NHL Rivals 2004 Review (Xbox)
When “NHL Rivals 2004” from Microsoft arrived at my “Hockeytown” address for review, I had high hopes. I love Hockey. “Rivals” coverboy Steve Yzerman is not only my favorite hockey player ever, but one of my favorite athletes in the world. I was horribly addicted to all of the other XSN Sports titles that had been released up to that point (except for “NFL Fever”). This was a match made in heaven. Let’s drop the puck!
“NHL Rivals 2004” strikes me as an arcade game that’s trying to feel like a sim. The game and shots move at a pretty fast pace, which is very true to the real NHL. However, if you try to play a smart version of puck control hockey, the game seems to be too slow. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to find the right mix to make this game feel solid. I also found that the lack of a “middle ground” showed with the difficulty levels available in NHL Rivals 2004. The differences between the beginning and intermediate levels of play seemed astronomical. Your opponents are either swiss cheese or the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s - I just never found a comfortable place in the middle.
While the modes of play are pretty basic, “Rivals” does offer XSN compatibility for league and tournament play. The game does play very smoothly online, with very few hiccups; however, I did find it very difficult to find a game. There just didn’t seem like an abundance of people playing this title.
I do want to say something positive about “NHL Rivals 2004” in this section. While the controls are pretty basic, they implemented a pretty slick face-off system that I think you will see copied in other titles. Instead of a straight timing-based system, Rivals’ makes you choose one of three different buttons to take the draw. ‘A’ goes for a “clean” face-off, ‘B’ attempts to tie up your face-off opponent by pinning his stick, while ‘X’ is the good old-fashioned body check. It’s far from perfectly implemented, but I love the idea.
When a company debuts a new franchise, some would argue that you could overlook some of the details because it is simply a first effort. I feel the exact opposite way. When you are releasing your first effort, you’re not in a strict one-year window to get everything. When EA Sports debuted “MVP Baseball” this year, they took almost three years to get it out. They didn’t rush anything. Visually, “NHL Rivals 2004” looks rushed. It almost looks like they went with a “good enough” philosophy. To me, the player models look choppy and unfinished during gameplay. They look considerably better during cut scenes and close-ups, but during gameplay animations they’re just not fluid.
The audio portion of the game is arguably the worst hockey effort to hit the next-gen consoles. I thought that the commentary from Sam Rosen and John Davidson left a lot of room for improvement. The lines of dialogue were very scripted and robotic and had a tendency to lag behind the action. Sadly, the rink sounds and crowd environment were no better. The only thing worse than seeing Steve Yzerman breakaway, get behind two defenders, deke the goalie out of his pads, only to clang it off the post; is to have the sound of the puck hitting the post sound like a mouse swinging a toothpick at a crystal bell. That combined with the complete non-factor of the crowd makes the audio in “NHL Rivals” a complete bust!
I was skeptical when Microsoft Game Studios started to release their sports titles this year, and “NFL Fever’s” painful gameplay only added to that. Then, MGS knocked five in a row out of the ballpark with “Amped 2”, “Top Spin”, “Links 2004”, “Inside Drive 2004” and “Project Gotham Racing 2” . I was back on the bandwagon. I was heaping loads of praise on the MGS team. I was ready to proclaim the first legitimate competition to EA Sports’ dominance. Then, boom! I get a 95-mile per hour puck in the face! I’ve seen far worse first efforts in sports gaming, but I’ve seen no worse hockey efforts this year. But, five for seven ain’t too bad, Microsoft!