Last years virtual NHL season saw a new champion emerge in the form of Sega Sports’ NHL 2K3, whose realistic gameplay and newly acquired ESPN presentation was able to overcome the shadow created by EA Sports.
EA’s NHL 2003 fell below expectations with gameplay that felt way too arcade-like, and the addition of the "Gamebreaker" feature (used mainly in the NBA Street series) didn’t help much for NHL purists, which was sad considering how I considered the previous NHL 2002 to be a vast improvement on the series. What Madden used to suffer with an "odd year curse" seems to now hit NHL as well.
This year, both EA Sports and Sega Sports/ESPN are going all out to win the NHL crown.
NEW FEATURES: ESPN came out hitting last year with a very realistic hockey experience. This year, they added a new development team with Kush Games. Similar to their NFL title, Sega takes ADVANTAGE of the ESPN license with a new commentary team of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement. Another ESPN NHL tradition, the All Star Skills competition, has now been added, as well as the Skybox, which features unlockable bonuses similar to the NFL Crib.
After admitting a poor showing with NHL 2003, EA Sports started this year’s title from scratch with new development team Black Box. Ironically, this is the same Black Box team that made Sega’s excellent NHL 2K on the Dreamcast. Black Box are hockey purists and it was their goal to make NHL 2003 very realistic.
In addition, they gave the control system a major overhaul, applying new Bruise Control via the right thumbstick and added a new and improved fighting engine that mimics real life NHL fights. To round out the mix, EA added an updated Dynasty mode with finances, 3 new Elite Leagues, and improved online play for the PS2 and PC.
ADVANTAGE: NHL 2004
GRAPHICS: In addition to the flashy ESPN interface, ESPN features the best visuals between both titles. Player faces are highly detailed, almost photo-realistic. Each of the arenas are rendered perfectly and the crowds look impressive. The frame rate is constantly smooth without any choke ups whatsoever.
NHL 2004 also features authentic player faces, but not as detailed as those in ESPN, and the arenas are authentic, but the action does tend to slow down at times when all 10 players (and the referee) are in an offensive zone at the same time. Even worse, the crowd animation is absolutely horrible, as it seems they only have three frames of animation. After the impressive crowds in NHL 2002, this is a major disappointment.
ADVANTAGE: ESPN NHL
SOUND: As mentioned before, ESPN uses their license to feature the new commentary team in Thorne and Clement. However, in my case, this is a curse. I have always had a hatred towards Biased Bill "Cementhead" and his comments, not to mention that Gary Thorne is one of the most irritating ESPN personalities I have ever heard. On the plus side, the crowds are as realistic as I ever heard from the MCI Center (sans the horn blaring from section 400), and they even kept the "Olie" chant when Kolzig makes a big save. The PA announcer even sounds true, giving more enthusiasm during home team goals, however he gets the times backwards (he uses the time remaining in the period as opposed to elapsed time).
NHL 2004 uses the tried and true sound engine they have always used. But the good news is this year, there is no more Don Taylor and his dorky comedy filled dialogue. In his place is former Edmonton Oiler Craig Simpson, who provides a more realistic take on the game. Jim Hughson returns to do play by play, and is as good as ever, getting every play correct without any sign of mistake.
The PA announcer also sounds the same, but he now shows more enthusiasm when a goal is scored by a star player. The crowd still sounds the same as ever.
ADVANTAGE: TIE (NHL for the commentary, ESPN for everything else)
GAMEPLAY: NHL 2K3’s gameplay felt more realistic than EA’s last year, but there were still some concerns that I had, and unfortunately they return in ESPN NHL. The biggest concern I had involves special teams, namely the power play. When playing with 5 minute periods, the power play is shortened to only 30 seconds. Even worse is the fact that the CPU plays perfect penalty killing, as they are able to dump the puck a split second after they claim the puck; a very unrealistic experience.
On the bright side, on Pro difficulty, scoring is quite a challenge; maybe a bit too good. During Franchise mode, I saw Olie Kolzig get five shutouts in just 16 games. Considering that Olie has a career high of six shutouts in 71 games, this is a major concern. Otherwise, much of the gameplay runs the way it should.
NHL 2004’s new development team Black Box takes realism seriously, and the differences between this year and 2003 are night and day. Every aspect of the game is recreated perfectly, and on Medium difficulty the game provides quite a challenge.
The best aspect that is added to NHL 2004 is how time is altered during a power play. Rather than run an accelerated PP like ESPN does, the clock is now set in real time, providing a full 2 minute power play (as it should be). In addition, the final minute of the game AND all of overtime are played in real time.
Fights are also greatly improved. After their experience with NHL Hitz, Black Box took extra care to make the fighting engine as realistic as possible, and they succeeded. Rather than doing a cheap imitation of Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots, players cling onto jerseys and throw punches the way they were meant to be. Even better, players can decide when they want to fight or flee, but it can be used as a cheap way to avoid giving up a goal too.
ADVANTAGE: NHL 2004
EXTRAS: ESPN adds new mini games in the form of the Skills challenge, featuring events such as the Puck Control Relay, Fastest Skater, Hardest Shot, 1-on-1, and Accuracy Shooting. In addition, new modes such as Pond Hockey and a 2-on-2 "Mini Rink" mode are also available.
The Crib feature that was used in ESPN NFL has been carried over with the new Skybox mode. By earning tokens for specific tasks, new bonuses such as classic jerseys and even throwback teams with actual names for existing players (including the 98 Caps) can be unlocked. Online play, which was previously an XBox Live exclusive, is now also available for the PlayStation 2 this year.
NHL 2004’s key new addition comes in the form of the upgraded Dynasty mode. Taking a cue from Madden, finances now come into play in terms of ticket sales for both regular seasons and playoffs. Sadly, prices for concessions and souvenirs cannot be altered. What is new here though is as teams win games and do other achievements such as successful trades or free agency signings, experience points can be earned to hire new staff or build better training facilities, allowing your players to improve on their skills.
Three new international leagues have also been added: Germany’s DEL, Sweden’s Elitserien, and Finland’s SM-Liga, each with their own seasons and tournaments.
Online play is back, but once again, it is only available for the PS2 and PC.
OVERALL: EA Sports has learned from their mistakes last year. Adding Black Box was a smart choice, and it leads them to a victory over Sega Sports at the last minute. This doesn’t mean that ESPN isn’t a quality product, because it is. It’s just for NHL purists like myself, NHL 2004 is the way to go.
CORRESPONDENT’S NOTE: At the time of this writing, I have received word from ESPN that NHL 2004 cover player Dany Heatley’s teammate Dan Snyder died from massive brain injuries after an accident in Heatley’s Ferrari. The car lost control, and smashed into a brick and wrought iron fence. Comments about the EA Sports cover curse aside, this is a very serious matter, and Heatley, who is already facing criminal charges (including a felony), could face more with Snyder’s death. We at GiN wish to express our deepest sympathies towards the Snyder family and wish them the best during this terrible time.