XSN sports has put Microsoft into the hockey gaming franchise, but in my eyes, failed to be the best at it - even if NHL Rivals 2004, although a bit late and not exactly the best hockey game out there, is definitely a good start. Many differences can be pointed out from this game towards traditional EA series or even Midway's hockey games. Some gamers will fall in love with this game, especially for the XBox Live feature, while other gamers will find the game pace is too slow and not as fun as other hockey titles. But at any rate, this one should please most hockey game fans, as the game brings quite a few new features to the table.
The game play is similar but different in many ways from its competitors'. Let's start with all the game play modes, and then I will go in deeper on the differences that can be found in the game. Once at the main menu, the first option that can be picked is Open Ice. Open Ice is pretty much a mode for the newbie that allows you to pick any team of your choice and play on a solo goaltender on an outdoor ice rink. I tried this mode once, played for about five to ten minutes and never used it again. Then you got Instant Rivalry, hence the name of the game. Here, you are instantly set into a game between two randomly picked teams that have a grudge, such as a long time, even historic, rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadians, or simply teams that have been up against each other in recent playoffs or Stanley Cup match ups. Unfortunately, whether you like it or not you'll play as your home team, even if that means having the team you do not want. This is stupid if you ask me. Why in the world should you not be able to pick the team you would like to play as. In these games the teams play more aggressively and fights can break out often. It's a fun option to use when you get bored from playing season modes and such, but it is really too bad something as simple as picking teams was overlooked here. Then you got the choice to play a Single Game, of course this is the exhibition mode. Other than all the official teams, west and east, all star teams can be picked and two secret teams that you'll unlock during season play can be used here as well. Then you have Game Modes. Here you can pick from three different game modes. Season play, which takes you through a whole season of hockey with the options of trading and signing players from rosters - stats and all are present there. Playoff mode allows you to play a series of playoffs, and finally you have the Tournament mode that allows you to set up a tournament with little or many teams, and play it out until there's a winning team. System link is also available and allows up to six Xbox consoles to be connected for local multi-player games.
The controls themselves in the game are similar, but somewhat different from other hockey games. During a face-off, you have the choice to pick between three actions: Win Clean, Tie Up Stick and Body Block. The way the outcome is determined is pretty much like the game of rock, paper, scissors - where Tie Up Stick beats a Win Clean, a Win Clean beats a Body Block and a Body Block beats a Tie Up Stick... you get the point. Fights in the game have also changed the controls in the same path. Players have a fuse meter, represented vertically next to the player's name. Once this meter is depleted, a small hit can set him off and give you the choice to fight. Before the fight starts, you can choose to drop the gloves by pressing A or try to avoid a fight and a penalty by pressing B. During a fight, the controls have a bit more depth than what other hockey games offer. You can duck or block shots, jab, throw a heavy punch or an uppercut, or you can grab the player and punch the lights out of him. Does not make it a fighting game, but certainly makes a fight much more interesting than what other hockey games make theirs to be.
Another good thing we could point out about this game, is that every player has a certain role that fits him most. Each role has its own set of special moves, but is very limited. Enforcers are the ones that deliver the big hits, although they skate slow and show nothing extraordinary when it comes to goal scoring - but they take care of keeping the ice clear of opposing team players. Enforcers can perform two tricks, the “Bump and Go”, which allows the enforcer to knock down any opposing defense while in possession of the puck, or the “Can Opener” which is pretty much a huge hit that takes any player down and hard. Then you have the Agitators. These players work best against Snipers. They can perform a “Face Wash”, which makes the agitator literally grind his glove on the opposing player's face, or “Protect the Puck” which keeps the puck away from the other players. Then you have Snipers, these guys do their best work at scoring goals. They have the best aim and the best shots that put the puck in. They can perform a “Spin Around” to pass opposing players or the “Stick Clip” which deflects opposing players' shots. Finally you have the Balanced players that do not excel in any particular skill, but they complement your team well. They can only perform the Protect the Puck move.
Passing in this game can be either done the usual way by pressing the passing button, or you can use the right thumb stick that is supposed to pin-point the pass and get it to the player closest to where the thumb stick was directed. Unfortunately, this method of passing needs some refinement as I found the puck was not always passed at pin-point, and found myself losing it lots of times while using this method. The whole game play is much slower than other games, such as the EA series. The boost meter gets depleted very fast and allows a player to only have short speed bursts instead of allowing you to rush through the opposition and go on a breakaway by yourself all the time. Players do not break as fast, and keeping a fast pace during a game is much harder. The difficulty level due to how the game is played, is much better. Although I found sometimes, the players did not even care about the puck, they could go right beside it and not turn around to go get it. This can get frustrating, especially during a playoff game where you have one minute left to the period and your team is one goal down. The goalies do not leave easy goals in and in defense, the computer AI is very good. Because the game pace is slower and the game is harder, I think this is where some gamers will prefer the competition's titles to this game. Some might dislike it simply because the game has nothing that resembles a Dynasty play mode or something of that kind.
At first I thought this was an aspect of the game I was going to be happy with, but I quickly saw this was just another part of the game that needed some real refinement. The ice looks amazing. It looks as real as they can make it look. The reflections that come off it really look good and the stadiums themselves look nice and authentic. You can even see ice scraping off when a player breaks. The goalies look good but players themselves, well their uniforms look stunning, but face detail just was not there. When you play other hockey titles out there, you can actually tell player from player just by looking at their faces. Not here, the helmets look bad and the facial details are just not there, which is unfortunate because it's something you find in pretty much all of the current market pro hockey games. Although all in all, the game does look good and a great job was done on the ice and uniforms, some things that all of the competitors have are not found here and it's certainly something the creators should keep in mind and improve on in future titles.
The commentary is made by Sam Rosen and John Davidson. Although these are well known names in hockey, the commentary in the game leaves much to desire. It can sometimes be funny, but sometimes boring. It was really missing spice and originality. it really had little depth to it and kept things really simple, which makes it sound too serious and not enough fun. I found it repetitive and unoriginal. It did not pull me into the game or ever got me excited. The fans react well with what's happening during a match. They react strongly towards the stars of the teams when a goal is scored by them, but even the crowd sounds quickly got repetitive. It was well done, just not done well enough to be really good.
Here is where the game gets the most of my props. They did a good job on the Xbox Live feature and I think this is what makes this game a good hockey game. I had mentioned the game pace was slower than in other hockey games and passing was a bit of a hassle at times. During on-line play that changes, since you're playing against real people, they push to keep the pace going and make games move faster and get more exciting. Now let's talk about the features that can be found here. Roster updates will be available to download for anyone. Rankings and stats are available on the players, but rankings do not apply to all games. Quick Matches for example will find you an opponent with no specifications, but will not be ranked. Seasons and tournaments can be played on-line and you can even do your own commentary for someone else's game. Up to ten players can play at the same time. This is pretty good, as playing a game of hockey five on five might sound a bit hard to keep up with, but I did try playing two on twos and three on threes and those were action packed games. I had no lag or frame rate problems during these games and hopefully the on-line community will keep staying available to keep this game a title worth buying if you have an Xbox and want to play on-line sports.
If you're a real hockey game fan, then I am sure you will find things you will like about this game. I have no real reason to stop anyone from going out and buying this game. If you think you will play on-line, then it is worth getting. If not then I would suggest you to try it out and see if the game play appeals to your likes or dislikes. I just tell all to keep in mind that this is the first title of the series and brought a good layout to what might become some of the best hockey games of the future. As a first title to the series, they did a great job, but some aspects need to be refined to stand up to the competition. I guess we will have to see next year if the game's bad parts get improved.