Imagine yourself gliding gracefully across the ice rink, cutting deep and wide arcs as the arena’s cold air blows briskly across your face – then the breath abruptly rushes from your body as you’re slammed, headlong into the boards with a bone crunching hit. You drop gloves against the local enforcer and trade blows for the sake of bruised pride and a bloodied lip, then recover while serving your penalty minutes…only to return to the action just in time to send the puck top shelf over the goal tender’s shoulder and win your team the Stanley Cup.
EA Sports’ latest installment of its NHL series brings all that and more! With graphical enhancements and improved controls over last year’s edition of the NHL franchise, EA Sports manages to keep the hits coming.
EA has kept faith with its create-a-character option, which lets you put yourself down on the ice alongside other NHL greats such as Joe Sakic, Mario Lemieux and Martian Brodeur. When creating your character you can choose from a number of preset options for positions (power forward, center, defenseman, etc.), or you can even change the stats freely in order to determine how you want your character to play. In addition to picking the character’s starting stats, you can also choose how susceptible the player will be to individual improvement by setting their potential level. A potential of 99 (from 100) will allow your player to improve greatly over the course of a season, while a potential of 50 means that the player has already reached his prime.
EA has taken its creation options one step further this year and implemented a create-a-team option. Here you can choose the city, team name, and logo of your own expansion team. You can even go as in-depth as to change the centerline in your home stadium. Perhaps the biggest advantage to the new create-a-team feature is that you can utilize it through the game’s franchise mode. The Franchise mode allows you to choose one of the NHL teams (or your own created team – which you must first include on the league’s team roster by replace an existing franchise) and run through an entire 82 game regular season, and if you’re lucky end it with a playoff run. But, as always, there is a catch. As a new GM, you discover that the previous management team has fired your entire staff. OH! NO!! Fear not, though, because you are awarded upgrade points depending on how many games your team wins (2 points per victory), you can also earn them by making key trades throughout the season. For every 100 points you accumulate you can improve one of the aspects of your club. There are two main categories, the first being the coaching staff, which directly affect how your players improve, and how much money it will cost to keep them. The second is your team’s training facility, which helps to improve all of your players’ attributes. A rating of 5 blocks in one of these areas is considered average, and your players will perform below their ability until 5 blocks are filled. Also, after achieving certain goals during the season, you unlock items for your GM office. After unlocking those items you can then change the look of your GM’s desk, walls, furniture, ornaments, and even clothing.
NHL 2004’s computer AI has been greatly improved, and the ability to set quick plays to determine your point of attack is great for changing the tempo of a game – hopefully in your favor. If you’re up by a single goal late in the third period of an important game, try pulling the troops back and have them defend the net. If the tables are turned and you find yourself facing impending defeat, just change your team tactics to an all-out attack approach and swarm the opposition for that late game-tying goal. The computer tries to set up plays against you as opposed to just arbitrarily shooting at the net from anywhere, as experienced in previous versions. Near the end of the game, the trailing team, or both if tied, will have their star players come to the forefront of the action. These premier players skate faster, pass better, and shoot and hit harder during the crucial last few minutes of the game (this often happens with roughly eight minutes of game time left – also, star players are there for the entire playoffs). The only drawbacks to the AI that I have encountered are that, like in any NHL video game, there is a goal-rich sweet spot (which I’ll let you discover for yourself; it’s almost the same as NHL ’94 for all you hard-core players). Perhaps the most annoying drawback is line changes, though; you can be on a two-player breakaway with only the goalie to beat, but if the coach decides that it’s time for the line to switch, well, there goes your partner to the bench. Of course, this can be avoided with the selection of manual line changes, but it’s annoying nevertheless.
There are also 3 elite leagues in the game (to be honest I haven’t yet fully explored this area of NHL 2004, as I am still struggling to stand uncontested at the top of my division in my 2nd season after pulling out a game 7 Stanley Cup Final win as the 7th seeded team from the East). So far I have invested well over 80 hours of gameplay time into NHL 2004, and I haven’t been disappointed so far. Nearly 8 months after its initial release and I still find myself yelling at the referee for a bad call, or talking to mollified friends about how Joe Thorton has racked up 76 goals and amassed a staggering 124 points. For anyone who is a hockey fan looking for a great gaming experience I urge you to buy NHL 2004. It is simply a must own title; if not only as a holdover excursion until EA releases its 2005 edition. Can’t wait!