NHL Slapshot Review (Wii)
The Wii has struggled to strike a balance with core sports gamers. Whether it is the reliance on motion controls or the inferior graphical prowess of Nintendo's innovative console, the Wii simulation sports market has never quite caught on the way it has on the other two consoles this generation.
Even with excellent sports simulations available for the console, most notably EA's Tiger Woods series, the vast majority of sports game-aholics immediately discount any title that releases for the Wii console. However, the console has excelled in the casual space -- creating legions of new gamers looking to bowl a couple virtual frames or paddle a kayak through some virtual rapids.
Today, EA Sports is releasing NHL Slapshot, a game that admirably tries to cater to the core simulation sports gamer while offering an innovative control scheme -- reliant on one of the most unique controller peripherals you will ever see -- to also appease the more casual/family oriented audience.
Before I continue, it should be noted up front that NHL Slapshot is in no way a port of EA's 360/PS3 version of the NHL franchise. It is a game that has been built from the ground up to take full advantage of the Wii's strengths. Even with that being said, there is no doubt in my mind that EA is counting heavily on the quality and success of its current HD console versions of the NHL franchise, coupled with this new control scheme, to be a driving force behind NHL Slapshot appealing to the sports gaming elite. Most importantly, however, is the fact that EA is looking to give huge NHL fans -- those who have perhaps never experienced the 360/PS3 versions of the franchise -- an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about.
So has EA finally struck a delicate balance between providing the most core of sports gamers a deep, enjoyable experience while still making the game fun for the whole family? The answer is a bit more complicated than one would think.
How About a Little Stick Work?
For the most part, motion controls have been implemented poorly in most third-party Wii sports games, with many being downright gimmicky. When you take a look at the sports titles that have had the most success on the Wii, you begin to notice that their control schemes actually mimic the sport that is being replicated on screen (Wii Sports, Punch Out!, Tiger Woods). As a devoted fan of EA's NHL series since the early '90s, you can only imagine how high my eyebrow raised when Slapshot's stick peripheral and motion-control scheme were first revealed.
Even after fellow OS staffers returned from E3 with glowing impressions of Slapshot's control scheme and stick peripheral, I still could not shake the feeling that EA may have officially "jumped the shark" on this one. It was not until I actually had my review copy in hand, assembled my stick and began playing games that I realized how wrong my initial impressions were. Not only is the hockey stick/Wii remote/Nunchuk setup surprisingly responsive for a game not taking advantage of Wii MotionPlus, it also gives the game a feeling of realism that this NHL sim-head absolutely loves.
For those unfamiliar with the control setup, the Wii remote and Nunchuk fit snugly into a designed stick peripheral. While you hold the contraption like an actual hockey stick, the Wii remote itself acts as your main motion sensor, and the Nunchuk analog stick allows you to move your players. You can also hold down the Wii remote's "B" trigger button to act as a deke modifier. Once you have the "B" button held down, you can waggle the stick back and forth naturally and watch your player deke accordingly. The movement is not full one to one like we've seen in many MotionPlus Wii games, and you will notice a slight delay when deking.
Where you will not notice a delay is in the game's shot mechanics. Want to take a quick wrist shot? Simply emulate that motion with your stick while aiming with the Nunchuk's analog stick. How about a slapper? Just rear back like in real life and let it rip. Shooting in Slapshot feels amazing, and it covers up some of the control scheme's weaker moments.
One of those "weaker" moments involves the defense. Playing defense in Slapshot is a bit rough around the edges. Checking is accomplished by skating towards your opponent while moving your stick in a cross checking motion, which is simple enough. But stick lifts, blocks and dives are a completely different story. Any veteran of the NHL series will tell you that these defensive moves are far more important than checking the vast majority of the time. These moves are accomplished by holding the Wii remote's "B" button and moving the controller in a specific direction. While these moves feel good, waggling the stick peripheral while skating on defense leads to some very hectic moments, especially if you find a defenseman out of position.
My only other gripe regarding the game's control scheme and stick peripheral deals with the ergonomics of the peripheral's design. As mentioned in our interview with one of the game's producer's Joel Nickolls, it's downright impossible to play the game using the stick standing up. As someone who is roughly 6-foot-3, I found my back aching and shoulders aching after several games. Now, this was mostly because my natural instinct with a hockey stick in my hand is to lean towards it, simulating putting my blade on the ice, but there is no doubt that manipulating the controls while getting the full effect out of the shot mechanics will be a bit stressful on some of the taller individuals out there. It certainly would be nice for EA to release a larger stick option at some point for the bigger gamers out there, and I can already see those who are devoted enough to the game taping their Wii remote and Nunchuks to an actual hockey stick.
One final note regarding the control scheme, there is an option to play the game with just the Wii remote and Nunchuk, in addition to just the Wii remote (in this case the CPU will auto skate for you). While I played with each of these configurations, neither translates into as much pure fun as using the game's stick peripheral setup.
He Shoots, He Scores?
In regards to game modes, Slapshot does not disappoint. You will be able to play standard exhibition games, a Stanley Cup Finals series or embark upon your own career in Pee Wees to Pros mode (more on that later). There is a ton of content to play around with in the game, and hockey fans will love that they will be able to spend months digging into everything the game has to offer. And Whalers fans rejoice, EA even managed to include Hartford's old jerseys into the game as a Carolina throwback.
But beyond the aforementioned minor control issues outlined above, the gameplay on the ice does show its cracks at points. As someone who has spent a great deal of time with the NHL series, especially last generation, it is tough to shake the feeling that while built from the ground up for the Wii, Slapshot's engine seems based on the NHL series circa 2006 on the PS2/Xbox. Hits are huge, goals are quick and one-timers are plentiful in Slapshot. The slower, more strategic pace that has been introduced into the series on the 360/PS3 during the past couple years is not really present in Slapshot, which leans more toward an arcade style of five-on-five hockey. If you are looking for a hardcore hockey sim, this is not your game. But, to be fair to both sides, EA did not shoot for a complete "sim" here either.
With that being said, the game is still fun and challenging. Even with the breakneck pace of the game, the CPU can be an admirable foe that does not feel cheap on the higher difficulty levels.
There will also be moments where you will be able to get a good cycle going in the offensive zone. Cycling in this game just feels right because you really feel like you're working a defense and looking for that one timer from the point -- highlighted by you rearing the stick back to take the slapper. And it is extremely rewarding to score goals because you truly feel like you are the one beating the goalie. I truly can't even count the number of times I found myself talking trash to opposing goalies after I made them look silly with some sick stick work.
But where Slapshot ultimately "fails" in my eyes is by not providing enough differentiation while on the ice to keep gamers familiar with the NHL series interested for a long period of time. For as much fun as it is to play the game with the stick peripheral and motion controls, once I began to look past this fact, I began realizing just how generic the overall on-ice experience felt. Every player seems able to perform the same spin and deke moves, and every player is equally as deadly when shooting the puck -- I had no problem scoring as many goals with Drew Miller as I did with Pavel Datsyuk. Once the euphoria of the control scheme wears off, the gameplay begins to feel a bit shallow for the veterans out there. Again though, this is a specific complaint of mine and probably will not apply to the fresh faces out there.
Graphics and Presentation
Slapshot looks solid. While playing the game on an HDTV in 420p resolution, there were many jaggies still present. Player models look as if they have been pulled off the Playstation 2, but the superstar player faces are recognizable. It's difficult to fault the Slapshot team on this front, but after seeing what sports games like Punch Out! and Madden 11 Wii have been able to pull of in the visuals department, I was a bit disappointed.
I do have a gripe with the comic-book-like effects that occur when taking a slapper in the game (resulting in a trail of fire) and when checking someone (a small explosion sound goes off). While I understand that these additions were included to give the game more of an arcade feel, the inability to turn them off is a bit disturbing. The overall visual effect is very over the top and kills any illusion that you are engaged in a five-on-five NHL simulation.
Gary Thorne and Bill Clement do an outstanding job in the booth and breathe some life into some very generic and stale pregame introductions. You will be greeted by the familiar between-period highlight reel the NHL series has been known for, but beyond that tidbit, the presentation is sorely lacking. You will not see the three stars of the game presented after the game, nor any team-specific introductions or even any playoff/Stanley Cup atmosphere when playing in those modes.
Pee Wees to Pros
Borrowing heavily from the NHL series' Be a Pro (BAP) mode, Pee Wees to Pros is a solid new addition to the game. You are able to relive Wayne Gretzky's rise to stardom, select any current player or create your own player to become the next great one. The mode plays out a lot like NHL's BAP, just with a mix of the Backyard Sports series for flavoring.
You will have the option to start in any of the game's four selectable leagues (Pee Wee, Bantum, CHL/AHL, NHL), and will work your way through the ranks while accomplishing various goals to become a superstar. You are able to equip boosts like in Slapshot's 360/PS3 big brother, and the mode itself is incredibly fun and deep.
While I did get bored with Slapshot's standard gameplay at times, I fell in love with Pee Wees to Pros. Because of the shifting Be a Pro camera angles, and the fact I was only controlling one player, the stick control becomes even more fun and realistic within this mode. Pee Wees to Pros is reason enough alone for a hardcore NHL fan and gamer to buy this game, and I can already see that I will be devoting months to this game mode.
One of the most troubling things about Slapshot is that there really is no online elements to speak of in the game. You are limited to updating rosters and schedules during the real NHL season and that is all. There are no competitive games, no co-op, no shootouts and no mini-games. This is very disappointing for anyone who does not live with others -- making Slapshot the perfect family, dorm room, or frat house NHL experience, but leaving everyone else out in the cold on the multiplayer front. In 2010 it is very surprising to see this type of omission.
NHL Slapshot is a great blend of fast-paced arcade action and the joys of five-on-five NHL hockey. But while the Slapshot team did an admirable job of integrating a control system and peripheral into the game that will have the core sports gamer itching to play, ultimately the on-ice gameplay proves to be too generic to stick around for the long haul. Sure, a mode like Pee Wees to Pros will have many sinking hours into the game, but it's difficult to recommend this game to anyone who owns a 360 or PS3 and has any interest in the NHL.
Regardless, as a complete package there is not a whole lot to complain about with NHL Slapshot. The game is well done and is a stellar first-time effort by EA. Ultimately, I just feel like it will satisfy the casual gamer more than the core gamer.
At the end of the day, this is a perfect family game, party game and the perfect introduction to EA's NHL series for younger fans out there. NHL Slapshot should be played by anyone who is looking for a new way to play an NHL game and enjoys hockey that is light on the strategy and heavy on the fun.
On the Ice: Motion controls work great, but things eventually get stale.
Graphics: In motion the game looks great, but up close is another story.
Sound Design: Gary Thorne and Bill Clement sound great, and the stadium music is also well done.
Learning Curve: It will take a few games to harness the stick controls, but once you do it will become a phenomenal experience.
Entertainment Value: If you only own a Wii, this is the best hockey game around. This is also the perfect family game.
Online: There is really none to speak of in this game, which is a major hit on the game in 2010.
Score 8.0 (Very Good)