Hockey games since their 3D incarnation haven’t really changed that much over the last couple of years. More graphical enhancements have been the only certainty with these games as the lack of flare to try something new seems to have remained a remote thought.
There have been some wild attempts though and some successful, but NHL Rivals 2004 is looking like most XSN Sports titles to be the serious angle of the sport.
Let’s face it comparing the competition of this game being online with the other online hockey game Sega’s NHL 2K3 which for me totally destroyed any fun in multiplayer gaming, it has a good chance of becoming more of a hit for hockey games.
Just like usual hockey games you have Tournament, Playoffs and Season modes available to play on for the single player aspect of this game and the instant play option for those who just want a quick game without all the fuss. The menu interface is certainly something other games should take note of. They are very impressively styled with lots of nice little subtle animations making transitions a marvel and overall presentation something all games should have a dabble at.
Graphically NHL Rivals 2004 does boast the fact it is exclusive to Xbox so you can expect some nice visual trickery thanks to the Xbox 3D GPU. Nice reflections on the player’s clothing and of course around the actual arenas. It does not blow you away with graphical supremacy to the extent your jaw drops to the ground, but the overall photo-realism will do enough to impress most.
Control of the players is quite loose with an overall feel that you don’t entirely control the player. This is mainly due to the slightly off button reactions and not forgetting the long time it takes for your player to do a full circle.
Player Artificial Intelligence is good although you often despair like in most hockey games that your computer controller player doesn’t want to get in the position to score near the goal from a well aimed pass from your controlled player. This means circling and dodging the opposing team while you hope that a player will find his way to where you want him to be. The goalkeeper is also the defensive master you expect and in a lot of cases freak out at the almost inhuman quality to block almost every shot thrown at him. This in contrast though shadows some of the more ludicrous mistakes he makes on rebounds as very often you are watching your Goalie yet again place the puck in a dangerous place. You can alter his skill level if this worries you, but hey a challenge is often a good thing to have.
Commentary is on a very serious slant so do not expect humorous anecdotes eminating from their sport babble. Instead enjoy facts about the game and other various sound trickery.
The music through the menus is something of a repetitive nightmare especially if you play online in the much used Pick-Up Mode where rules are off and virtually anything goes without interference from match officials. This mode is great to try online and for me and my Live buddies this is definitely the most used mode of them all, you will want to make some adjustment though, and this is the music that continuously plays during this game mode. Same as the menu music it plays in the background naggingly familiar so this is something that needs to be turned off as soon as possible, although this has the effect of also turning off your music during the menus. There is some salvation here as you can select your custom soundtracks from the Xbox Hard Drive, enjoy the feature while you can as Xbox 2 seems to be suggesting that there will not be one.
Music within the normal game modes for breaks between play where you would expect some nice bass pounding music to get you ready for the next run of play disappoint with low volume uninspiring and lacking the great surround push really let this game down, a great shame and something I would definitely want sorting for the next version.
Pick-Up Mode allows up to six players in one game, each person controlling one player throughout the whole game with an arrow indication where you are if you wander off screen. Official ranked games allows for one on one action but if you are totally in the mood for multiplayer mayhem enjoy 10 people playing in one game in the unofficial mode, pure madness but great fun. Lag is not a major issue in this game with a clear indicator of each person’s connection quality so if someone is going to cause problems you will know before starting the game who it might be.
There are some draw backs to online play. It is not clear who is speaking as there is no indication during the game, all this wonderful presentation in the lobby and in the actual game no display of who is muttering those sweet nothings in to your ear. Especially annoying is if someone is going overboard and you want to mute or remove the player, when you can’t be sure easily of who it is without interrupting the game.
A serious game for serious Ice Hockey fans the world over with no sign of a cold reception. While other Ice Hockey online games have been skating on thin ice, this is an almost perfect sporting title for Xbox with great offline and online play, our prayers have been answered. XSN Sports just keeps getting better!