Gretzky NHL Review (PSP)
While the real NHL remains in a holding pattern, the virtual NHL continues to drop the puck on consoles everywhere. Sony's new PSP has shown a strong commitment to sports gaming in its launch lineup, and Gretzky NHL is its hockey entry. The PS2 version got an excellent score from Operation Sports; will its little brother be as successful?
First things first: this is not "sim" hockey. It's a fast-paced game that seems a better successor to the EA NHL games of the early nineties than the check-fests that EA itself has produced in recent years. It's a slick revision of those 16-bit classics, and is a far cry from the simulation play you'd see in something like ESPN NHL. In fact, it plays a bit like the NHL did in Gretzky's heyday: fast, open, slightly higher scoring, and generally a more offensive oriented game.
The game is very fast, and the CPU is aggressive. While there are default strategy settings for each team, it doesn't make much difference when you hit the ice, as each team plays an up-and-down game of fast breaks and quick shots. When you do see puck "cycling", it feels very fast as the puck flies from player to play like a "Princeton" basketball offense on ice. CPU-controlled defenders, both yours and those of the CPU team, are overaggressive. They'll often end up too deep in the offensive zone, leading to frequent breakaways for both teams.
The pace keeps up throughout the game. You'll get to the face-off circle quickly after infractions, the cut-scenes are minimal, and there are not a lot of open-ice hits, so you'll spend the majority of the time skating, passing, and shooting. Fighting plays a minor role in the game. If a situation presents itself, a small icon will pop up, offering you the chance to fight. Press down on the directional pad, and you'll drop the gloves. There's no real bonus for winning the fight, and the interface is like a hockey version of "Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots", so there's no real appeal to fighting. I actually quite like the way it's handled - I can go out of my way to fight, or I can ignore it and let the game play without interruption.
For all the wide-open game play, scoring is still at a premium. While you’ll see more goals, all that means is more games that are 3-2 instead of 1-0. The goalies react well, and you’ll need to try a variety of techniques to score. One-timers can be effective, but certainly aren’t a sure goal. If you are choosing to manually aim your shots, you’ll actually get a target that shows in the goal when you hit the shot button. You can move this target a bit to try and get it past the goalie, and it’s something I appreciate. With the small screen and smaller analog stick, a little assistance on the manual aiming is helpful.
There are definitely some collision detection issues. You'll often skate by a puck, expecting to take possession, only to have it float past. It'll float through entire groups of players who either don't react, or will be somehow unable to get their stick on the frozen biscuit. On face-offs, you'll sometimes see both players completely miss the puck multiple times.
Another thing to be wary of is the game's lengthy load times. Even when skipping the opening movies, you’re looking at over a minute and a half from booting the game to the main menu, and almost another minute to get into a game. Ouch.
There's not a lot here: "Exhibition" and "Season" round out your offline choices. Within the "Exhibition" is a nice little feature for gaming on the go: the "Quality Matchup". If you want to drop the puck quickly, you can choose a team, and then use the "Quality Matchup” to find a team of equal skill level. If you have selected the Devils, for example, you'll face another top team. This way you can get a somewhat random matchup, without having to cycle through all the teams that wouldn't be a fair contest.
One of the features of the game is the "Gretzky Challenge", where you'll accumulate points for reaching certain game play goals. These points then can be spent on alternate and historic uniforms, "cheats", and even versions of "the Great One" himself from throughout his career. It adds a bit of addictive fun to rack up the points, but it deflates quickly as you can only accomplish each goal once. You'll unlock a slew of items in your first few games, but since you can't ever achieve those goals again on any difficulty level, the incentive quickly disappears.
Roster management is better than expected. Outside of the "Season Mode", you can edit the base rosters in the "Pro Manager", and these roster files can be exchanged with other users through the PSP’s USB capabilities. Players cannot be edited or created, but besides those limitations, you can edit captaincy, lines and even send players up and down through the minors. Though the minor league teams aren't playable, they are licensed (including the players) and available for roster purposes, as you can hide up to 18 players on your farm team.
Unlike 989's NBA effort, Gretzky NHL sports a reasonably complete "Season Mode". There is a basic trade AI when you offer deals to the CPU that will prevent you from blatantly ripping them off, and they will pepper you with trade offers throughout the season. Some of what you'll get offered is unbalanced for one team or the other, but it seems to be mainly based on positional need. The CPU won't part with its stars easily, and when you look over the other trades in the league, they seem balanced and mainly deal with role players changing locales. Trades can include up to four players per side, and can be uneven.
The major flaw in the season mode is Free Agency. Due to the lockout, NHL rosters got caught in flux. Many teams’ rosters are not completely filled, and many star players have yet to find a new home. You'll find former All-Stars like Paul Kariya and Pavel Bure in the pool of free agents, and the CPU won't make a move for them. Since there's no financial model of any sort in Season Mode, it's easy enough to buy yourself a line or two worth of highly rated players. The CPU won't compete for them, the players can't say no, and there's room enough on the roster for them due to the minor leagues.
The simulated season stats reflect the game's wide-open style of play. While the numbers you'll see aren't off the charts, they definitely reflect the NHL that Gretzky spent his career in, with scoring elevated a bit over what you would see today.
The graphics are great, with detailed players, and even ice spray. The animations are excellent, and don't ever feel repetitive. The ice isn't as detailed as it is in many games of this generation, nor does it degrade. It's passable, but not much more. The camera isn’t adjustable, but there are four presets that range from a tight close-up on the player you control to an overhead view that’s best described as being “great for old-schoolers”. Sounds are good, even without full commentary, and provide the feel of being on the ice. The PA announcer sounds great, and even introduces the three stars after the game.
Online is pretty bare bone: when you hit “Online” you need to agree to the Terms sf Service, then are dumped right into the single existing lobby for exhibition play. After each game, you're kicked back out to the main menu, and need to reconnect if you want to play again It does the job, but feels pretty abrupt after the full-featured online offerings 989 puts in it's PS2 editions. It can be difficult to get a match going, as there are a number of disconnects. Online play itself is a bit slow and laggy - it's not necessarily a bad thing, as the game plays a bit better at that speed, allowing for more strategy and decision. It stays consistent and fluid for the most part; just at a noticeably slower pace than you’ll get offline.
Part of the description for a score of 3/5 at OS is "Fans of the sport/series will likely enjoy it, but others may wish to rent before buying", but it's almost the opposite here.
Hardcore hockey fans looking for a simulation experience may be disappointed by this title. It straddles the line between "arcade" and "sim", and doesn't have the feel of today's NHL hockey. However, gamers looking for a fun, casual game with online play and unlockables may like Gretzky NHL as an excellent update to the classic hockey games of the 16-bit era.