Hockey is a game of speed, finesse, grit and grind. Injury is commonplace, and the ability to shirk pain is viewed as a right of passage. Yet where actual players incur very real bumps and gashes, the pain I experienced while playing ESPN NHL Hockey was strictly metaphorical—a bruised ego. As a veteran of 16-bit hockey games—including EA's perennial NHLPA series—I came to this current-generation hockey title with admittedly outdated sensibilities. In hindsight, these were destined to be upset. Even on the default "professional" difficulty, ESPN NHL Hockey's opponent artificial intelligence can be virtually impervious. Apparently gone are the days of goalie "sweet spots" and ever-scoring one-timers; I'll miss playing keep away to exhaust the final period of close game, unmolested by the opponent's crippled affront. In the glory days I could take my Blackhawks through an eighty-two game season, undefeated, and win Lord Stanly's Cup with panache. Now the Blackhawks suck, and the computer opponent seems constantly over-eager to drive this point home. But I'll stop lamenting and get to what makes ESPN NHL Hockey seem, even in comparison to NHL 2003, evolutionary in the course of hockey games.
Where other hockey titles have automated nuanced aspects of the sport, such as puck handling and pass aiming, ESPN NHL Hockey places these under player discretion. In fact, much of the game's challenge derives from the need to master its control scheme, which ingeniously incorporates a minutia of mechanics. For instance, puck handling is assigned to the right analog stick in a fashion that resembles fighting games; motioning the stick a quarter-circle upwards performs the short deke, while long deking is tied to half-circle movement. Of course this system would be extraneous if the pesky opponent artificial intelligence (AI) did not necessitate its utilization; in other words, don't expect to preserve a one-goal lead by playing keep away for the length of a period. Simply making a beeline through the opposition's defense almost always results in having the puck stripped, so crafty decking, accomplished through deft management of the dual analog configuration, is a must. An unforgiving passing game further produces challenge by requiring that aim precisely match an intended receiver; in repeated instances I unintentionally passed to a player, or even to no one at all, by slightly misjudging his position.
Yet ESPN NHL Hockey's great triumph, which may also put off those accustomed to the more arcade-based feel of NHL 2003, deals with its handing of weight transfer dynamics. Breaking with 16-bit "skating" mechanics, players no longer maintain a suction-like adherence to the ice. Consideration for momentum and alignment now limit the ability to quickly stop and start up in a new direction. Logically, the faster one moves, the more committed he is to that direction. This dynamic also affects passing and one-timers, since the momentum of an intended receiver must be compensated in order to successfully execute offensive plays. As in the real-life sport, a capacity to constantly anticipate, seeing the possible eventualities of a developing play, separates the experienced from the unskilled; thoughtlessly bursting about will only lead to instances of over-skating and open ice for the opponent. All of this, of course, situates a deep, simulation-type gameplay.
Though the title of this sequel departs from its predecessors, the game still belongs to the Sega published, Visual Concepts developed "2K" series. Given that part of my youth was spent in front of ESPN NHL broadcasts—the theme song etched deeply into my consciousness—ESPN NHL Hockey recalls a very particular experience of the sport for me; I imagine that hockey fans will share this familiarity. All of the signature items are believably interwoven, rather than simply included, giving rise to drama reminiscent of television. Requisite music, play-by-play voicing by Bill Thorne and Gary Clement, and visual motifs all contribute to an overarching "ESPN-ness." Instant replays, preceded by flashy logo cutaways, or interlude shots of an idle player chatting with his teammate, are in-line with the conventions of an actual NHL broadcast. After all, "televising" a sports videogame makes sense. Even 16-bit titles crudely attempted this by including instant replays and variable camera angles. And yet ESPN NHL Hockey is the first, in my experience, to authentically nail the rhythm, feeling, and drama of a televised event. In fact, other than the occasionally miscued play-by-play comment, the game never drew me out of its format.
Underneath this consistently-wrought thematic presentation, the game's visuals speak of the Xbox's capacity—at least to the degree that a hockey game might be considered "pretty." Since the arena environment is a relatively uniform construction, the visual prowess of a "realistic" hockey game is measured by the quality of player modeling and animation. EPSN NHL Hockey predominantly excels in the latter category. Having personally watched and participated in more than a few hockey games, the pacing and form of player movement accorded to my intuitive sensibility; this was particularly evident in reactionary animations, such as shot-blocking and pass-interceptions. Occasional moments of awkwardness cannot escape mention however; in remote cases, players will appear to be doing something that they clearly are not, such as leaning exaggeratedly for a sharp turn while in actuality idling forward. Yet I emphasize that this relatively minor issue is the solitary fog on a nearly pristine visor; the game strides towards a visual realism that compliments its simulation-type gameplay.
Still, I miss my sprite-based 16-bit hockey games, deficient opponent AI and all. Somehow I recall enjoying those more than I did ESPN NHL Hockey, even despite all that it brings to the genre: nuanced controls, deep physics and mechanics, a licensed presentation and polished visuals. I think this relates to the issue of accessibility, namely that skills acquired in other action-oriented games translated into classic-era hockey titles; in fact, these played more like platformers than sports simulations. I could discover patterned weaknesses and maintain constant control; minimalist digital input affected maximal on-screen output. Timing, that perennial platforming dynamic, was the sole element to master. I enjoy video games for their ability to distill the events of real-world experience, which is to say, for their non-reality. This is not to say that NHL ESPN Hockey perfectly resembles the actual sport. Rather, movement towards such an end alienates it from the larger body of video games, and gamers. As such movement seems to inform the team-sports subgenre in general, the cross-genre hardcore audience is narrowed—to the exclusion of me.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.