NHL Rivals 2004
Winter…it’s cold. It’s miserable. It gets dark early, and you have to shovel snow(well at least those of us in the Midwest have to deal with these things). The only real saving grace about winter is the fact that it’s hockey season. Hockey has to be the most underappreciated sport in the world. You’ve got the hitting of football, the speed of soccer, and none of the lame standing around in baseball. Seriously people, watch the sport or, better yet, find a way to get to an NHL rink and get good seats (in the corner about 10-15 rows off the ice) and you’ll fall in love with the sport. If you don’t, then you really need to have your head examined.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s time to talk about Microsoft’s first hockey game for their XSN sports line, NHL Rivals. Like all sports, hockey has its share of historical rivalries…Edmonton and Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, Colorado and Detroit, Columbus and Nashville, the Rangers and fiscal responsibility. OK, so the last one was a bit of a cheap shot but the sport has had some great rivalries over the years and Microsoft has placed these great rivalries at the crux of its hockey franchise.
The graphics in NHL Rivals are solid but lag behind the other hockey franchises. The players all have generic faces so if you’re looking to see your favorite players on the ice the only way you’ll recognize them is by looking at the number on their back. The animations are smooth and I didn’t see a lot of jerkiness in the players. Occasionally, it felt like the game would speed up and slow down during replays. The game has a flexible camera system that allows you to zoom in/out as much as you want. The default camera view does a good job of showing all the on-ice action but you can tweak the camera to your heart’s content. The late release of the game does have some benefits. The Blue Jackets’ third jersey was included in the game, which is pretty cool (Atlanta’s new powder blue “pajama” sweater didn’t make the cut though…fortunately).
One thing that quickly becomes apparent after playing a few games is that there are really only two rinks in the ice. There is an outdoor rink for the practice mode and an indoor rink for the rest of the games. Sure, they change the logo at center ice and the jerseys the fans are wearing but that’s it. It’s the same rink over and over again. From a game play standpoint this isn’t a big deal but it really hurts the realism of the game. This just adds to the dated feel of the game as the EA and Sega franchises have had this feature in their games for a few years now.
The sounds of the game are decent but nothing to write home about. The on-ice in-game sounds (skating sound, pucks hitting the board, players hitting players into the boards) is solid. There’s a nice ka-chunk when you check someone, which is very satisfying. Where Rivals suffers is the absolutely awful play-by-play and color commentary. Microsoft brought in John Davidson to do the color in the game (which was a great idea as JD is a damn good hockey announcer) but the implementation is not so good. The play-by-play announcing feels a bit choppy. There doesn’t seem to be a big vocabulary so you hear a lot of things over and over again. Davidson’s commentary is solid but feels a little uneven as well (which is a shame as the actual commentary is solid). NHL Rivals does get some bonus points for some cool sound cues (whenever you pause you hear “We’ll be right back” from the announcer). As with most other modern Xbox games, you have your choice of the soundtrack that comes with the game or you can create your own from music files stored on your Xbox.One big problem I had was the lack of any kind of training mode. The Open Ice mode is basically your choice of team shooting on a net with a goalie. There’s no way to practice one timers, Microsoft’s new passing modes, or get used to the coaching commands. NFL Fever had a great training mode and that is something that could really add a lot of value to Rivals. It’s not a big deal but it’s a little disappointing that there’s not something more substantial there.
The game play is the heart of any hockey game and the play in NHL Rivals isn’t bad. Microsoft introduces some interesting new twists to the genre. The first new item is the face-off system. Rather than trying to time the drop of the puck or just wildly pushing a button to win the face-off there is a simple Rock-Paper-Scissors system. You have three choices, clean face off, body block, or tie up their stick. Stick tie up beats clean faceoff, clean face-of beats body block, and body block beats stick tie up. Should both players select the same option the system will randomly determine which player wins the face off. It’s a pretty simple system and NHL Rivals does allow you to use the left and right triggers to raise and lower your stick to try and fake out your opponent. It’s an interesting system but I’m not necessarily sure that I like it more than the usual button mashing as I felt a little disconnected from the face-offs. I did manage to get past this by trying to time the face-off choice by repeatedly pushing my selection but it didn’t really feel the same.
Another cool feature is the new passing system. There are three ways you can dish the puck. The first is by pushing the left thumbstick and hitting the A button. This conducts a standard directional pass. The second way is by pushing the right thumbstick in the direction you want to pass. This executes a pinpoint, which is a little more accurate. . This is actually a pretty slick system and allows for you to quickly execute tic-tac-toe passing which is critical to the game. You can click the right thumbstick and push a direction to execute a saucer pass. I tend to be a passing freak when I play video game hockey so I was really digging this system. You almost pass too much but when it’s this easy it’s hard not to do.
The rest of the controls are solid and I had no problem getting used to them after a few games. I really liked having the turbo button as a trigger and allowing you to switch to the last defensemen with the right thumbstick (when you don’t have the puck) is a pretty good idea. The only thing I struggled with was the on-the-fly coaching. You use the d-pad to select strategies, lines, aggressiveness, and formation. It’s a cool feature but you have to do it while you play, which can be a bit difficult as you’re trying to play the game. I never quite got the hang of it but those of you who can multi-task better than I can might not have a problem with it.The actual hockey playing isn’t bad despite all of the other quirks. The AI isn’t bad and I never found a money play where I could exploit the AI. You have a good amount of control over how you setup your offense and defense and the game moves smoothly. The manager/dynasty mode is OK and allows you to play shortened seasons for those of you who don’t want to play through an 82 game season. The usual features are there as you can create, trade, and manage your players. A nice feature in the game is that you give nicknames to the players you create and the play-by-play guy uses them during the game. If you have access to Xbox Live, you can download roster updates (with player pictures no less).
Speaking on Xbox Live, the game is XSN enabled which means lots of online goodness. This is really where NHL Rivals shines. There are a lot of interesting multiplayer options. You have the standard one vs. one hockey but Rivals also allows you to play multiple people on a side over XSN. This allows you to play up to five vs. five, which is a pretty cool feature. You have to have 10 really good people to pull it off but it’s still a pretty sweet feature.
At the end of the day, NHL Rivals is an OK hockey game. It introduces some new concepts to the electronic hockey world but the game just doesn’t have the depth of the other games in the market. I hope MS continues to invest in this franchise as the world needs more good hockey games (hell, the world needs more hockey period). If you don’t have Xbox Live then you’ll probably want to pass and pick up EA’s NHL 2004 or ESPN NHL 2004. If you have Xbox Live, then it’s worth a rental at best.
Microsoft introduces some new concepts into the hockey gaming world but the implementation is a bit lacking. The multiplayer options on XSN are solid but the single player side feels a bit dated.
Rating: 7.3 Average
* 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.