Taking full advantage of the ESPN license, NHL 2K5 returns for another year of hockey bliss. Always known for its above average AI and gameplay, the NHL 2K series has added even more features compared to past editions. New control schemes, enhanced AI, and Xbox Live options are just some of the additions. And with an aggressive price strategy, Sega is hoping you take a try.
Sega is really trying to capture the television experience with NHL 2K5. From the drop of the puck, youíll experience some nice camera angles, good animations, and nice player and stadium graphics. During faceoffs, the default camera views the action from above. In the upper right corner a zoomed in view is shown at ice level, giving you two vantage points from which to time the faceoff. As you take control of the puck, the clarity is good enough to distinguish all types of animations. Player dekes, aggressive moves by the defense (slashing, elbowing, etc) are clear as a bell and add to the realism of the game. Likewise, goalie motions are realistic. When the puck handler is behind the goal, the goalie will look left or right behind him in anticipation of wraparound attempts.
When not in action, the replays and cut scenes are pure bliss. The replays are shown from many different angles and broken down by the TV crew. Replays arenít restricted to goals; on penalty calls you get a clear replay of the offense in action. During breaks the camera often shifts to the crowd, which is adorned in team specific clothing and rather animated. At times you even get a view of the high rollers in the luxury boxes. While the faces in the crowd are repeated for all the teams, the general effect still leaves a positive impression.
The sound package in NHL 2K5 is amazing. First the bad. The on-ice audio doesnít impress. Slapshots sound realistic, as do the sounds of the puck hitting the boards or pipes. However, all other on-ice sounds are exaggerated or contrived. Hard checks have a sound that seems lifted from EAís hockey titles. Where the game truly shines is the commentary and play-by-play. While there are occasional mistakes, overall the spoken portion is spot-on. The commentary flows naturally and never skips a beat. The two-man crew interacts well by playing off each otherís comments. If you were to close your eyes and just listen to the audio, youíd swear you were listening to an actual ESPN broadcast.
Interface/Options : 90
All the standard game modes weíve come to expect are included in 2K5. Single games, season, and franchise modes exist to test your hockey skills. The franchise mode is fairly deep with the ability to hire a complete coaching staff, strength coach, and scouting staff. Where the franchise mode breaks down is that in late season games after the trade deadline there can be times where the game gets confused with lines and wonít allow you to continue. A definite bug that has some workarounds if you adjust rosters, but it is a serious nuisance. The Skybox mode allows you to view trophies youíve won, play some tunes on the jukebox, or play some mini-games. Sadly air hockey and shuffleboard just donít translate nicely with the Xbox controller. The novelty for me wore off after one game.
The game has a full slate of gameplay options that cover every aspect you can think of. On both sides of the puck you can adjust the sliders to mimic the style of play you like. Things like puck retention, pass accuracy, goalie response, puck friction, fatigue time and recovery, shot accuracy, and more can be modified. The changes yield tangible effects on the gameplay. If you get tired of playing solo, the game does support Xbox Live where full leagues with your gaming pals are supported.
Gameplay : 90
Depending on the sliders, you can make 2K5 play any way you want. Being a fan of a more realistic pace and style, I adjusted my sliders accordingly. I like plenty of interceptions, missed passes, off-target shots, and neutral play. With the exception of neutral ice play, the sliders work well. Sadly interceptions in the neutral zone arenít as common as past versions of the game and there is consistent action up and down the ice. However, before you think this means an arcade style matchup, the game will slow down in the offensive zones if you want it.
There is adequate opportunity to set up plays in the oppositionís end. Depending on the aggressiveness of the defense, you can set up behind the goal and look for open players. If a defensive player follows behind, expect your player to be pinned against the board in an attempt to freeze the puck. Wrap-around goals can be effective this year if the goalie has no clear view of the puck and the defense doesnít manhandle the puckhandler. When it works, itís a great site. Mostly, however, scoring requires timing, strategy, and luck. Setting puck rebounds high increases scoring chances, and fortunately the goalie strength has been toned down compared to past versions. The goalies are no longer superhuman, and itís not uncommon for games to have a half dozen goals or more between the two teams.
If you can master the advanced controls, 2K5 offers what it calls Intense Contact Controls. On defense you can tie up your opposition or put a big hit on him. Or if your short-handed you can sweep your stick across the ice to try to poke the puck away. On offense, there are a variety of special moves including dekes and a pass-and-go system. All of this makes the game play more realistically but does take time to get accustomed to.
Replay Value : 90
With an incredibly good game engine and online play, NHL 2K5 offers plenty of replay value. The degree of customization that can be had through the extensive sliders means that you can adjust the play style to match your mood. If you want arcade style action featuring a fast pace, pinpoint passing, and plenty of one-timers itís there. If you want to slow things down to match the NHL experience, itís there. And thereís plenty of room in between. Besides, we wonít be watching real hockey any time soon, so you might as well get your kicks in the virtual world.
Overall : 91
ESPN NHL 2K5 is more than just a slight improvement over last yearís version. Itís my favorite version to date primarily due to the reduction of goalie ability. While the neutral zone play isnít there like the past, overall the game plays better than ever. The commentary and play-by-play are second to none and the graphics are effective. Above all, the AI engine is exceptional. And for a retail price of only $20, why wouldnít you hit the ice with this game?