06 Mar, 2005

ESPN NHL 2K5 Review

Xbox Review | Just because the NHL isn't playing, doesn't mean you can't.
The real NHL just became the first North American sports league to ever cancel a season due to a labour dispute – sad, childish and a dark day for all fans of ice hockey. Still, thankfully, the games are there to fill the void. After a plethora of delays before hitting PAL shores, ESPN NHL 2K5, along with the rest of the ESPN series, has finally arrived – and, best of all, at a budget price point. With this possibly the last hockey title Visual Concepts will make, all ice hockey fans – and those of sports games in general – should definitely check this out.

Yay, Roenick isn’t on the cover anymore!

ESPN NHL 2K5 has received quite a few upgrades from last year’s game. A Dream Team mode is present which, as you can imagine, puts the player’s team of choice up against a series of real national teams, and teams created by some celebrities, such as commentator Bill Clement, ESPN golden boy Jeremy Roenick, and the man featured on the cover, Martin St. Louis. Playing through this mode once will unlock all the dream teams, but anymore is largely pointless because all the teams are made up of roughly the same players.

Quite a reasonable save.

Quite a reasonable save.
Franchise mode – where you control a team for an infinite amount of years, managing what players are on your team, attending the draft so on – has been updated. A much more realistic salary system is in place, along with improved trade logic by the computer-controlled teams. You can ‘buy’ various coaches, such as a head coach, conditioning coach and an offensive coach, to improve your team. An entire minor league has also been included – you can follow your team’s progress in the minors, meaning you don’t just have to rely on the overall player ranking. However, the biggest change here is the drafting system during the off-season. Instead of being thrown into the draft screen, you can now scout the entire globe to gain a better knowledge of the top prospects. You can even control the prospects in a game against each other, giving you a feel on how certain players perform. While this may seem somewhat daunting, it is actually fairly straightforward. The biggest concern in Franchise mode comes in the form of injuries – not bad in themselves, but they often only last two or three days, and an injured player will be fit for the next game. Regardless, the game pulls the player out of the side and forces you to re-edit them in every single line, as the computer’s idea of editing lines is, well, stupid, as its player selection leaves a lot to be desired.

A challenge mode has also been included. There are a hell of a lot that range in difficulty from winning a face off, scoring hat tricks with multiple players and so on. For each challenge completed you gain a number of points, which can then be used to unlock items in the Skybox. The items include classic jerseys and teams, as well as odd arenas.

The biggest and best new mode comes in the form of the Party Mode. This turns the game into an arcade hockey fest, with shooting, passing and checking – fantastic for a multiplayer environment, as the name suggests. You can have one off games, elimination tournaments and so on, but the most interesting is the battle mode. It features a host of oddball hockey mini games, which are rather intense. One such game removes the puck, and puts four players in a small rink together. They must score the most points – by slamming into each other – in the time allotted, while avoiding being tagged by the player who is ‘it’, as being ‘it’ reduces the player’s score by the second. Another has players dashing around a figure 8 rink, dodging all sorts of obstacles. Then there are teamwork games, one of which involves a player passing to their teammate while they are standing on a points marker. Understandably, some are better than others, but none of them are really bad, and are quite a nice addition to the game.

If it ain’t broke…

Not too much has actually changed in game – basically because it doesn’t need it. The game is generally more balanced, which translates to less fiddling around with opposition difficulty sliders while trying to make their goaltender somewhat challenging. The harder difficulty modes are also fairly tough this year – not just because the opposition goaltender is superman like in the past, either.

The fighting system has thankfully been totally overhauled, and isn’t quite as dreadful as it has been in the past. Your player has a stamina bar, which must be monitored if you want punches to be effective. As well is the basic jab is the uppercut button, and a grapple, which will make you grab your opponent. It is still painfully average, but a big step up from previous games. The way fights happen is also more realistic, as throughout the game, a team and players agitation bar will fill up, depending on hits, goals scored, shots taken and so on. When it fills up, two players will drop the gloves and go at it, as well as play a hell of a lot more dirty.

Hulk angry! Hulk smash!

Hulk angry! Hulk smash!
Speaking of which, a dirty play system has been introduced, which is somewhat questionable. Simply hit the right analog stick, and your player will attempt to foul an opponent by hitting them with an elbow, or even a stick. It doesn’t seem to draw fouls on the default settings though – irritating as often a normal hip or poke check will during gameplay. Still, it is good for riling up the opposition, so it isn’t a total waste.

The final gameplay change of significance is the ability to skate backwards and have complete control of the stick, just like real defensemen do in the NHL. It sounds small, but it can really help to stop odd man rushes towards goal.

Locked out of a save file!?

Almost fatally, some ESPN NHL 2K5 save files glitch. It was a huge problem when the game was released in North America, but it seems to have been mostly reduced in the PAL version. Still, glitches that make it impossible to advance to the next day in Season and Franchise modes without crashing the console have been spotted, so it probably is a good idea to have alternating saves on each different play mode.

Follow the black dot

ESPN NHL 2K5 still looks rather fantastic, with facial models of characters that are instantly recognizable, brilliant animation, a great looking rink and even a lively crowd, who can be seen munching on hotdogs during the game. The whole thing has received a rather nice coat of polish though, making it look just that bit better than last year’s game. Slow down is unfortunately noticeable on occasions though, usually during face offs.

* Cue the ESPN theme *

The sound in the game is quite good (although the menu to use custom soundtracks is rather unintuitive). Effects are outstanding, with hard slap shots sounding great off the stick, and hip checks suitably utterly bone crunching. ESPN’s own Bill Clement and Gary Thorne provide the commentary, which is often surprisingly insightful. Unfortunately, repetition tends to get annoying – particularly the incessant comments about how great a poke check was.

The biggest downer here is the fact that, on the default settings, you can’t hear the arena announcer at all. This can be fixed in the menus, but it still is an odd oversight.

A textbook hooking penalty.

A textbook hooking penalty.
A step backwards

Criminally, the PAL version of ESPN NHL 2K5 has seen the removal of the online mode from last years game, despite the fact the North American version had it. It is somewhat understandable (though still extremely annoying) though, as the online facilities enjoyed only modest use with last year’s title. The rest of the multiplayer options remain in tact, and improved upon thanks to the Party Mode.

The single player mode is also incredibly deep, with Franchise mode more likely to be ended by a save bug than anything else. Then there are Dream Team options and unlockables to obtain – not a game you’ll tire of in a hurry.

Hockey lives on in 2K4/2K5

ESPN NHL 2K5 is a step up from last year’s game, which was already very strong in it’s own right. The additions of the Party Mode and Dream Team Mode, along with the actual gameplay tweaks are enough to make this the strongest hockey title ever. Unfortunately, the removal of the online mode from the North American game and the save glitches really do hurt the game. But, the budget price point should be enough to make most players look past this. Hockey fans – especially those who don’t have ESPN NHL 2K4 – should grab this ASAP.
The Score
A fantastic game of hockey marred by the lack of online play and saving glitches – that are largely forgivable thanks to the budget price point. A must for hockey fans (especially considering it may be the last hockey game from Visual Concepts), and worth a look for everyone else who likes a hard, fast sports game.
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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