STAFF REVIEW of ESPN NHL Hockey 2K4 (Xbox)

Wednesday, September 24, 2003.
by Rick Wallace

ESPN NHL Hockey 2K4 Box art ?We Will ..We Will?Rock You!? Plays in the background as the puck drops in the final minute of play in Nashville, TN. Legwand wins the faceoff and passes off to Timmonen. Timmo passes down ice to Walker waiting on the right side. Quick pass to Legwand at the point! He shoots! He scores!? INTENSE! Sega along with the help of the ESPN licensee has scored a game winner with a brilliant job of making NHL 2k3 an even better game in 2k4. ESPN NHL Hockey 2k4 is chock full of extras, animations, and game play that will satisfy the need of any diehard hockey nut. Some of these option include mini-games, token collecting for special unlockables, in depth franchise and of course fluid online play. The ESPN style overlays and themes make you really wonder if you are playing the game or watching Tuesday Night Hockey. ESPN announcers Gary Thorne and Bill Clement call the game in almost unbelievable accuracy. If you want the best hockey game on the market you?d best be looking in the direction of ESPN NHL Hockey 2k4.

This game is an outstanding addition to any sports buff?s collection. I would highly suggest picking this up immediately if you haven?t already. Sega has now knocked off the mighty EA NHL Hockey series and you can be sure they plan on staying at the top.

One of the first things you will notice in the new game is its gameplay. It?s as smooth as silk and the graphics are definitely greatly improved over last year?s title. New deke moves with the use of the right analog stick are a great addition to an already solid control scheme. Scoring takes a lot of skill on the higher difficulties (Pro and higher) while on the lowest 2 difficulties you can pretty much light up the lamp as much as you like. You?ll have to master the one-timer, as the one-man scoring maneuvers from last year are not near as easy to pull off. I am referencing the ?Swoop? (S-maneuver) for those that know exactly what I am talking about. While it is still possible to pull of this maneuver, it is not nearly the scoring opportunity it was last year. Goalie AI is much more solid disallowing this ?cheap? maneuver to be depended upon as your only offense. Did I say it was impossible to score with this maneuver? No, but a lot more difficult and those that rely on this as their only scoring opportunity will sadly lose most of their games. SUGGESTION : Learn your offense and do not rely on these ?cheap? maneuvers to begin with. Those of you looking for a good fighting engine will be greatly disappointed again this year, as it doesn?t seem like they spent much time in this area. So don?t expect Capcom vs Marvel when the gloves are tossed off. Most people will be happy to hear that the ?up? and ?down? ice debacle form last year has been fixed. Now, when you play as the home team you always go up ice twice no matter which team you are. These are just a few of the great improvement made in gameplay. I could go on and on for pages about player handling, puck physics and so forth.

Online play is so fluid its ridiculous. There is still the somewhat discerning divergence error or synchronization error. Most of this is due to an opponent making line changes before the puck is ever dropped. It seems that if you can play through to the first stoppage of play and then make your line changes you?ll be able to finish out a lot more games without errors. The unfortunate side of the online tends to affect league players. Last year you were able to load a profile with all your league settings, so you needed only to remove your voice mask when the game started. This year you have to set all your settings once you enter the game with your opponent. Voice mask is off by default, so at least they got one thing right. ESPN allows you to use sliders to adjust your gameplay quality, from game speed to penalties to aggression. Tweak them to your preference. I have personally been playing game speed 1, penalties 4, and All Pro difficulty and the game statistics have been so realistic its scary. It seems unfortunately that there is some sort of cheat that affects the scoreboard and issues multiple wins for one game. This is one issue that needed fixed from last year and seems to be somewhat overlooked. NHL has also instituted the quitting option, which means if your opponent feels the need to quit, you will be given the option to allow it or not. If he decides to just pull the plug he will be given a DROP on his Live record. Sega says they will use this statistic to possibly reign havoc on the quitters. That?s a definite plus for all of us legit players online. Justice can finally prevail.

Sega has decided to add an option to their hockey series called ?The Skybox?. Basically it is to rival Madden?s long time Madden cards. You use the crib to spend credits on unlockables, view challenges complete, player records, trophies won, etc.. There are old-timer jerseys to unlock from as far back as the early 1900?s. You can also unlock mini-game such as air hockey, mini-rink and pond hockey. All three have there own appeal. I personally enjoy the pond hockey the most as there are no rules, its 2 on 2 and very fast an fun. Its high scoring and a great multiplayer game! Also included in the games arsenal of extra is an All Star Skills competition. Here you will test your skills of accuracy, speed, puck control, strength and many other tests of skill. If you?ve ever watched the NHL Skills Competition on TV then you are probably frothing at the mouth to compete yourself. Go ahead and try and tee of with the hardest shot, or act as a sniper and pluck the targets out of the net in an accuracy contest. You want to know what the best thing is about the skills competition? Not only can you show up the computer, but you can take the competition onto Xbox Live and compete against the most skilled players from around the world! Now that?s an option! As you complete the skill challenges in single player you will earn tokens to use toward unlockables. You will also notice many of the token challenges have to do with season play as well. You?ll have to win a game in the Stanley Cup, win 5-games in a row on Pro difficulty, have a 3 game road win streak, and these are just Level One Challenges. 2 other Levels to complete.

As I mentioned before the graphics have been improved 100 times over. The arena renditions look outstanding and the reflective ice is just sweet. A lot of folks were upset that the camera angle seemed so distant last year, and Sega took that into account this year and put the camera right on top of the ice at a ¾ angle. Player animations and goalie saves are almost unreal. You?ll see players making that last second dive at the puck to poke it in the net as he slides by. The goalies butterfly, lay out, dive, glove, stick handle, stand on their head?need I go on. It?s amazing! I haven?t seen any slowdown at all during gameplay, and that is a plus as hockey is a fast paced game and would suffer greatly from a framerate problem. Ice animations, such as ice spray when stopping, players being checked into the team benches and glass breakage have not been forgotten. Player checks have quite a variety of styles. They are well done and enjoyable to watch.

Once of the most outstanding features in the game is its sounds!!! The commentary is almost 100% dead on with every on ice maneuver and pass you perform. Gary Thorne sounds like he is actually watching the game as he calls it. That is definitely impressive as I have never seen commentary so !&%$@#* good in any game! Bill Clement gets a little repetitive in his analysis, but I guess there are only so many ways to talk about a player without needing another disk or 2. The crowds chant player names and get quiet and loud with the performance of the home team. You?ll hear all the unique goals horns and buzzers from every arena in the league. The sounds are just absolutely solid in this game and you couldn?t really ask for much more. Any game that includes the great tune ?We Will Rock You? by Queen has to be one of the greatest sports titles ever made. I mean how could sports games have lasted this long without that tune laying in the background to fire up the crowd!

Suggestions: The game is outstanding, but I would possibly add the possibility of using downloaded rosters online. Speaking of online, the scoreboard ranking system and glitches really needs to be fixed. It?s unfortunate that many of the legit players have to suffer due to the tactics of a few that just want to see their name in light. Also, bring in some sort of hockey pregame show or even a post game highlight reel.

Overall: 9.6 / 10
Gameplay: 9.6 / 10
Visuals: 8.8 / 10
Sound: 9.8 / 10


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