Ice Hockey is a game that I imagine very few British people get to play. It's a shame, as out of all the American sports that haven't really become massive over here, Ice Hockey looks to be the most entertaining. It's fast, action packed and brutal. Probably not much like how you remember hockey at school. Playing on a ploughed field that prevents the ball from moving more than a few metres isn't my idea of fun.
With this resentment of mud in my mind, I approached ESPN NHL 2K5 with a fair bit of expectation. A game that looks like so much fun to play, must surely translate well to videogame form. I'll admit that the last time I played a Hockey game was on the Megadrive, but that is no bad thing. EA's NHL titles in the 16-bit era were some of the most entertaining sports titles on a console. I was expecting Sega's latest to bring back those fond memories.
'For anyone who isn't up to speed on the rules of Ice Hockey, don't let this be a problem for you'
For anyone who isn't up to speed on the rules of Ice Hockey, don't let this be a problem for you. In my experience the rules aren't as much of a stumbling block as they are in other American sports, like the NHL or NBA. Hockey is a pretty simple affair; hit the puck into the opponents net. However, this is actually much harder than it looks.
Scoring is very difficult. I guess it should be hard, with a giant padded man covering most of the goal, but at times you think it is impossible to score. Part of what makes this so frustrating is the incredibly fast pace that the game is played at. You are expecting to score a lot, to match the speed of the game, but this rarely happens.
Hockey is brutal, and NHL 2K5 captures this excellently. Not only are checks suitably brutal, but there are a number of dirty moves that can be performed using the right analogue stick. If you are in a desperate situation and must stop an opposing player you can perform a sly trip. Now, this isn't quite as useful as it sounds, as it more often than not results in s trip to the sin bin. You are penalised a player for a set time, but at least the other team were stopped from having a great scoring chance.
If you play a little too dirty and start to annoy your opponents, their tension metre will rise; push this too high and a fight will start. The game will stop and you go one-on-one against one of the opposing team's players. In truth, the fighting is pretty clumsy, but some tactics are required in order to win. Repeated button mashing will tire out your player, so careful timing is the order of the day. It's no Virtua Fighter, but it helps recreate the tension that is obviously felt when playing the game for real.
'It successfully mixes some of the management depth found in a title like football Manager'
The major component to the game is the Franchise mode. Here you control almost every aspect of your team, from signing players, to organising coaching staff. For anyone with a real interest in the sport, this will keep you entertained for a long time. It successfully mixes some of the management depth found in a title like football Manager, with actual gameplay that you control. This alone gives the game a great amount of longevity, but there is more.
A Dream Team mode has been added to this year's game. This is a ladder tournament where you take on twenty teams whose players have been chosen by the game's developers. While this means less to someone who doesn't follow the game, it offers another challenge for the solo player to take part in.
Something that helps the game appeal to newcomers to the sport is the party mode. This mode contains an arcade style gameplay mode, similar to the NHL Hitz games, an elimination mode and a battle mode. Battle mode is easily the stand-out part of the party mode. This is a series of mini-games that can be played with up to four people. It's something that you really don't expect to find in a sports sim, and is a really great addition. Out of the fifteen on offer, a good number of them are great fun to play and might even get your friends interested enough in the game to try a standard game of Hockey.
Visually, NHL 2K5 looks great on both Xbox and PlayStation 2. There are some minor cases of slowdown, but on the whole the game represents the sports faithfully. Anyone used to the, frankly poor, commentary found in European Football titles will be blown away by what is heard in NHL 2K5. The commentators keep up with the action well and seem to make valid comments on what is happening - a far cry from the gibberish that is spouted in the Pro Evo series of football games.
It is hard to criticise a game that has been released at Â£19.99, but there is one thing that is hard to explain. The North American release of the game featured Xbox Live and PS2 online play. The Pal release has had all online play removed. Now, there may have been a good reason for this, but for fans this is a real blow. This is undoubtedly one of the best Hockey games ever made and it is a real shame that European gamers don't have the chance to play it online.
It is easy to ignore a game like this. It is a simulation of an American sport that is only played by a few people in Europe. It has also been released at a Budget price. However, don't let either of these points prevent you from taking a look at ESPN NHL 2K5. As far as fast entertaining sports games go, this is up there with the best of them. Had online play been included this would have been a no-brainer, but considering very few other budget titles are this polished, it is hard to complain.