If EA Sports’ hockey franchise is known for one thing, it’s the series’ consistent inconsistency for the past 12 years. Last year’s ultra-arcade installment, for example, left more than a few gamers wondering whether EA was moving toward the NHL Hitz model. NHL 2004, though, benefits from EA’s annual inconsistency by delivering a revamped, puck-in-your-face, ice fest of a good time. Yes folks, EA’s NHL series once again feels the way it should, and that’s good news for hockey-loving gamers.
The on-ice game play is the most impressive facet this year, with so much more control crammed into a limited controller layout. At your fingertips you have poke checks, shot fakes, dekes, body checking and diving, and not one iota feels the least bit unnatural. But with these increased control options comes the need for a lot more planned technique than previous installments in the NHL franchise. And in my opinion, that’s a good thing.
For example, this year balanced body checks are fully available, but if you miss a body check you’ll truly get burned for it, meaning you want to avoid being so liberal about throwing your weight around. Passing is also more defined, and it actually needs to be learned or you’ll find yourself dishing out steal after steal. Even fighting is more realistic, shying away from the generic robotic-boxing of the past for a more fluid experience. In fact, NHL 2004 easily has the best fighting of the hockey games this year, so if you suffer from the “I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out” mentality, this is the game for you.
The artificial intelligence is a bit better this time around as well, both from a teammate and opponent perspective. It’s great that you can actually rely on your AI teammates to try their best and even pass the puck if your position allows a good play. Even the goalie is on top of his game and almost makes it impossible to score without first setting up a team-played strategy. NHL 2004 also features a versus mode allowing up to four players to square-off on the ice, with online play on the PS2. Unfortunately, Xbox gets the shaft again this year for online support.
When you’re not battling it out on the ice, you can take advantage of the very Madden-like “GM Mode,” which replaces the Dynasty mode the series has used in the past. In GM Mode you take control of an NHL franchise, making all the decisions as a true manager would, complete with positive or negative results. You have the ability to hire staff, upgrade facilities and equipment, even set the price for tickets.
As you progress in the GM Mode so do your skills, which means that almost in an RPG manner you can become an excellent contract negotiator or mold yourself into a “players GM” with the perception of being someone who really cares about the team. This, in turn, keeps team morale high. The possibilities are endless, really, and I actually found myself playing GM more than I did an actual player on the ice. Kudos to EA for providing such a deep game mode; it almost makes NHL 2004 two games in one.
In addition to the gameplay enhancements, NHL 2004 offers much more in visual depth as well. Arenas offer amazing visuals and lighting effects while staying in sync with their real-world counterparts. Likewise, the crowds, although they seem hyped-up on Jolt Cola during the pre-game presentation, are alive and no longer sit back like mimes at a foreign movie show. Where the actual players are concerned, the character models are also animated more realistically and look much more detailed, giving the game a more authentic atmosphere. It’s easy to appreciate the hard work EA Canada did in response to the criticism of last year’s game.
The audio also has improved, especially with regard to the in-game announcers. No longer do the announcers make relentless attempts at bring witty; Jim Houston and Craig Simpson now focus on calling play-by-play actions. This improvement, plus the life-like sound effects, immerse players in the game. Everything from the buzzing of score boards and body checks to slap shots and crowd sounds are fantastic.
Overall, NHL 2004 is a great improvement over last year’s version. It offers great gameplay, improved AI and a real attention to detail. As an EA game, it still lacks online support on Xbox, which is a crying shame, but the improvements help compensate for that if you’re a die-hard EA loyalist. With a package this good, let’s hope NHL 2005 bucks EA’s annual trend of inconsistency.
- Gameplay: 9
- Graphics: 8
- Sound: 8.5
- Replay: 6
- Overall: 8.4
- Back-to-basics seriousness in the NHL series.
— Sylvia Gallardo