ESPN NHL Hockey Review (Xbox)

When Sega Sports unleashed “NHL 2K3” onto the hockey landscape last year, it was met with a round of applause and big love from the hockey purists. Perhaps more importantly, it was the first time that most people would agree that a competitor stepped up to EA and punched them in the mouth. “2K3” outplayed and outshined EA’s title on every level last year. This past May at E3, I was convinced that another whoopin’ was on the horizon. The early builds that we played of the newly-named “ESPN NHL 2K4” were rock solid. A repeat victory seemed inevitable. So, did they put the puck in the net? Lace ‘em up…let’s hit the ice!

At the time of this review, “ESPN NHL 2K4” is the best-looking hockey title on the market. The character models are very impressive (as has become a staple in the “ESPN” games). The facial detail is top-notch and the uniforms are meticulously detailed; all the way down to the creases from the pads. The animations are solid overall, though they maybe a little over the top at times. They’re at their best when they are being subtle. The fights and the goal celebrations are a little “cartoony” for me.

That said; the shining star in the graphics department has to go to the beautifully rendered arenas playable in this title. All NHL arenas are represented and very well done. I’ve personally been to about half of the current NHL arenas for games and I’ve not seen a title yet capture as many of the subtleties of their real-life counterparts like this title does. The visual team at Sega Sports/ESPN needs to take on bow on this work. They may take the “first star” for the game.

Not to be outdone by the look of the game, the sounds in “ESPN NHL 2K4” are “top shelf” as well. Unlike some of the other “ESPN” titles, the ESPN license brought the network’s top announcing team with it. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are fantastic talents on television, and it translates onto the game better then any that I have heard. When a real-life announcing team lends their voices to a sports title, it’s usually very difficult to capture that same feel. They’ve done it here. Thorne and Clement are on point during the commentary tracks with very few pauses or hiccups. Great work!

The rest of the sounds, which I like to lump under the title of “Arena Ambiance” are rather on point on as well. The game sounds from the checks, skating, and the dreaded post hit are well captured and understated enough to not distract. The crowds seem to react properly during the game and get rowdy at the right times. If you listen closely, they’ll even bust out a chant or two. Even after completing my review’s playing time, I still keep the audio turned up on this title when I play. That’s a rarity for me with any sports title. Nice job!

I don’t usually save my gameplay section till last. It’s the bread and butter of what people are looking for when they read a review. Who cares about graphics and audio!?! How does it play? Well…did I mention that the graphics and audio were REALLY good!?!?

I really wanted to like this game. And, I did…sort of. Unfortunately, I think they took a step backwards in the gameplay department. I know the naysayers are going to bash me and say that I just don’t understand hockey. You’ll say that this game, like most “ESPN” titles, forces you to play a smart and sound game in order to contend. I know hockey. I’ve played some hockey. I’ve coached hockey. I live in “Hockeytown” (Detroit). Bear with me.

If you fire up a game of “ESPN” on “Pro” level; even with very little experience or skills, you will likely outscore the AI by ten goals. It will be like the Montreal Canadians against Vinny’s Pizza Palace Squirt Team. Right out of the box (with no slider adjustments), you can pepper the opposition on the “Pro” setting and it is VERY likely that they will not get a single puck past your goalie.

Conversely, if you bump it up to “All-Pro”, all of a sudden Vinny’s team has become the Harlem Globetrotters of hockey. They hit pinpoint passes on the fly. They set up behind the net and execute their offense to perfection. You feel like you are shorthanded while you’re 5 on 5. And if you do manage to find your way to the “good side” of the blue line, you’ll be lucky…LUCKY…to slip one past their goalie. Their goalies stand on their heads and bust backflips to stop even the most perfectly timed shots.

“So, tweak the sliders”, you say. “Adjust goalie ratings”, you say. Well, if you talk to most game developers they will tell you that they make their games to play perfectly with no slider adjustments. That’s what I am reviewing - the game that Kush and ESPN put on the market and said “this is our effort for this year”. I’m not impressed. Let me re-phrase: I’m disappointed because I know they can do so much more. They did - just last year.

There is a saving grace. The gameplay lends itself very well to the online Xbox Live experience. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this game online, even though I am disgracing my beloved Red Wings with my performances. Against another human, “All-Pro” plays very, very well. I’ve had some great 3-1 or 4-2 games that very much mirrored the real hockey experience. That may be the last second glove-save that makes this game worth the purchase.

This is a good title. I just hate to see games take a step back from one year to the next. This is a nice looking, sounding, and smooth game of hockey. The gameplay AI and even Franchise AI is suspect - and below par, in my opinion. The Xbox Live component makes it a worthwhile play and adds some lasting appeal. I have a lot of respect for the guys at Kush Games. They know how to make a good sports title. The look and feel is there. Put the AI “biscuit in the basket” for 2K5 and we’ll have a winner!


ESPN NHL Hockey Score
out of 10