Gretzky NHL 2005 Review (PS2)
If any of you have read my past reviews, you will know that I had a lot of snide remarks over the current NHL lockout. Well instead of going back on a tirade and jabs at the NHL, I am just going to concentrate on the game at the forefront. Instead of dragging things out and forcing you to read the review to figure out my thoughts, I am going to tell you right up front that this is the surprise sports title of the year on the Playstation 2.
“Gretzky NHL 2005” is the newest in the line of hockey titles competing for number one on the Playstation 2. 989 Studios’ offerings of hockey in previous years have come with less than open arms. More like clenched fists getting ready to pound you in the head if you were subjected to another hockey title from 989. Well things are very different this year. This is the surprise sports title of the year. Is it perfect? Not a chance, but then no title is. Many people saw that I did not particularly like the last hockey title I reviewed for being too arcade-like and hit happy in nature. I was never even a big hockey enthusiast till recently. A lot has changed and I appreciate the sport of hockey so much more (minus certain owners of a certain league, oops, I wasn't suppose to go there again) now then ever before that I actually am starting to learn the game and know what is suppose to happen. Pretty scary for a person who can't even stand up on skates without falling on his…well…enough about me, on to the review.
MODES OF PLAY
Starting off with the different modes of play available to the user is the obligatory “Exhibition” mode. Just pick “Quick Start” and take any two of the available teams and pit them against one another in a single game. “Tournament” and “World Cup” modes are customizable series that pit the user against a varying amount of teams. The difference in the modes is that “Tournament” has you playing match ups and then advancing in the bracket, while “World Cup” has more of a short season type format along with a bracket. Both are fairly quick modes of play that can be completed in as little as a day with not a lot of time invested or drug out as long as you want to complete.
One new mode, which really isn't a mode but more of an extension to “Exhibition” mode, is the “Rivalry” mode. This is an interesting little twist to the old form of tracking opponent’s head to head record. My son and I play most of the sports games together quite a bit, and now that he is getting older and getting better and wiser when playing, he now has the urge to see where he is besting me. “Rivalry” mode has really given him a lot to look at. Pick the two teams that you most likely will play as against one another and just about any stat in the game is tracked here for your match ups. Want to know which player constantly exploits you? You can find out by looking up the top player in the series. While this is a neat concept and you can still earn challenge points, it is rather limited in that it can only be used in the regular “Exhibition” matches. One huge boost to this would've been the ability to recognize during a season that we were playing against one another with these teams and having the stats tracked. While that is a minor gripe it is something that could be considered for a future version. You can save as many different match ups as you want to your memory card so that if you bounce around between teams you can still track the different match ups that will be played by just picking the series.
I spoke quickly on Challenge points. These can be obtained during gameplay by completing certain tasks. Using these points you will be able to unlock various items such as uniforms, special modes of play, and historical Gretzky's communities.com that can be used in certain modes of play.
The next mode of play is “Online.” 989 Sports had a very good interface for online play with “MLB 2005”, and this hasn't changed with Gretzky NHL 2005. After creating your name (or using the one you made with “MLB 2005”) you will see the main menu. From here you can go into the different rooms and find an opponent. Unfortunately, as was the case with MLB 2005, the amount of people who took a chance on the game was disappointingly low. In the time I have had this game; I have not had much luck finding an opponent. It took me a week before I was able to actually hook up and play a game online. When you do find an opponent though you will not be disappointed as the online play is very solid. I am using a very good cable connection for gaming, so your results could be different, but there was no difference playing this and the results that I get with Xbox Live.
Something that 989 Sports introduced with “MLB 2005” was the unique stat tracking. Not only do you get your stats, but you also get a variety of leaderboards, which when using a rarely used team it can give you some glory that you might not have originally been expecting. As of this writing, there were 421 players on the leaderboard and I was the top player using the Minnesota Wild as my affiliation. So maybe it is not a lot of glory, but hey it is something! Online play is a solid feature that 989 Sports has developed; it is just too bad that more people are not making use of it, because they are missing out on a very well implemented system that a lot of other titles could take lessons from, including those who are developing for Xbox Live.
The last mode of play I am going to touch on is “Franchise” mode. “MLB 2005” had a very good franchise mode that fell just short of being excellent. I had some gripes about how things could have been made better to make the user feel more in tune with the franchise. Here in “Gretzky NHL 2005” the “Franchise” mode is not as full of options as “MLB 2005”, but that doesn't mean it is a weak mode, but you definitely do not have all the bells and whistles like the EA Sports NHL series latest offering with the improving coaches and players, and buying items to improve your team. What you have is a standard franchise offering that lets you negotiate contracts, track dollars made or lost for your franchise and go through off season drafts. So while this isn't as robust as “MLB 2005”, it never really ever attempted to be, which, in my opinion, is the better way to start implementing a good franchise mode. Start with the basics, get it working well, and then build from there. Don't go for the big time until you pass the small time. That has been accomplished in “Gretzky NHL 2005.”
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO
When I started my first game, I can honestly say I was shocked. Is there anything groundbreaking in “Gretzky NHL 2005?” Not at all, but how they put it together is where the shock came from. When you first see the arena, you notice a very sharp recreation of an NHL arena. Banners are hung in the right spots, the details of the arenas are there and the crowd looks like a crowd. It is not a full 3D crowd, but with the detail they have given it looks pretty darn good. The crowd does not look like a bunch of cardboard cut-outs like has been seen in so many other games. Even during gameplay you can make out features of the crowd. That is very impressive. Especially when you consider the detail that is showing in the arena. Best of all there is not one single bit of hesitation or slow-down throughout the entire game.
Players, on the other hand, are not quite as detailed as the arenas. A lot of players are not easily recognizable as they probably should be, especially some of the bigger name Superstars. If you were going to get more generic with the players, at least showcase the big names by making them easily recognizable. Eye Toy feature is available in “Gretzky NHL 2005” for importing any face you want, so there is an option to get some players to be easily recognized.
While the players were lacking, the presentation of the game itself is top notch. The commentators are right on with the call of the action. There is very little hesitation in the calls, and very rarely did they get a play wrong. The stat overlays are some of the best I have seen in any sport game. There are plenty of them and they give you the information that is pertinent to the game and the player or teams current streaks. It is easy to see that the developers have followed different games from many different sports and “borrowed” the best from each. With their own little twists of course. The cut-scenes and replays are also done very well. The replays give you quick multiple replays of what has happened and the cut scenes are just very well put together. I especially enjoyed the 3-Star presentation and the end of the game cut scene.
The balance of the audio is what you would expect. The hockey gameplay sounds just like a hockey game, and is done in a good fashion. You hear all the sounds you would expect to hear, and they are clear and very precise. You will not have to worry about not being able to distinguish the type of sound it is by any means. The music in the game is a mix of lesser known rock bands, outside of Drowning Pool who are fairly mainstream. Snippets of the music is played during the game, but there are a couple other little arena ditties that are heard as well. I got a kick out of hearing Blue Oyster Cult's Godzilla musical riff during a play break. It was a nice touch making you feel like your actually watching a hockey game.
Playing a game in “Gretzky NHL 2005” is where the game may make or break the gamer. The subtle little things I saw and experienced in the gameplay really made this game for me. Some users are going to start playing and get very frustrated due to what seems like a simplistic, uneven gameplay. However, I looked at it a different way. I found the gameplay to be very unique and the difficulty to be very strong. Playing the game is simple. There are not a bunch of different buttons that need to be used to play. There is an option from the main menu that has Wayne Gretzky telling you how to play the game and what each button will do. The special items that I wanted to make sure are known about are that the shooting is all done on one button. It will just depend on whether you tap it or hold it will determine the type of shot and how hard. One-timers are easily accomplished, though extremely hard to score on. A new thing that is here in “Gretzky NHL 2005” is icon passing. Icon passing is done by pressing L1 and then the corresponding button of the player you want to pass to, but I found it much simpler to just see where your player is and just directional pass to them. That allowed leading passes to be successfully completed much more then the Icon passes. You also can toggle the direction of your skater by pressing R2. This ended up being just as handy as deking with the right thumbstick, and also kept the defenses guessing at what you were doing.
Line changes are done by pressing the select button. Pressing select can get complicated while racing up and down the rink, but you eventually get used to it and it becomes rather easy. Two downsides are that the controller can not be remapped the way the user wants it and that activating control of the goalie happens way to easy. Holding the X button for just a second gives you control of the goalie and can easily change the complexion of the game if you are not ready. It can be a pain when you are trying to defend your goal and then all of a sudden you realize you are controlling the goalie and are away from your goal, allowing the score. It does take some discipline but eventually I got used to lying off of that button and unknowingly taking control of my goalie.
The difficulty of the game is interesting to say the least. I am an average hockey gamer. I can now set up my offense, play decent defense, and get legitimate scoring chances. In a previous hockey review, I blasted it saying that it would've been nice to have had some hockey with the hitting; here it is a little more balanced. While hitting is part of the game, it is not the only way you can steal and get control of the puck. Not every hit gives the hitter control of the puck. The player with the puck can take a hit and keep control. I found the difficulty levels to be challenging. Rookie level usually would seem to be a cinch to score and play, but not here. I was being challenged just as much on Rookie level as I was on the higher levels. I ended up actually preferring rookie for a while, until it did become easy, but it definitely was not easy right out of the box. The level above rookie however was a lot more difficult. The goalies did not let anything simple go by and you really had to earn your goals. I found a lot of goals coming from getting a good one-timer set up or by being in just the right spot for a rebound shot. The AI definitely scores much easier then you do on the higher level, which is why I played on Rookie for a while just to get the hang of how the AI reacts. What is really nice about Rookie is the tempo is a little different by the AI. This allows you to see the tendencies of the AI, as they really don't change in the higher levels; they are just a lot more solid, precise, and consistent.
When playing I made an interesting discovery about using turbo. I was playing on the default 5 minute real time (accelerated from 20 minutes in the game) for quite a few games, then decided I wanted to blast through a few quick games to check out the differences in the way the games were announced. When I switched to a 2 minute real time period I noticed that the turbo usage also accelerated. Not only that, but the stamina also accelerated. When I tested my theory and went to a longer period I saw just the opposite. I do not know if this was intentionally done or by accident, but it was one cool discovery and really allows you to tailor your game length to get the results you want, as the stats will generally not get knocked out of whack due to the differences in period real time length.
If you want to tweak a lot of the game, you are sadly out of luck though. The only thing you are allowed to do is change the speed of the overall game, the amount of penalties called, and the injury frequency. The speed I ended out turning up just to because I have become accustomed to a fast pace hockey game. If I have time to think I am not playing hockey, and speeding things up helped me accomplish this. The amount of penalties called in the game from out of the box was very minimal, but after I turned that to max I was getting calls that seemed to be more in line with a regular hockey game. Injuries were very sporadic so I do not know if I ended up really seeing more by turning this up versus leaving it at default. The only thing I can say is that when I turned it up during a franchise I saw more simming injuries then I did before, but that could have been just coincidence.
“Gretzky NHL 2005” from 989 Sports and software developer Page 44 Studios, has come up with an excellent formula that has made for a fun, exciting, and good looking hockey title on the Playstation 2. 989 Sports has put themselves into contention as another player in the sports gaming market, as with the recent success of “MLB 2005” and the current eye opener with “Gretzky NHL 2005” shows they belong amongst the lists of contenders in the sports gaming world. Hopefully, 989 Sports builds upon the success and doesn't revert back to the PSX days. If they continue to plug forward we could be looking at a future dominator in the sports gaming genre on the Playstation 2 and a sure front runner for the next system from Sony.