With the new hockey season right around the corner, ESPN NHL Hockey is the first ice hockey title to be released before the other competition vie for your attention. For those gamers that don’t already know, the ESPN franchise is really the newest incarnation of the Sega Sports NHL 2K games but now with a more ESPN-styled presentation. The result is a game with plenty of hard-hitting hockey action with that authentic televised presentation that makes the game feel like you’re actually playing professional NHL hockey. How good is this game, you might ask? Let’s just say it’s the kind of game that will bring tears of joy to any sports fan’s eyes.
As I had stated above, the new season is drawing near and you can already practically taste the anticipation of hockey fans everywhere. The makers of ESPN NHL Hockey have also sensed this anticipation and you can see it in their newest addition–an actual Skybox. That’s right, sports fans, they’ve included a Skybox where you can lounge and play air hockey and also keep track of stats, player updates . . . all of which are indications that this will be a long and memorable season.
All the usual game modes are available once again (such as Exhibition, Season, Playoffs, Franchise and Tournament) but also included are Skills mode and Mini-Games. The Mini-Games is a welcome addition to the series and has four different mini games that are short but satisfying. There’s Shootout (just you and the goalie), Mini-Rink (a two-on-two game using a small rink), Pond Hockey (played over a frozen pond) and Super Speed (a lightning fast game of hockey). Skills mode offer six challenging tests–a few of which are found in the game’s Exhibition mode. And, since online play was unforgivably left out of the PS2 version of last year’s game, ESPN NHL Hockey makes up for it with great online features (more on that later, though).
One of the many changes you’ll find in this game are the fact that the game rewards you for performing a number of challenges in many of the game’s modes such as Exhibition or Playoffs. You are rewarded tokens for completing a list of challenges such as winning a game in overtime or qualify for the Playoffs. The tokens you earn can be used in the Skybox to unlock anything from classic team uniforms, vintage hockey masks and other historical features. Not only does this increase the replay value but also this is actually a far better payoff than merely some much-deserved props on the stat list.
And, as I had mentioned earlier, the game can also be played online either using Broadband or Dial-Up. Up to eight players can take to the ice and challenging each other for a spot on the scoreboards. Most of the game modes are available to play here and it includes two of the Mini-Games and Skills mode. Funny thing, though, is that both Dial-Up and Broadband seem to suffer from some minor slowdowns. Playing on a Broadband connection, I’ve found less of these annoyances and the ability to use a Logitech USB headset (once again, we can put the SOCOM headset to work) came through nice and clear.
The controls this year have been tweaked enough that things run even more smoothly than before. Shooting, passing and performing dekes are just as simple to pull off and the checks are a lot more vicious this time around–sending players on the opposing team over the wall. These things come in handy since the computer-controlled opponents are a lot smarter than before and play a good defense. And while the goalkeeper seemed impossible to trick in last year’s game, this game sees a tough goalkeeper that can make the same mistakes you can.
Aside from the smooth gameplay and tight controls, the game’s visuals are quite spectacular. While the Xbox might have a better looking game on their hands, the PS2 version certainly looks good enough that hockey fans will be amazed how close to the real thing the player’s faces look. The arenas are fantastic once again, especially when it comes to the ice itself that reflects the overhead lights. The players move realistically and even cast more of a natural shadow this time around. Yet it’s the ESPN-styled presentation that gamers will love the most and its style is seen in everything from replays to the flashy graphics seen in actual televised games.
The game’s sound, though, is what adds the final touch on the broadcast-like presentation with its Sport’s Center theme music and spot-on play-by-play and color commentary by Bill Clement and Gary Thorne. Gamers will notice that the crowds have become more specific in their taunts and cheers and the sounds of hockey sticks clashing echo with a realistically sharp smack. The PA speakers keep things lively and you’ll even hear snippets of music, most notably Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” This is great stuff, indeed.
ESPN NHL Hockey is, by far, one of the most gratifying hockey games to come from the Sega Sports franchise. Not only is this the most addictive hockey game available so far, but it’s also filled with great extras and–at last–a great online mode. So grab your favorite beverage and some snacks because this game will have you playing for hours for many months to come. This is a recommended buy if ever there was one and it is well worth your heard earned cash so go ahead and buy it.