ESPN NHL HOCKEY for PS2 and Xbox, $80. Rating: NNNN
NHL 2004 for PS2 and Xbox, $80. Rating: NNN
GRAPHICS Sharp like my skates.
ADDICTIVENESS As Pat Quinn himself might say, "The season is a marathon, not a sprint." Settle in.
ANTI-SOCIAL FACTOR Play a computer? It's better to beat your friends.
PROXIMITY TO THE REAL THING Closer and closer every year.
You can practically see the steam blowing out of the ears of the pointy-heads at NHL head offices. Despite selling franchises to Disney and putting them in renowned hockey hot spots like, oh, Atlanta, the NHL continues to die a slow death south of the border. All the while, NHL video games are among the most popular sports sims available. What gives?
Clearly, there's been a failure to communicate. The NHL brass is making the action on the ice look more like a video game, while game manufacturers make their simulators more like the real thing. Guess which one resonates more?
The two hockey games quickest out of the gate, ESPN NHL Hockey and NHL 2004, both take a back-to-basics approach to the game. Gone are the ludicrous, cross-ice hits that would make Don Cherry drool with envy but really had no place in the modern game. In their place come jaw-droppingly realistic depictions of the fastest game in the world.
ESPN NHL Hockey, like its NHL 2K predecessors, recreates every possible part of the game. You can pin opponents to the boards to slow the game down, skate away from fights if they don't appeal to you and control every aspect of how your players perform on the ice.
From a visual standpoint, it looks stunning. ESPN's move into the video game market has brought the look of hockey on TV. This game looks and feels like real life.
There are also the expected add-ons. A classics mode lets you wear jerseys from the 60s and 70s (play well enough and you can even strap on an old-school goalie mask). The truly romantic hockey fan can also dispense with the modern game entirely in an old-school game of pond hockey, featuring your favourite NHL players on a frozen sheet of ice in the middle of nowhere. Short of strapping on the blades yourself, this is as close as it gets.
NHL 2004 seems streamlined by comparison. The smooth game play and realistic action are similar, but the special options are limited. Where NHL 2004 might beat the competition is in the manager mode.
Think you can do better than John Ferguson Jr. and Ken Dryden? NHL 2004 puts you in the executive suite and in control of every aspect of your hockey team, from the players on the ice to the price of admission and parking. Overcharge and fans will boo and your team will lose. (Trust me, it happened to my club.)
It's these little things that really make these games stand out. Action-wise, they're serious sims. Both are very difficult for the casual hockey fan to grasp initially, but, hey, this is Canada. No worries there, right?