Players: 1 to 2 Player Game | Release Date: 09/09/03 | Genre:
NHL 2k3 was undoubtedly the best hockey game of last year. NHL 2k3 provided hockey fans with the most realistic game play of any hockey game on the market, even with its graphical and audio drawbacks. This year Sega decided to have their sports games bare the ESPN license. Instead of their latest installment being called NHL 2k4, it's now called ESPN NHL Hockey. Fans of NHL 2k3 shouldn't worry because ESPN NHL Hockey is a major improvement over last year's edition.
The biggest improvement by far has been the addition of new game modes and unlockables. The new game modes include skills competition, improved franchise mode, challenge mode, shootout, mini-rink, pond hockey, speed hockey, online play and air hockey. There is a new challenge system in the game in which you receive points for performing certain tasks. For example: scoring on a one timer or completing ten consecutive passes. The points you receive can be used to purchase legendary teams, throwback jersey's, and game modes.
The skills competition consists of a series of challenges such as shot accuracy, fastest skater, hardest shot, breakaway relay and one on one. The skills competition is a blast to play and is even available when playing online. The mini-rink is an interesting game mode. The mini rink is a two on two-style game, which takes place on an outside mini-rink with bouncy boards. The mini rink is a welcome addition and is an excellent multiplayer game. Both pond hockey and speed hockey must be unlocked before they can be played. Pond hockey is just basically a regular game of hockey without any rules, while speed hockey is like playing hockey at thirty times the regular speed.
A new addition is the skybox mode. The skybox mode is a replica of the cribs mode in ESPN NFL Football. In the skybox mode you have access to unlockables items, air hockey, player stats, etc. The unlockables are excellent. There is nothing better than playing with a legendary team. The air hockey seems like a gimmick at first, but can actually be quite entertaining at times.
The franchise mode is where the meat of the game lies. You basically play through your season and control your day-to-day activities like a general manager would. As a general manager you have the option of signing players, changing team strategy, managing your minor league, deal with injuries, etc. Kush has implemented a new email system, which alerts you with the latest news across the league. The most common type of news you'll receive will be injury updates. While the franchise mode is quite extensive, it really could have used some more work. When compared to the likes of NHL 2004 the franchise mode of ENH doesn't stack up well.
The online play supports both dial up and broadband, with broadband users having the option of using a USB headset to chat. The online play, believe it or not, is a lag fest. No matter what connection you play on you will still experience terrible amounts of lag and slow down. The voice chat has its share of problems as well. The game uses real time voice chat and when you talk into the mic you'll always hear an echo, which gets extremely annoying. One of the biggest problems with the online play is the inability to chat in the game lobbies. It would have also been nice to have the option of playing pond hockey online. On a positive note there are roster updates available to download.
Sega has been concerned with publishing a hockey game that delivers simulation style of play. Other games on the market such as Hitz and EA's NHL series lean more towards arcade style play. Sega couldn't have hit the mark better as they truly have a great understanding of what a real hockey game should play like. ENH finally presents game play where playing defense is as much fun as playing offence. ENH also includes a number of customizable options. Everything from goalie skill to glass breaking frequency is at your disposal. The only downside is that some of the options available from last year's game are not present in ENH.
Playing offence is excellent and there are numerous amounts of ways to score. One thing that puts ENH above its competitors is the ability to work the puck around the boards. Working the puck around the boards and to your defensemen can be extremely effective in setting up screens, rebounds or even one-timers. Setting up screens is extremely affective as it blocks the goalies view of the puck. In most other hockey games setting screens don't have much of an effect on the goalie's play, but it's a different story in this game. Puck physics is an area in which ENH stands out. The puck physics are extremely realistic. Another notable addition is the new deke system. You can now set up deke's by using button combinations. The deke system changes depending on what control setting your choose. The deke's prove to be rather affective when trying to work your way around a defender or goalie.
The defensive game has received a number of noticeable tweaks. Most notably there are brand new body checks, more defensive moves, improved board pinning, improved AI, and better defensive positioning. The body checks are much improved from NHL 2k3 as you can now check players over the boards and deliver crushing hip checks. The board pinning has been improved as now you can wear down your opponents along the boards. The defensive AI is much improved as well. Now the AI forces you to make good passes or you'll end up paying in the end. Generally the AI is good at working the puck around and is good at setting up shots in front of the net. The computer is also extremely aggressive on the penalty kill and power play.
The biggest complaint about NHL 2k3 was the goalie skill. Lots of people referred to the goalie as �super human�. There are a few new customizable options in this year's game. Now you can adjust both the human goalie skill and the computer goalie skill as well. The goalie options are welcome addition as now you can increase the amount of scoring drastically. The goalies do give out more rebounds than last year's game. Rebounds are effective second scoring opportunities. One major problem with the goalies is the goalie passing. It's too difficult to control which direction you want to pass the puck to. Not only that, but at times you end up putting the puck in your own net. Hopefully this issue is fixed in next year's game. One other big problem is the difference of difficulty skills. There is often too much of a difference between different difficulty settings. This often presents the problem of balancing out game play, but luckily the game sliders provide some relief.
The graphics are superb. When compared to NHL 2k3 you'll have trouble recognizing that both games are part of the same franchise. The player faces are brilliant and all the players look like there real life counter part and you'll also be able to see facial expressions as well. The player and goalie detail is excellent and the player's have brand name hockey sticks like Sherwood. It would have been nice to see authentic goalie equipment in the game. The player animations are fluid and extremely realistic. The ice graphics have been improved as well. The ice tends to wear down as a game progresses. It's nice to see that Kush has paid attention to background detail as well. You'll see fans waving towels and reacting realistically to play's in the game. One of the best additions is the crowd chants. You'll hear the crowd chanting team chants and even player specific chants. So if Curtis Joseph makes a big save when playing at home you'll hear the crowd chanting �Cujo, Cujo, Cujo.� When you score a hat trick and you are the home team the fans will throw hats on the ice as well.
The soundtrack is comprised of all ESPN style music, but it tends to get too repetitive. ENH also has authentic hockey goal and intermission songs as well. The most notable goal song is �We will rock� by Queen. It's nice to see some licensed songs in the game, but the soundtrack could have used some more variation. The songs are too repetitive and you'll probably see each song pop up three or four times a game.
The presentation is probably the best in any sports game out on the market. You can truly see the ESPN integration in the game. The cut scenes are beautiful and commentating is excellent. Bill Clement and Gary Thorne provide the commentary and do an excellent job. Both commentators have an insightful take on the action and always keep up with the plays. Lots of the stat overlays and menu's are nicely done as well. The replays are a mixed package. Depending on how nice a goal was will depend on how many replay's are shown. The problem with the replays is that often a player blocks the view of the puck. Often enough you won't even really get a good sense of what the goal was like.
Despite its minor flaws, ENH is one of the best hockey games on the market. If you were a fan of NHL 2k3, ENH is a must have. Even though it's more directed at simulation style fans, ENH is a game worth checking out for all hockey fans. I highly recommend ENH as it's one of the best sports games of the year.