With the launch of Xbox Live and the subsequent refusal of EA in adopting
Microsoft's service in lieu of their own, Microsoft has released their very first
NHL title with NHL Rivals 2004. And although it's a decent first offering
boasting a wide array of options and modes both on- and offline, it's just not
enough to overcome the flaws that plague Rivals' gameplay.
Anyone who has so much as touched an EA NHL title or
Sega's Visual Concepts-turned-ESPN NHL Hockey series will be immediately
familiar with Rivals. For one, the control scheme reads almost exactly
like the game's predecessors and competitors with the standard shooting, passing,
and checking options. Unfortunately, Rivals fails to copy the deke systems
of it's competitors. Rather than allow players to make their own dynamic deke
on the fly to adjust to the situation, Rivals utilizes a single deke command
that produces the same generic animation and results no matter how hard or often
you cram on the poor B button. It's a sorely missed feature, but only the tip
of Rivals' gameplay faults.
that Rivals does pave new ground in is it's unique role system. Each player
on every team is assigned one of four roles: balanced, sniper, agitator, and enforcer.
Snipers are, obviously, the shooters, agitators hit people, enforcers make sure
they don't hit back, and balanced players excel at nothing yet are good at everything.
As a game progresses, certain situations will unfold that allow a player's roles
to be utilized by hitting the accompanying "role" button on the controller.
For instance, on offense an enforcer holding the puck will do a bump-and-run on
the defender and attempt to skate by. While on defense however, an enforcer will
lay down a check so hard that maniacal cackling and trash-talking (to the unresponsive
TV) is all but assured. Overall, it's a great idea and it's nicely executed--kudos.
not all of the gameplay feels as polished as this. For one thing, every action--from
shooting to passing to checking--all feels delayed. This is especially true for
executing one-timers and dekeing. It just feels muddy, as if the NHL mandated
that ice be replaced with molasses. Tasty? Yes. Good for playing hockey on? No.
also features some rather odd AI. On one hand, computer-controlled goalies will
dive, kick, and glove save with beautifully animated grace becoming of some sort
of ice ninja. On the other hand, the game can pull off some third period comeback
magic like only a computer can. Go into the third period with a hefty lead and
be prepared to be punished by a questionable series of penalty calls and magic
blue line goals. Sure, it ups the challenge, but there's a difference between
challenging and frustratingly cheap, and damnit, this is CHEAP. On the other side
of the puck, CPU controlled teammates will make runs at the goal and find space
for themselves, while defenders will hang back and mark up on the most dangerous
forwards. Using the d-pad, players can control their team's strategy from defensive
to aggressive to somewhere in between, and it's nice to see teammates respond
accordingly. Furthermore, scores never seem to get too out of hand. Offensive
teams like the Red Wings tend to pour in more goals consistently than say, the
Columbus Blue Jackets, but not so much that it's ridiculous.
are handled in a rock-paper-scissors manner that, although a good idea, takes
the skill out of the face-off game, instead making it a guessing game--a guessing
game that the computer AI will win more often than not. And then there's the fighting...
The good news: there is fighting, and a lot of it. The bad news: the fight system
is so poorly executed, you'll find yourself actually trying to avoid getting into
fights due to the clunky controls more reminiscent of Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots
than hockey fighting. Just once I want to see some jersey-pulling, teeth-losing,
goalies meeting at center ice brawling. But until Blades of Steel 2004
comes out, I'll just play Virtua Fighter 4.
a sports game without a franchise mode is pretty much a death sentence these days,
and Microsoft has done just that. Franchise modes allow players to become immersed
and involved with their favorite teams, and when the mode is absent, it's sorely
missed. However, there is a season mode, but yet there are no salaries or drafts
to speak of. Once the season is done, it's done. That's it. Fin.
like all Microsoft first party sports titles, the main attraction here is the
online modes. Being part of the fledgling Xbox Sports Network (XSN), Rivals
takes advantage of all that the service offers including competitions, online
seasons, tournaments, and ladders. Add to this player stat tracking via email,
and it is a very rich experience indeed. But what's cool, I mean really really
cool, is the option of pickup hockey. Pickup hockey allows up to six different
Xboxes to log on and play a short little pickup game of 3-on-3 (or however you
want to divide up six players) on an outside rink. Each player is represented
by a single onscreen player, no character switching is allowed, making for a fun,
fast, and furious experience that makes me wonder why they didn't bother including
a single player version. Online competition is fierce, but pretty friendly if
you find the right people, and the extra modes and stat tracking do a lot to enrich
Microsoft knows that its big black box boasts the best
graphics out there and they develop their titles to show that off. NHL Rivals
2004 is no exception. Arenas are meticulously recreated and look spectacular
in the pre-game pan shots. Normally, I'm the sort of gamer that skips through
introductions to get to the meat of the game, but here, I found myself setting
the controller down to watch the box do it's thing. Superstar players have all
been recreated accurately and recognizably, but lesser known players seem to have
a limited amount of generic faces. My biggest qualm is the animation--fluid is
most definitely not the name of the game here as almost every animation seems
jerky and sporadic. Replays are plagued by rough jitters and no real transitions.
But the ice, my god, look at the ice. It's so shiny!
Rivals features some of the most sub-par audio to be heard in
a sports game. The soundtrack is of the same ol' bland nu-metal variety heard
in pretty much every game of every genre these days, but the tunes are good for
what they are. And of course, it supports custom soundtracks, so you adjust the
music to your liking anyhow. Beyond the soundtrack however, it all goes downhill.
Most notably, sounds, like what should be bone-crushing checks, come off sounding
way off. Most of the effects used in the game come off sounding either weak or
just wrong. Commentary is provided by Mr. Sam Rosen and John Davidson, and while
it's accurate, it's barely noticeable.
As mentioned previously, Rivals controls pretty much like the
other hockey sims on the market. On offense, the face buttons handle passing,
shooting, dekeing, and dump passes, while on defense they handle checking, player
switching, and diving, and the shoulder buttons handle pivoting and turbo. Unfortunately,
the controls just feel slow and unresponsive, making shooting and dekeing an exercise
in tedium. Players will soon figure out that just skating fast works a whole lot
better than using the deke button. To make matters worse, Microsoft neglected
to include the create-a-deke feature that both EA and ESPN boast. Otherwise, players
respond accordingly, and it feels like they're actually playing on ice, and not
some sort of watered down concrete.
It's not that NHL Rivals 2004 is a bad game-its online
play and modes, licenses, and innovative role system are all reasons to celebrate
the title. But unfortunately, the title does nothing to distinguish itself from
the already great titles on the market. Furthermore, the sludgy gameplay, off-time
controls, and utter lack of a franchise mode are nothing but infractions that
warrant the penalty box for Microsoft's hockey debut.