NHL Hockey 2004 Review (Xbox)
Any good coach or leader would tell you that it’s not how you act when you’re winning that counts. It’s the way you respond to adversity that really defines you. For the better part of a decade, EA’s “NHL” franchise has dominated the hockey gaming landscape; and putting out the top product year after year. Well, some real competition skated out onto the “cold floor” last year with the emergence of Sega Sports’ hockey effort. Most gamers would tell you that last year, Visual Concepts body checked EA straight over the boards, into the bench, and onto their head. How will EA respond? Well, let’s lineup for the face-off and see what EA can do with the puck.
There are two major aspects of gameplay to look at in NHL 2004.
First, let’s address the on-ice gameplay. What was perhaps the most impressive facet in this effort from Black Box was how many nuances of the game they were able to pack into the controller setup. Poke checks, shot fakes, dekes, body checks, diving - they got them all into the scheme without making the controls overly cumbersome or bothersome. It’s safe to say that this game requires a lot more technique then previous efforts. Yes, it’s a little heavy on the offense, but you really can tell the difference when you call a solid gameplan and execute good strategy. If you whiff on a big body check, you’ll get burned for it. The magnetic tape-on-tape passing is, for the most part, gone from this version and passing has become much more of a learned skill. So has fighting! While I wasn’t overly impressed with the dynamics of the new fighting system, it was a much more realistic depiction of fighting then the “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots” style of earlier versions.
Off the ice, “NHL 2004” has taken a page out of the “Madden” series and implemented a pseudo-owners mode called “GM Mode” (replacing the standard “Dynasty” mode). As the GM in “NHL 2004”, you can take the reigns of an NHL franchise and make all the decisions; including hiring staff, upgrading facilities and equipment, and setting the price of tickets. As you progress in this mode, so do your skills. Become a masterful contract negotiator, or maybe a “player’s GM” who keeps his team morale up. All in all, this is a fairly deep mode that will keep the replay factor high well into the season.
Because this is the Xbox version that I’m reviewing, I am mandated to say that the biggest disappointment in the gameplay is that I couldn’t take it and play over Xbox Live. EA, Microsoft… play nice!
GRAPHICS & PRESENTATION
My review copy of “NHL 2004” really shines on the Xbox. They certainly outdo last year’s effort and stepped up the entire look of the game. I’ve always felt that of all the EA franchises, the “NHL” series was a little ahead of the rest with their player models. This year they’ve added rag doll physics that I’ve heard referred to as “Bruise Control”. The characters really display a more realistic range of motion when giving and receiving body checks. I think EA was really going for a more physical type of look and feel this year and they have certainly achieved it.
I had to add “Presentation” along with “Graphics” because this was the part that really pulled me in. If there is one thing that EA does well in most of their titles, it’s the presentation. Other developers have narrowed the gap in recent years, but of the three hockey titles that I’ve played this year, I feel that “NHL 2004” has, far and away, the slickest presentation in the genre. From the pre-game montage to the in-game cut scenes, I really felt as if I were a part of the game every time I played. And my Xbox ran at a silky smooth frame rate with very, very few slowdowns along the way. Kudos to EA!
The sound department in the EA franchise has often been a mixed bag. Like most years, “NHL 2004” comes out spot on with their in-game sounds and atmosphere. The arenas really get rockin’ and it happens at appropriate times. The sounds of the game are very accurate and really give you a feel of being on the ice. The soundtrack is packed with your typical rock, which have become a staple in hockey arenas around the globe. If I could add something to my wishlist for EA’s team; it would be for a custom soundtrack that allows you to play “Arena DJ”. I want to put my own music in and pick the types of events where it plays. For example, when the other team takes a penalty, I might want it to play John Cougar’s “I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)”. It’s a small touch that would only add to the experience.
The commentary tracks, which have been painfully bad in some installments of the “NHL” series, are well done, for the most part. The speed seems to follow the action pretty well and doesn’t trail three passes behind. There are some glitches in certain game situations, but nothing that too jarring. Overall, it’s the best “NHL” commentary in years.
I know people probably feel burned by EA with last year’s offering. A lot of affections may have been permanently transferred to the “ESPN” titles. However, if you’re a hockey gamer, you owe it to yourself to give “NHL” a try again this year. This is a strong title, and will hopefully be a sign of more good things to come from the series. The “GM Mode” needs to advance going into next year, but EA’s certainly headed in the right direction. Buy it - or at least rent it - you won’t regret it.