NHL 2004 is the next in a long line of hockey games from EA Sports. Looking through my game collection I believe this is the first time I have gotten an EA Sports NHL game for a game system since Genesis. Most of my NHL Hockey gameplaying was done on the computer where I enjoyed years of it. I have taken a few years off of this series, so I’m coming at this game on a clean slate. Will it remind me of PC and Genesis versions of yesteryear or is this an all-new experience?
The graphics are good, but not stupendous. The players and all their animations look excellent, save for when you have a close-up and sometimes the player’s face tears in certain spots. The rinks themselves also look very good, although the only one I’ve ever been at is the Wild’s arena and the ice looked pretty spot on with the insignia and all that. Where the rink animations are poor is later on in a period when the ice gets a bit rough. The same rink look is given to the end of every period. The outer oval of the rink looks like it has been skated on hard, even though there has been little to no skating on the sides. I also see that there are no skate marks made as you skate, something I did see in my last hockey game, NHL Hitz Pro, although that was for the Xbox. Maybe the Xbox version of this game has more attention to detail than the PS2 version.
Framerate is shown at a constant rate while you actually play the game. Where the framerate drops is when he crowd is in the picture. NHL Hitz Pro had a stop and go effect during replays while this game has more of a stuttering effect to it. It happens very infrequently though because you will be lucky to score as many goals in this game as you are in NHL Hitz Pro on a like difficulty level. You see a bigger drop in framerate when players go to the penalty box. It is obvious that highly animated players are meeting low animated fans and the framerate just stutters.
Overall this is a good graphic package, I just think they could have done a few extra things to make it a great graphic package. I also wonder if the GameCube or Xbox versions have an update with the graphics or if this is a straight port affair like most EA Sports games.
Much like Madden 2004 the commentary in this game suffers. The commentators seem to take an almost passing interest in the game. Sure, they do their play-by-play, but often the lead commentator screws up. I was playing the Wild versus the Stars and he said something like, “The Stars steal it from Gaborik” when it was actually Gaborik that stole the puck from the Stars. There were also some instances of plays being called far later than they were done. It just felt that the commentator was just slightly behind the action on the rink sometimes. EA Sports should really go back and fix some of these games in the commentary section.
The good far outweighs the bad in this game though. The licensed tracks in EA Trax are excellent from my perspective, probably the best so far of any EA Sports game. Bands like Deftones, Alient Ant Farm, The Ataris and Adema (who also appear in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004) have tracks in this game, although I never found a place where I can turn off certain ones like I could in other EA Sports games. Maybe that is available in the Xbox version, but I don’t know. The other great thing about the game are the sounds on the rink. Hockey is a rough sport and the sounds make it sound like that. If you’re in your home rink and you check a player in the boards the crowd will scream. If you’re losing badly, the crowd will boo. You can literally feel every bone crushing hit, slap shot, blocked shot, etc. in this game. EA Sports always seems to go the extra mile with the sounds of the game, now if they would just transfer that to the commentary.
The control is easy to understand, but hard to master. Simple controls are X to pass, square to saucer pass (a pass that is done slightly above the ice surface), circle to shoot (hold down for slap shot, hit lightly for wrist shot), R1 to speed ahead, etc. You can also use the right analog stick to do a deke on opposing players. The deke ability will come to be your friend quite quickly, but it can be difficult to get ahold of until you play a few games. On defense you can stick check the puck with the square button, body check with the triangle button, R1 is still speed and the right analog stick is used as Bruiser Control. If there are two offensive players around you, move the right analog stick toward which player you want to hit and you hit him. You can also charge up by holding the R3 button (right analog stick pushed in) to have a little more power in your checks.
Gameplay for the most part is excellent except for a couple things I will get into later. The controls are easy to understand, but the more difficult moves such as the deke and the Bruiser Control will take a while to get used to. Both of these moves rely on the right analog stick. Let’s start off with the deke move. I’ll be honest, the computer AI is pretty good in this game. When you first start playing you will see that it is hard to get past the computer’s defensivemen unless you learn to pass well or use the deke effectively. If you take your player straight into the blue zone, chances are the defensivemen will slap away the puck or put the hurt on you with a check. This happens even on the lowest difficulty level. This is of course where the deke comes in. If you understand when and in which direction to do a deke you can fake out the defensiveman and get a good shot on goal or get deep penetration into the opposing zone. I suggest playing a few games and getting used to the deke, it will serve you well.
The only problem I have while playing the game is that both myself and the computer seems to overskate the puck quite easily. I could literally be going straight for the puck and I fly right on by without grabbing onto it. Then I try to turn around and I don’t have a sharp enough turn and the computer gets ahold of the puck before I do. Even through the good number of games I have gone through I am still having this problem. I’ve even had the computer dump the puck into my zone for an icing call if I touch he puck, but they get to it before I do…d’oh!
Now let’s get into the meat of the game: the modes. We have Play Now, Season, Dynasty and Online (PS2 only). Play Now is the easy pick-up game, akin to an exhibition mode in any other EA Sports game. You can control the speed of the game as well as many other things through the Rules and Options section on the main menu. The Season mode is just that…going through a season with one team. I would argue that this is the best mode, although you have no control over such things as drafting, hiring/firing coaches, raising arena prices for tickets, etc. Those fall into the Dynasty mode, a mode that I think has a lot of problems.
Dynasty mode is the meat and potatoes of this game. You take control of a General Manager and can oversee your team through 20 years. The biggest problem with this mode is that you go in on the bottom rung no matter which team you pick. Your first text message says that your coaches have been fired and that you need to build up the team and arena from scratch. This is all well and good, but I’m not into this kind of gameplay in my hockey games. I love the bone crushing action of a hockey game and not into overseeing a whole squad…especially having to start off with a bare minimum. This isn’t NCAA Football 2004 or Madden 2004, where you had control of a team that was already in its correct place. Why do I have to start out so low and bring the team up from there? I want to take my Wild and start them from their current levels, not a pacified level. In Dynasty mode you have goals to attain. When you attain those goals you put those points toward 2 different sections: the team itself and the arena. Each section has a number of sub-sections that you can raise the level on. As you go up in level on each of the sub-sections it gives a enhancement to your team, such as a +2 to their stamina. I played through a few games in this mode and just didn’t find it too exciting. I can understand there are those people that love the simulation aspect and would love to take a team from rags to riches, but this just isn’t for me in a hockey game. This is why I say the Season Mode is the best mode in this game. It allows me to play a whole season, make simple line changes and not have to bring my team up from the ditch.
The last mode is Online mode, which is PS2 only. I’ve played a few games online so far and I must say it is quite nice. Voice chat is supported for those that have a Broadband connection and a USB headset (I have the former, but not the latter). I do not know if I played anyone that was connecting via a dial-up connection, but chances are I didn’t because I went straight to the Broadband Only chat room to find my games. Each of the games I played ran without a drop in framerate, which I was somewhat surprised about because hockey is a fast game and I figured I might see a stutter here and there. I’ve had slowdown on other PS2 online games, so it was quite a surprise to have an easy time of it.
NHL 2004 also includes a Create a Player mode as well. It is not as robust as Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004, but you can make a nice player here. I honestly only sat in this part for a couple minutes just to get a feel of what kind of CAP (create a player) mode it was.I could play this game for Season mode and Online games only and I’d be just fine. For simulation people that like to start off on the bottom rung, the Dynasty mode is right up your alley…it just isn’t up mine. Much like every other sports game out there, the amount of replay value depends on how much you like the game and how much you like the sport itself. I could see myself spending hours just playing some games in Season mode for instance or playing some games online and find that time has flown by.