Full Review: Like a good wine, this hockey series just gets better with age.
Much like the current console war, the sports gaming scene is truly Darwinian in its nature. This is particularly true of the sport of hockey, as only two companies are actively fielding?err, icing? a simulation hockey experience. As it stand now, SEGA and EA have each garnered plenty of support for their respective hockey franchises. Fans of each constantly point out the merits of one and the demerits of the other, but it can't be denied that they are both solid franchises for different reasons. However, that being said, SEGA has really pushed ahead this year and is making a charge to be the leader in videogame hockey.
Once again, this year's version is developed by Kush Games and still features ESPN branding throughout the entire game. You may remember that Kush Games took over for developer Treyarch after the 2K3 version. It's not that Treyarch did a bad job, on the contrary, but Kush Games really pushed the series ahead last year by implementing the ESPN license in a more comprehensive fashion, as well as expanding on the XBox live functionality. This year is no different; Kush Games has added significantly to most aspects of the game and, if you don't already know by now, the game only retails for 19.99USD. Granted, I would be lying if I didn't say that the price point for this title made me a bit more lenient on some of the quirks and hitches found in the game.
When you load up the game, you'll have the same ESPN menu music accompany you and the menus themselves are very reminiscent of the previous two years as well. The game modes are quite familiar, with a few notable exceptions. Quick games, tournaments, seasons, and shoot-outs are all available as per the norm, but Franchise mode and the Skybox have gotten quite an overhaul.
Franchise mode is quite good this year. You start by picking a staff for your desired team, but it's not as easy at it sounds. You'll only have a certain payroll for staff so you'll have to choose wisely and according to your style. You might be able to buy an ?A+' head coach, but your training staff will likely suffer as you won't be able to offer as much money to them. In turn, your players may stay motivated and aggressive throughout the season, but the weaker trainer will affect your conditioning so your players might get injured more often. Additionally, your minor league coach and scout are extremely important. Your minor league coach tells you how players are progressing and assigns them ratings and attributes, but if he's not that experienced, his assessment may be wrong and you might get some bad information. Likewise, your scout has a similar duty. He must scout the ranks of foreign leagues (of which you can explore quite deeply) and find you prospects for upcoming drafts. A better scout means that his information will be more accurate and useful when draft day comes around. The scouting is actually quite involved, as you'll have to pick which territories you devote time to (you'll only have so much time to spend) and what you'll do with that time. You can watch the player play with his native team or you can send him through drills to get a feel for his shot power and speed. This portion of the franchise is really quite sharp and adds a lot. During the actual season, you'll have to deal with injuries and contract negotiations, all of which can be accessed and modified through a central hub for you ? the GM ? and a solid e-mail correspondence system. The franchise may not be the best out there, but it's pretty damn close.
As said, the Skybox has also gotten a facelift. Not only do your new digs look better, but also you can buy all sorts of new collectables, from classic teams to bobble heads to mini-games. It also keeps track of which records and challenges you've unlocked and features a jukebox for listening and customizing the game's music. The Skybox is still a great idea for SEGA's sports games, as it serves as your hub for all things outside of the game.
But enough about the "out of game" experience? on to the gameplay. Certainly, the gameplay has been this series' bread and butter since NHL 2K3 and this year is no different. The emphasis is once again placed on defence and maximum control of what your players do. The game encourages you to start off on ?Intermediate' controls, but to quickly move up to ?Advanced' ? I'd recommend this as well. Advanced controls add so much to your experience in this game, as you can to kneel or dive for a shot block, get off slap shots quicker and use the deadly saucer pass at your leisure. Stalwarts to the SEGA franchise will be happy to note that the "cheap" goals of years passed have been toned down a great deal. No longer will the dreaded "S" move work at will, nor will the "pull the goalie to one side and wrist it to the other side" move ? but they do sometimes still work. What's great, though, is this year the game really rewards good defence. Not that last years' version didn't, but with 2K5 you have Maximum Stick Control, where you can use the right thumb stick to sweep your stick and intercept cross-ice passes ? pretty stellar indeed. Also, you have Intense Contact Control with the right stick when you don't have the puck and this allows you to commit dirty plays based on how hard you press the stick towards the opposition. While I think this addition is a bit dodgy, it still is welcome. But truly, the best thing I can say about the game is just the pace of it ? you really do feel like you're playing hockey, especially on the default setting. The cycle game around the boards is sharp, the shots have huge velocity, and the players react like they do in real life. In fact, I was amazed at the accuracy of the goaltending, as backup netminders give up ample rebounds and second chances, but goalies like Martin Brodeur (damn you "asifspider"?no rebounds?grumble grumble?) hold onto the puck like their pads have pine tar all over them.
The addition of a "new" fighting engine was also touted this year, and while not at what this reviewer would like, it is a hell of a lot better than before. You have total control of your fighter and move him in 360 degrees around the ice. This isn't realistic, but does actually serve to make the fights quite good in close, as both fighters can grab onto a jersey with either hand, start spinning around, and flailing wildly. The more close up and personal the fighters are to each other, the better the fight is. I've had some dramatic comebacks in fights and have had the same done to me on numerous occasions. However, I will say that the fighting happens a bit too often and with star players that would never fight.
On-line play is also better than ever this year, with full league support and VIP profiles that can be updated like ESPN NFL 2K5. The leagues allow you to set parameters for whatever you want and they keep track of injuries, stats, trades and just about everything else. It worked so well in football, and it suits hockey just as well. Latency on-line is also quite solid and only minor hiccups were evident at the time of this review. The annoying menu bugs and hitches from last year's version have been addressed, however, one or two divergence errors have occurred for me, but this is nothing to get too bent out of shape about. On-line hockey is indeed a combination that was meant to happen, as the action gets so frantic on-line, as you and your opponent will be constantly on your toes, trying not to give up a key goal or penalty ? this is something this series has done right all along.
However, the aspect of playing with a friend doesn't end there, as this year the game features the Party Mode, where you and three other players (only 1 human opponent on-line) can battle each other in arcade style hockey or the ever-addicting "Battle Mode." Arcade hockey is just a stripped down version of hockey with no rules and lots of speed, but Battle Mode will have you playing in events that require speed, strength, and skill. In this way, you'll have to choose your player wisely, as each event is unique and requires different timing and skills. The best two events, in my opinion, are Breakout and The Gauntlet. Breakout requires you to work with a teammate and make a good pass into a target area and then score into net, but the net has to be opened with a switch. The Gauntlet gives one player a head start in an obstacle course and has the other three players try and chase him down and impede his progress. The Party Mode is really quite innovative and provides some added value to this already value-packed title.
Visually, the game looks a bit sharper than last year, but not by too much. Player models look a lot better, in particular the goalies, as they have accurate helmets, pads and sticks. Helmets reflect the arena lights, the 3D fans do "the wave," and each arena has a sense that it is different than its counterparts. However, it must be said that the visual presentation of the game could have been much better. The ESPN branding is solid throughout, but the use of overlays, statistics and quick cuts that ESPN NFL 2K5 employed are really not seen in this title. Additionally, the 3D crowd doesn't look that great and they are rarely seen when playing. Still, transitional animations for the players look quite good and the physics have been jacked up just a bit to add that extra "UMPH!" to hits.
The audio side of this game is quite strong, as was the case with the previous two versions of the game. Bill Clement and Gary Thorne are again in the booth and they keep up with the play and add some witty banter. The sound effects are also high end, but maybe not quite at EA's level just yet. Certain things, like hits and shots, sound amazing, while fighting doesn't have the necessary wallop needed to convince a player. Maybe they need a foley artist from the Rocky movies or something? ehhyyooo? Of course, you can still take advantage of custom soundtracks for different in-game and out-of-game scenarios and Dolby Surround support is included.