If there is one thing that every sports enthusiast needs, it is a great hockey game. Depending on how realistic you like your game, NHL 2005 could be the perfect choice for your collection. In my endeavor to find out how well this game really plays, I brought together a crack team of gamers to get to the bottom of the issue. Many hours (and pizza boxes) later, the one thing we noticed about EA’s newest release is that you’re either going to love it or hate it. There’s no middle ground here.
The way NHL 2005 handles is completely different from that of its predecessors; gone is the time where you can take your fastest guy up the ice weaving through defenders. Try that tactic in this edition and you’ll find yourself on your back more than your skates. EA has tried to recreate the NHL in ever aspect this time around, and that includes how the play flows. The hitting has been cranked up to an almost insane level, and in order to effectively travel up the ice you have to pass – yes, that’s right, ?pass’ the puck up the ice.
Defenders are spot on in their coverage, and breakaways are few and far between. Even while in the offensive zone there is not much room to skate, and your team strategies will need to play an important role; you’ll have to cycle the puck around to get a scoring opportunity. And even then it isn’t easy to score, goaltender AI is just amazing and, unless the shot is screened or spot on, he’s likely to save it. I can’t count the number of games I’ve out shot my opponents something close to 60 – 15 and still ended up in a 1-1 tie. Shooting has also changed a little, with the implementation of two separate shoot buttons (slap shot, and wrist shot) you can trade your accuracy for speed or vice versa to try and squeak one past the keeper. But don’t plan on getting many pretty goals, the majority of them will be rebounds or tipped shots from in front of the net.
EA has introduced a new ?off the puck’ system where you can either call for support if you have the puck, or allow the CPU to take control of the player while you move to open ice to call for a pass. This system takes a while to get used to but is extremely effective when you have a 2-on-1 break or are mucking it up in the corners. The fighting in this game is just as impossible as the rest of NHL 2005; no matter how quick I mash those buttons or try to block punches, it seems that I’m always on the losing end of one of these heavyweight bouts. Even though the hitting has been improved, the Bruise Control seems to be less effective than the regular body checks, which throws its usefulness into question. Another concern is that after you miss a body check you seem to stop for a split second, which puts you further behind your target than you were before you missed.
Graphics are always the hardest thing to grade, so I’ll start from the beginning. The menu and setup screens are done with a simplistic border with a slightly transparent black background, which are easy to navigate. All of the animations are smooth and the transition between menu screens is always quick and sharp.
In-game graphics are quite well done; at first glance the players look a little odd but, upon closer inspection, each face is detailed differently and quite realistic, too. The cinematic scenes are top class (as usual) and usually relevant to what is going on during the game. Between whistles, the camera will zoom in on a goaltender as the commentators comment on his performance after he has made a string of great saves. Visual details like this bring back the feel that EA was going for a more realistic approach to the game as opposed to the arcade style. Collision and hit animations have been stepped up and look more correct in the physics department. If two players collide with each other at full speed, both will usually get knocked off balance with one, if not both, falling to the ice. Each goaltender’s mask has been replicated to match the one they actually wear in the NHL and is extremely well detailed. You really get to appreciate the work done by the developers during the replays.
The crowd has always been the graphical downfall in sports games, but EA does a fairly decent job this time around. Each fan is a 3D model; unfortunately they are mostly inanimate except in the cut scenes after a goal or a penalty. But it’s the small things that bring this game’s graphics to the forefront. It’s all in the things you normally wouldn’t notice. Things like board ads, advertisements in the stands, and the number of Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters. If a team has something special about their entrance – such as the San Jose Sharks entering the rink through a shark’s mouth – it’s right there in the game. These things combined with the ice becoming scratched, scuffed, and worn as the periods tick down brings standard game models and makes the game that much more visually pleasing.
The game has a great soundtrack; it’s a kind of hard alternative/punk mixture, which fits perfectly to the high-energy style of the sport. The announcers have taken a break from the comic relief this year and, instead, have been loaded with lots of useless and unknown statistics, which they use to fill the lulls between whistles or the beginning of the periods. During the playoffs they may mention a coach’s record behind the bench, or note how a particular player seems to step it up come the post season.
There isn’t a lot of unnecessary in-game sound. The hits are sharp, and when the puck hits the boards or glass you can hear it (the glass) rattle ominously – that is if it doesn’t shatter outright, and the goal posts sing out whenever the puck hits them (oh, how I hate that sound). Most of the stadiums have their own specific horns and sirens, too.
With all of the different game modes it has to offer, NHL 2005 will keep you entertained for an extremely long time. Whether you’re looking for the long hard fight through the regular season, or just a quick match with some friends, you’ll mostly likely find it in NHL 2005. Here’s a brief overview of all the game modes included in this years’s edition:
* Exhibition: This is the regular 1 vs. 1 match up.
* Season: Season mode allows you to select an NHL Club and run the length of a regular season and into the playoffs with them. Win or lose the cup, it’s all over come season’s end.
* Elite Leagues: Basically the elite leagues are just the season mode based around the 3 European leagues.
* World Cup: The world cup mode takes the place of the tournament mode seen in previous releases of EA’s NHL series.
* Dynasty: The Dynasty is the cream of NHL 2005. The Dynasty mode allows you to run an NHL club through multiple 82 game seasons and playoffs to try and build the best NHL club on the ice. You control everything from ticket price to how much merchandise you are going to give out to the fans. At the beginning of each season the owner will give you a goal to be met by season’s end, such as having the best power play in the league or to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
*Free-4-All: If the Dynasty mode is the cream then this mode is the cherry on top. Free-4-All allows you to play against 4 of your closest friends (or worst rivals) in a game of shoot ?em up. Set a time or goal limit, pick your favorite NHL superstar, and you’re off on a goal spree. Choose to have a couple of defenders or leave it open for pure head-to-head action against today’s hottest net minders.
Maybe Next Season
Inside NHL 2005 there are a few options I haven’t mentioned, such as the create-a-team feature. This is all but useless in NHL 2005 since you cannot use your created team in Dynasty mode or online against other players. They have removed the create-a-player feature all together, which is a big disappointment to me, as I’m sure it is to more than a few other fans.
There is the online mode – basically the same as Exhibition mode – that allows you to play, and become ranked, against other enthusiasts over Xbox Live. Don’t worry about poor gaming sports, because if they (online players) disconnect from a ranked match it counts on their record. And people who hold up the game for hours by pausing also run the risk of being penalized. As with any game, the online enjoyment varies from person to person so, when playing online, be courteous off the ice while taking it to them on the ice – remember it is just a game.
On the whole, EA’s NHL 2005 is a very solid Xbox title and, as indicated earlier, you will either love it, or hate it, based on the gameplay. If you’re looking for a realistic hockey title, then this is the game for you; otherwise you may want to look elsewhere (ESPN 2K5, perhaps). Either way, I definitely recommend you rent it before purchasing, just to make sure you get what you bargain for. And hey, if it isn’t, there is always the Free-4-All mode.
See you on the ice!