It was the best of times it was the worst of times. That classic phrase describes ESPN NHL2K5 to a “T” as the latest incarnation in this hockey franchise has some of the best hockey game play ever to grace a CRT but it’s beset by bugs and quality issues that tarnish the overall product.
This year’s version includes a host of new features to compliment the usual salvo of graphical tweaks. The biggest of them is the “Intense Contact Controls” which allow you to slash, hook, and check other players while you don’t have the puck. The controls are very reminiscent of the new “Hit Stick” feature in this year’s Madden game and add a lot of spice to the game. You do have to be careful when you use these features as they can result in penalties or if executed poorly, your goalie could be facing a one or more on none situation. It’s a pretty cool feature and really adds a lot to the game.
Another new feature of the game is that whenever you take a face-off you get a picture in picture window showing you the side of the face off. This allows you to see the ref dropping the puck and timing your button press accordingly. It’s a pretty sweet feature but it does result in a slight frame drop as the game removes the window and switches back to the full screen. It’s a bit jarring at first but you get used to it after a while. Depsite being a nice feature, it would have been good for them to have eliminated the stutter before the game shipped.
The other big addition in this year’s version is a set of “party games” that are mini-games you can play with your friends. These consist of shooting, skating, passing, and puck handling games. None of them is particularly memorable and may be a little too frantic to play without four people as the game will fill in computer AI players if you don’t fill in all four slots. This can be off putting as the AI can dominate the games while you are learning them. Some of them are kind of fun but it’s something that will probably be perfected in the next version of the game.
Where ESPN NHL2K5 comes alive is the actual on ice play. Last year’s game set a pretty high bar in terms of game play and this year’s version continues that tradition. While the player models have been upgraded, the real improvement is in the player animations. So while the game only looks a little better than last year’s version, it feels and flows a lot better. There are tons of new little motions that add a great deal of realism to the game.
Game play isn’t anything without controls and this is another area where ESPN NHL2K5 shines. This franchise has always had solid controls and this version continues the tradition. Besides the afore mentioned Intense Contact controls, another new addition is a the variable flipping of the puck in the game. Rather than just flipping the puck, you can control the strength of the flip shot by how long your hold the Y button down. It’s a lot like the slap shot control and it does take a bit of getting used to (the first few times I just flipped it to the opponent instead of over them which lead to a few breakaways the other way).
A nice feature that I like is fighting actually means something in the game. In the past, it’s had an impact on the crowd which has an impact on the players (in theory at least) but when you win a fight in ESPN NHL2K5, you get unlimited turbo for a period of time. The bigger the victory the more turbo time you’re going to get. While this isn’t exactly realistic in terms of real hockey, it does make sense in the context of video game hockey.
The franchise mode has been expanded this year with the addition of scouts that you can use to scout other teams. If you’re a die hard, then you’ll really appreciate this level of detail but it’s not something you have to do if you don’t want to. One interesting quirk with the franchise mode is that I would have players who got hurt BETWEEN games and then be ready to go for the next game. I can understand players getting hurt in practice but you don’t expect them to jump back so quickly or for it to happen so often. If you liked the franchise mode from the last few versions of the game, you’ll be right at home with this year’s version as not much else has changed. This is a good thing as it’s still a nice system.
Along with the franchise mode, ESPN NHL2K5 includes a new Dream Team mode where you have to play your way through a ladder of all star games. These all star teams have been picked by NHL players, ESPN commentators, and the ESPN developers. It’s a nice addition but with the World Cup of Hockey this year, you really have to wonder why the World Cup teams aren’t in the game at some level (it might be a licensing issue but you never know). It’s a nice addition to the game but some more international teams might have been appreciated.
Another great tradition of the ESPN NHL series is the wonderfully rendered arenas. Instead of having static arenas where just the logo at center ice changes, ESPN renders each arena in beautiful detail. I had some friends with Blue Jackets season tickets over and they swore they could see their seats. Even the Jumbotrons are exact down to the advertising boards. The on ice reflections are excellent and when you play in Joe Louis rink, you can practically see every banner the Red Wings have won over the years. It’s this attention to detail that makes the game so wonderful to play.
Too bad this attention to detail didn’t carry over to the rest of the games presentation layer. The menus are exceedingly generic and possess none of the flair of the menus in the company’s NFL franchise. If you bought last year’s version of the game, you’ll feel right at home with this year’s game. The franchise screens look almost exactly the same with the exception of the new franchise items added to the game. It’s not a bad thing but a few new tweaks would have been appreciated.
The audio in the game is likewise hit and miss. The in-game sounds are excellent. The sounds of blades on ice, shots ricocheting of the dashers, and pucks thumping off pads are all good. The only let down is the sound when you land a hit. It’s kind of weak. You’re knocking someone down; there should be a good thumping noise when you’re dealing out the big hits. The announcers for the game are good for an electronic hockey game. Bill Clement and Gary Thorne do a good job of announcing and the game features by far the best commentary of any video game. Yes, they get a bit annoying at times but they are still rock solid and certainly more tolerable than any other video game announcing duo.
Multiplayer is as good as always. While I wasn’t able to test it out over Xbox Live, Sega is providing full Xbox Live support for those who want league play and statistics. I did test the game with the traditional “invite some buddies over for beers and few games” mode and we had a blast. While it’s always fun to play over Xbox Live, nothing beats playing games with your buds.
Another final gripe about the game is the manual. It’s pathetic. In order to get any information on the new features in the game, you have to play through a game to get a menu that outlines the new features. All I ask is a page or two in the manual that explains the new features.
Like every other ESPN video game, Sega is only charging $19.99 for this year’s edition. At this price, it’s a no-brainer to recommend this game despite the numerous bugs in it. The basic hockey in the game is just fantastic and a joy to play, It’s just a shame that the rest of the game doesn’t meet the standards of the game play. Hopefully, next year the game will be tightened up a bit to match the hockey game play.
Probably the best hockey game on the market, despite a plethora of bugs, ESPN hockey is just a blast to play and you can't beat the price
Rating: 8.3 Good
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Hi, my name is Charles Husemann and I've been gaming for longer than I care to admit. For me it's always been about competing and a burning off stress. It started off simply enough with Choplifter and Lode Runner on the Apple //e, then it was the curse of Tank and Yars Revenge on the 2600. The addiction subsided somewhat until I went to college where dramatic decreases in my GPA could be traced to the release of X:Com and Doom. I have been a Microsoft Xbox MVP since 2009.