Hockey is the hottest sport on ice…unless there is a lockout.  However, the NHL Lockout isn’t stopping sports studios from producing new hockey games.  While Visual Concepts and EA Sports released their sports titles early, 989 came out of the gate later with Gretzky NHL 2005.  With a name change featuring the most recognizable name in hockey, 989 Sports is hoping to turn their fortunes around.

Gretzky NHL 2005 looks good.  The other players also look nice.  While they don’t have a large amount of polygons to them, the players have enough texture to give them depth and smoothness.  The player faces do have enough details that the discriminating hockey aficionado will be able to tell them apart.  The masks used by the goalies look distinct as well. Unfortunately, the textures could have used a bit more detail on the players.  They look bland and a bit uninspired.  Also, the player animations are rather choppy at times and the missing frames really distract from the game.  There aren’t any shadows under any of the players either.

The details that went into reproducing the rink are amazing.  The intro to each game features a dark arena with lights of the logos of the two teams playing swirling on the ice.  The players skate onto the rink.  Camera flashes during the game light up the rink.  Advertisements along the edges of the rink will actually change during the game.  Ice will fly off of the players’ skates.  However, the ice looks too white and flushed in the background, and there aren’t any ice skate trails left on the ice.  It’s also difficult to see the Face-off circles and the blue lines clearly.

Gretzky features licensed music.  Not only is it used during the menu screens, but it’s also used for background music during pauses in the action.  The selection is somewhat limited, but everyone should be able to find something they like.

The commentary on the ice is adequate.  The commentators are accurate and speak when appropriate.  They are never quiet that enough to seem like they have disappeared, but they aren’t so chatty that they distract from the game.

The action on the ice sounds authentic.  The sticks hitting the ice or the puck sound just like they would while watching an actual game.  The skates carving the ice slice with each stroke.

Remembering all of the commands for Gretzky NHL 2005 might be difficult.  The left analog stick controls the player movement.  On offense, square dekes, triangle dumps the puck, circle shoots, and X passes.  On defense, square does a body check while the triangle does a stick check, and X changes the player you control.  R1 and L1 cause the player to sprint to increase your speed.  Holding L2 shows the button icon below your teammates’ feet and allows you to pass to a specific player by the icon.

The D-Pad allows you to change the formation of the team on the fly.  The commands change depending whether you are on offense, defense, in a power play, or in a penalty kill situation.

The fighting is rather simplistic.  X punches and square blocks.  While I don’t expect a Tekken engine for the fighting in Gretzky, something a little more advanced than what was found in Blades of Steel would be nice.

The game is not simple to control, and you will need to adjust as well to the physics of the players.  The controller uses every single button, and this might frustrate those new to the game.

Gretzky has more options than you can shake a stick at.  The traditional Quick Start, Practice, Exhibition, and Franchise modes are all available.  Rivalries can be set up between teams, tournaments of up to 16 teams can be set up in either the style of the NHL Playoffs or the World Cup, a World Cup mode can be played, and those with the PS2 Online Adapter can go online to play a game.

While the game has all of these options, Gretzky also has options to customize the game even further.  The Pro Manager gives you complete control over all the team rosters.  The menu screen allows you to sign, release, create, and modify players.  They will also have icons next to them indicating if they are a team captain, injured, or a hot player.  Teams and players can be created as well.  The EyeToy can be used to create a custom face for a player you create.

Similar to the trophy case in the ESPN series of sports games or the Madden Challenge, Gretzky has the appropriately named Gretzky Challenge.  Completing challenges will earn you a certain number of Gretzky Points.  Some of these are as simple as winning a face-off, but others are difficult like scoring 446 goals in a season. The more difficult the challenge is, the more Gretzky Points you’ll earn.  These will be used to unlock special items.  These items range from vintage and alternate uniforms to the big man himself, Wayne Gretzky as a playable character.  New modes are available as well, such as Big Helmet mode or Disco Fever mode.

A tutorial is available to teach you how to play the game.  Each tutorial is narrated by Wayne Gretzky.  However, the tutorials are short, and there is no way to test the skills that you learned because there is no interactivity to practice the skills you learned to make sure you are doing them right.

However, all the extras in the game don’t matter unless the play on the ice is up to the challenge.  While Gretzky isn’t a bad game on the ice, it can’t outskate mediocrity.  The players control realistically.  They won’t turn on a dime, and if they skate too quickly towards a wall, they will go into it hard.  Scoring isn’t easy, but you won’t be up against the brick wall goalies found in ESPN NHL Hockey last year.  However, because of the controls, getting the shot you want won’t be easy to accomplish.

Line changes can be handled automatically by the AI, initiated on the fly by hitting the Select button to get the next line to go to the ice, or manually by selecting the line by hitting Select and then hitting one of the face buttons.  Those who enjoy making the Line changes themselves have the ability to do so, while those new to the game who don’t want to deal with changing lines can just play the game and let the AI change it when necessary.

Hockey is a fast game, but the players here don’t feel very fast.  Even while hitting the sprint buttons, it felt like the players were moving slowly.  Also, trying to pass during the game can be difficult because the camera doesn’t allow you to see all of your teammates or have any indicators where they are.  This means that you can try to pass to an area and shortly discover that no one is there.

As mentioned previously in the controls section, the fighting in the game is rudimentary.  A button to block and another to punch is very simplistic.  A little more variety in the type of punches or which hand to use would have been a nice addition.

Gretzky does have longevity in several areas.  The online mode should allow those who want to play a game online to find a match easily, and it also has the ability to allow 8 players at one time with the use of multi-tap adapters.

The Franchise Mode can last several seasons.  The Season can last all 82 games or be played in a Round Robin style tournament of 29 games.  Once the season is over, players retire, stats get updated, players re-sign to the teams, and a draft is completed.  The longevity of this mode should satisfy the hockey enthusiast who plays all year round.