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ESPN National Hockey Night (PS2) Review

Background Info

PS2 Screens (4)

ESPN National Hockey Night is Konami's most recent foray into videogame hockey, and the third hockey title to be released on the PS2. Developed by KCEO, the programmers behind some of the weaker games in the ISS series, National Hockey Night is a mediocre hockey title that does little to differentiate itself from the quagmire of similar, shallow, arcade-style hockey games.

Presentation/Graphics : 68
I don't know if it's that programmers still haven't got used to the PS2's hardware, or that programmers just aren't trying hard enough, because National Hockey Night is yet another of the many PS2 sports games that underwhelms graphically.

The most instantly noticeable aspect of the graphics are the player models. One of the slight problems with the player models in EA Sports' NHL 2001 is that they're a bit on the short and stocky side. In National Hockey Night they're opposite: quite lanky. Unfortunately, they're a bit too tall and end up looking artificially stretched. Furthermore, for some odd reason National Hockey Night doesn't feature differential player sizes and as such little Stevie Sullivan is the same size as Zedeno Chara! KCEO didn't bother to face-map all the players either, and while some players resemble their real-life counterparts, most look like the coked-up zombies in Madden 2001. The goalies also lack authentic mask decals.

The player animations, and in particular the goal celebrations, are generally well done; however, the goalie animations could use a lot more variety and the goaltenders take far too long to get up after they dive across the crease and/or stack the pads. There are also other small oddities such as players not keeping both hands on the stick when they shoot.

The various rinks/arenas are adequately done, as are the lighting and particulate effects such as reflections and ice-shavings being kicked up. The game also features eight camera angles, though only a few of them are suitable for gameplay.

One graphical area that KCEO have done fairly well is with the frame-rate. While most gamers didn't mind the slowdown that plagued NHL 2001 on the PS2, some (this reviewer included) found it quite annoying. Thankfully, KCEO have given National Hockey Night a brisk framerate that stays fairly constant throughout any of the five selectable game speeds. However, upon close inspection, the faster framerate comes at a cost – missing frames! While it isn't really noticeable during play, in replays it's clear that every couple of seconds there are a few missing frames of animation and it's incredibly odd to see a replay of Sakic collecting the puck in the slot and then in the very next frame of animation the puck instantly appears in the net!

Presentation/Audio : 70
National Hockey Night's commentary is handled by ESPN's Gary Thorne and Steve Levy, and their commentary is the usual fare – they generally keep up with the basics of play, and then they have a few token player or team specific comments that they like to repeat ad nauseum. I'd say they're about on par with NHL 2001's Clement and Hughson, though I still feel that Face Off 2001's Emrick and Pang are the best PS2 hockey game commentary team. One interesting thing to note is that every time Mario Lemieux picks up the puck the commentators refer to him as Hans Johansson! Same thing goes for poor Alexi Yashin who's called out as John Gruden!

What is impressive, aurally, about National Hockey Night are the great crowd effects. Everything from the rumbling murmurs at stoppages of play, to cheers and jeers, to organ sounds, and crowd chants are all done well and do a good job of capturing the aural atmosphere of an NHL hockey game.

Interface/Options : 65
National Hockey Night has the bog-standard three main modes of play: Season, Playoff and Exhibition. The Season mode only allows you to play a single season, which is quite disappointing, but to be fair there's no franchise/multiple season mode in NHL 2001 and FaceOff 2001 either. I find it very frustrating that while there are three hockey games out on the PS2, none of them has a franchise mode! The Season mode allows you to select between a 29 or 82 game season, while the Playoff mode allows you to set the length of each series as well (1, 3, 5 or 7 games). KCEO have incorporated trades into the Season mode; however, I haven't had a trade rejected yet and was able to pull off trades such as Colin White for Teemu Selanne with no problems whatsoever.

National Hockey Night features all 30 NHL teams and 2 All-Star Teams. However, there are two main problems with these squads--odd team ratings and even more cryptic rosters. Firstly, while the more successful teams (the Stars, Devils, Avalanche, etc.) of recent times are rated appropriately, there are some very interesting discrepancies in ratings of many other teams. For example, the Ottawa Senators were impressive in the regular season both this and last year, and while they may completely choke in the playoffs you'd expect them to be at least rated a lot higher than, say, the Mighty Ducks. Unfortunately, the folks at KCEO don't agree and Kariya's Ducks are a better team than Yashin, Alfredsson, Redden, Bonk, Hossa and co. in Ottawa. In fact, the Mighty Ducks have the same rating (78/100) as the St. Louis Blues! Just as perplexing are the rosters. National Hockey Night features Mario Lemieux (known to ESPN commentators as the mighty Hans Johansson) playing for his Pittsburgh Penguins. So you'd think then that the rosters would, at the very least, be updated up until his return to the NHL towards the end of this season, right? Unfortunately, this isn't the case and a whole host of roster moves that were made last summer (before the 2000/2001 season even started!) aren't implemented. For example, Claude Lemieux is still playing for the New Jersey Devils, while Bryan McCabe is still on the Blackhawks roster. However, if that wasn't perplexing enough, the Anson Carter/Bill Guerin trade which was made during the 2000/2001 season (in October) is noted in the game, and so Guerin skates for the Bruins. Someone call Mulder and Scully…

As for gameplay options, National Hockey Night has 5 levels of both game speed and difficulty, as well as quite a few coaching/strategy options for both offense and defense. Stats tracking during the season is adequate, and the game also has a Create-a-Player mode as well.

Gameplay : 60
From just my first few minutes of play it was clear that KCEO had attempted to make National Hockey Night more of a simulation than an arcade game; however, further play unearthed far too many problems with the controls and the AI that really relegate this title down into the quagmire of uninspired arcade-like hockey titles that's dominated by EA Sports' NHL 2001.

One of the problems with National Hockey Night is the unique, but flawed, control scheme. The controls can be completely configured, and the game features the standard fare that you'd expect in a hockey game--one button for shooting (slap or wrist shot dependent upon how long you hold down the button), a regular pass, a flip pass, dash, poke check, and body check. Where the controls get interesting is with the skating; the analog stick allows for fast skating but sacrifices precision, while using the d-pad allows for more precise movements but you can't skate as fast – regardless of how much you use the dash button. This is an interesting system, and a commendable attempt at trying to simulate the decrease in puck-handling ability that come with players skating at high speed. Therefore you'll often use the analog stick for controlling a skater when you're cutting across mid-ice, but on a breakaway or in the corners you'll switch to using the d-pad so you can have better control and can make tighter turns.

Unfortunately, while the skating system is unique and intuitive, the rest of the player control is flawed. For example, when taking a slap shot, players don't follow through with the shot; instead, they come to a complete stop and then take a slapper with a very, very slow wind-up. Not only does this make pulling off a quick slap shot practically impossible, it can also lead to quite a few offside calls when you try to skate into the zone and release a quick shot on net. Line changes (controlled by the R2 button) are another problem, as when you press R2 to bring up the line change menu you can't control any of your players, and therefore if you decide to make a line change when one of your players has the puck he will simply stop in his tracks and be a sitting duck for a crushing hit while you fiddle through the lines. What's worse is that you can't even change the lines right before a face-off, and as such the only way to call a line-change without getting pummeled is to do so when you don't have the puck – which, needless to say, is not convenient at all. Player switching is also very awkward and can lead to conceding a high number of breakaways to the computer.

The puck physics are generally well done, and the default game speed is quite realistic. Those two factors, in tandem with the good skating help to negate some of the frustration with controls. Unfortunately, everything falls apart because of the woeful AI and very dodgy goal scoring. The CPU defensemen are far too passive in their play and often collapse towards their own net much in the same way as the defensemen in FaceOff 2001. As a result you're often free to set up inside the blue line and tee up a shot on net. However, once you do you'll encounter some very strange goaltenders – ones who seem to move in slow motion, but at the same time can stop almost any and every shot, except those that come across the crease from in close. The CPU skaters are also not very aggressive in the neutral zone and give up a lot of breakaways, and the player switching quirks also mean that human-controlled teams will do the same. That, combined with the super goalies and collapsing defense, mean that the game turns into the usual breakaway-relay/check-fest that plagues almost all other hockey titles, and this in turn leads to some ridiculous statistics. For example, I was able to beat the Colorado Avalanche with the Ottawa Senators on the highest difficulty level by a score of 6-1 in 5 minute periods. Doesn't seem too remarkable, until you consider that during that game I was able to launch a total of 72 shots at Patrick Roy, compared to the Avs paltry 14 shots on goal, and I also dished out 68 body checks while the Avs could only manage 20!

Despite the fact that the goaltenders seem to suck in almost every shot that comes their way, this doesn't mean that scoring is particularly difficult. As previously mentioned, a one-timer from a pass across the crease (usually on a 2 on 1) almost always results in a goal, and once you get the control scheme down it's not very hard to score on breakaways either. As such, the main obstacle to scoring is simply creating a 2 on 1 or getting in alone, and there really isn't a sense of satisfaction in scoring nor is there much variation in the way goals are scored. The CPU goalies on human-controlled teams are even more weird and often give up some massive rebounds. They also have a frustrating tendency of stacking the pads far too often and sliding a long way out of their crease, and when they do so they take an eternity to get back up. Consequently, almost all of the goals that are scored by the CPU are shots that cause your goaltender to go down or slide across the crease, make the save, give up a huge rebound, and then the shooter simply sticks the rebound into the gaping net!

There are also other gameplay oddities such as the fact that CPU teams never make line-changes and so you're always playing against the other team's top line, and some of the statistics generated over the course of a season are very strange (Steve Thomas led the league in scoring). Overall, National Hockey Night's gameplay is incredibly mediocre – while the skating and the pace of the game are very realistic, the gameplay itself is a flawed incarnation of the same breakaway-relay/check-fest that's plagued hockey games for years and it all gets very boring, very quickly.

Replay Value : 50
After playing several exhibition games at various difficulty levels to get used to the game engine, and then an entire season at the highest difficulty level, I don't think I'll be playing ESPN National Hockey Night again any time soon. The gameplay isn't incredibly dire, but mediocre and unremarkable at best. Apart from the skating there's really very little in the game that you've not seen done better elsewhere. Multiplayer, however, adds a large amount to the replay value as in games versus human opponents the problems of collapsing and passive defense are negated, yet the goal scoring remains the same and there are many other multiplayer sports titles I'd rather play.

Overall : 60
When I heard Konami were going to make a non-Blades of Steel hockey game I was quite excited. When I heard KCEO were developing it I was even more excited; despite the fact that their ISS titles are inferior to KCET's they still do a much better job with their soccer titles than most other developers. Unfortunately, KCEO couldn't do enough to stray away from the brand of arcade-style hockey that dominates the market, and if you are looking for such an arcade-style title, NHL 2001, despite its framerate problems, is the game to get. ESPN National Hockey Night isn't terrible, but it isn't close to being a great game either. Casual hockey fans shouldn't bother with National Hockey Night, and for the hardcore hockey fan this game is a rental at best.

By: Lavan Chandran 5/25/01

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