and I broke this mode out at an NFL Fantasy Football Draft Party and had a blast! There are 15 different challenges in all. Some as simple as four skaters fighting for one puck in an attempt to score the most goals to a really unique version of musical chairs where skaters battle it out to not be the last player back to a safe zone. It’s worth a look. It’s pick-up and play controls allowed me to even share some laughs with my wife, a noted non-fan of the sports game, and my young daughters who enjoyed the colors and fast paced fun.

Also added, but not nearly as enjoyable, is the Dream Team Mode. Thankfully, Carmen Electra is not calling me on this title, but I didn’t get much more out of this mode. It’s a ladder style gauntlet of celebrity and NHL player chosen teams that you have to play and defeat to make your way to the top. Not a bad concept overall, but most of the teams are full of stud players that gives the feeling of playing against all-star team after all-star team, just with different jerseys. I applaud the thought, but the mode is collecting virtual cobwebs.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the return of The Skybox. Still just a glorified menu system for unlockables and statistics (but with an air hockey table), The Skybox is a nice little visual distraction, but pales in comparison to NFL’s The Crib. But, hey, you need a place to store your Stanley Cup, right?

Gameplay is the bread and butter to sports gaming. Last year’s version had some really tasty bread and a nice amount of creamy warm butter. "ESPN NHL 2K5" came along and lightly toasted the bread, added a little jam to the top, and made a good thing even better. You’ll easily find 50+ dollars worth of gameplay in a $20 package. That’s a whole loaf of bread and a whole lot of butter.

As is the case in some other sports titles, I really found a mixed bag of good and bad in the visuals in "ESPN NHL 2K5". Let me start by saying, if you were happy with the look of 2K4, you will not be disappointed with this year’s version. For the most part, they kept the basic graphics intact this year and added some solid cut scenes, smooth animations, and some detail to the player’s jerseys and helmets that will satisfy most fans.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few graphical issues that bothered me. First off, the player models suffer from what I like to call “LHBB Syndrome.” LHBB is Little Head, Big Body. I understand that the player’s bodies are given the appearance of wearing pads, but they took it too far. The heads look like those voodoo shrunken heads that you get at the magic shop in relation to the bodies. OK, it’s not that extreme, but there are most definitely some issues with proportion.

I was also disappointed with the player’s faces. Maybe they spent less time on this area because hockey players tend to be less known than football players, but it appeared to me that more time was spent on the crowd faces during cut scenes than on the player’s themselves. In fact, just looking at one team, the only member of the Detroit Red Wings that looked remotely like his player model was Captain and NHL Legend Steve Yzerman. I understand not spending a ton of time and budget on faces for all NHL players, but I found simply way too many generic faces on each team.

When you put the good and bad on the scale, I think the good wins out. But, when it’s clear that not a ton improvements were needed or made on a title, I can’t help but point out the things that were left undone. Let’s hope 2K6 makes these strides. Oh, and before I wrap up graphics, get rid of the shattered glass. It’s cool when it happens once or twice a season in the NHL. I got it twice on the same power play in 2K5. That’s a problem.

Moving six inches backwards from the eyes the ears, the sounds in "ESPN NHL 2K5" continue to be nothing short of top shelf (hockey joke!). ESPN’s Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return this year and once again combine on the best commentary in the sports gaming world. Of course I have to put in the standard disclaimer. Is it perfect? No. Will you hear repeat phrases? Yes. However, I still feel it’s the best thing going. The in-game effects are solid overall as well. Though they lay claim to using the same ESPN Game Sound that is in NFL 2K5, it us not used nearly to same extent. And while some argue that the NFL franchise over does it with their game sounds, I think the NHL effort does it well. It’s a nice blend of on-ice sounds, commentary, and arena atmosphere. And speaking of that, once again the Xbox’s Custom Soundtrack feature comes in handy with the ability to customize the track list in your arena and attach them to specific events. While the situations themselves are not as complete as those available in NFL 2K5, the available ability to assign music by arena is a must in all-future Xbox sports titles!

With 2004 clearly being the year of the online sports title, "ESPN NHL 2K5" is keeping up with its football brother by adding a robust set of Xbox Live functionality to hit the ice with. First and foremost, the team at ESPN Video Games will support a full league system, complete with living rosters (trades, injuries, etc), stat tracking, and game logs. League websites will share the same look and feel borrowed from ESPN.COM that we’ve come to know on Sega’s NFL title.

In addition to the league functionality, all of the Party Games will be available online, as well as standard Exhibition match ups, skills competitions and the highly addictive mini-rink games. After about 25 games online in various modes, I would have to say that the game performs very well online, with clean framerates and minimal lag. While there have been what appear to be server issues that have caused hiccups during the early days after release, much like NFL 2K5, they have been cleaned up quickly and show up very rarely.

There is a very good chance that video hockey will be the only hockey available to fans this season. That combined with the $20 price tag should make this a no-brainer for hockey fans and sports geeks. But, that doesn’t have to be the reason. This is a visually appealing, nice sounding, smooth-playing version of the NHL. It has just enough simulation mixed with just the right dash of arcade to make it the best hockey effort we’ve seen on the Next Gen consoles. Hockey is fast, but strategic. Brutal one moment, and almost like a ballet the next. "ESPN NHL 2K5" captures the nuances that make hockey the “Coolest Game on Earth.” Kush Games and Visual Concepts score big with this title. It’s bittersweet though. This game makes me miss the NHL a little bit more AND a little bit less at the same time.

ESPN NHL 2K5 Score
out of 10