Microsoft and XSN Sports have unleashed NHL Rivals 2004 for the Xbox. This rookie contender is making an attack for your hockey dollar by emphasizing the online aspect of the game as well as some unique gameplay features. Rookies haven't always fared well in the past, but Microsoft hopes to buck the trend.
Presentation/Graphics : 80
Looking at Rivals in still life, you'll like what you get. The players, rinks, and fans look quite good. There's sufficient detail in all those to give you a sense of being in the action. In motion, the game maintains a respectable look. Skating around the ice, passing, or taking shots looks realistic enough. Even the goalie action is reasonably accurate. Where the fluid animations suffer, however, is with body checks. Skaters look like they are magically teleported from one spot on the ice to another. The game does provide a bevy of camera views, though the default is perfect for following the on-ice action.
Presentation/Audio : 80
The play-by-play and color commentary is decent for this title. The game does keep abreast of the action on the ice and always keeps the comments fresh. On the ice, the hockey sounds are simply average. Boarding, the clank of the puck off the pipes, and the sound of stick on puck are only adequate. The best feature is the crowd noise. None of the other hockey titles match the enthusiasm of the crowd in Rivals. As the crowd senses your performance improving (even if you haven't scored), their cheers crescendo. When the pressure is really on the noise from the stands is impressive. The audio is also helped by the stadium music, whose selection is indicative of some of the tunes you'll hear at an NHL game.
Interface/Options : 65
We gamers expect a lot when it comes to sports games. In the hockey world, precedence has been set with the deeper gameplay of other franchises. Other titles have their strengths and weaknesses and new titles must meet with the strengths and surpass the weaknesses. Rivals simply meets the same expectations of arcade based hockey titles. Game options include single game, season, tournament, and online play. Unfortunately the season mode is very limited in front office moves. You won't need to worry about salaries or losing your job as coach since the season mode lasts only a single year.
The bigger travesty is the lack of customization of the gameplay. There are no AI sliders. If you don't like the hockey play programmed in the game you're out of luck. The dizzying array of options in the 2K and NHL franchises are reason enough to play those games. Settings that affect gameplay are restricted to items like enforcing hockey rules or allowing for injuries. One nice feature is the ability to download updated rosters based on the season opening lineups across the NHL.
Gameplay : 60
You wouldn't think it would be too terribly difficult to make a good hockey game. I mean, there are only five skaters and goalie per team with the clear objective of getting the puck in the goal. The simplest approach is simply pinball like arcade hockey. Titles like Hitz or Rock the Rink in the past have done that remarkably well. But when it comes to simulation of the actual sport, getting the nuances can be tough. Neutral zone play, setting up shots, effective skating lanes of offensive players, and mixing up defenses are all critical elements in a good hockey simulation. Rivals delivers in some areas and fails in others.
One positive aspect of the game is the neutral zone play and clearing the puck from your own zone. In fact, if anything it goes a bit too overboard. The defensive AI is very effective at swarming your puckhandler. You have to really look for open passing lanes to clear the puck from your own zone without an interception. And once you get to the neutral third of the ice, the AI aggressively bumps you in an effort to dispossess you of the puck.
At times you can set up a play in your opponent's end. The defensive AI allows for a split second to grab hold of the puck and either take a shot or look for another pass. When passing, the game does mix it up on pass accuracy. While most passes are pinpoint exact, there are times when you'll encounter an errant pass or a player completely fanning on a one-timer shot. If you do get stick on puck, shots often make realistic rebounds off the goalie. Getting to the free puck can be difficult due to the swarming defense.
However, on the offensive end the game plays more like arcade style hockey. There's a constant rush up and down the ice. This is due in large part because your offensive players don't always have the smarts to skate to appropriate parts of the ice. Even on an offensive rush players will give up on their charge to the net leaving you alone on the streak. Another problem is that you are dispossessed of the puck too easily. The body check is highly effective at knocking away the puck due to the violent thrust it imparts. If you simply tap the body check button you'll see your player scoot oddly across the ice. Unfortunately a finesse defensive move like the poke check is poorly implemented.
Perhaps the oddest part of the gameplay is the faceoff system. Prior to the referee dropping the puck, you press one of three buttons depending on the type of faceoff you want - a clean win, body block, or tie up your opponent's stick. From there the game randomly decides who gets the faceoff. There's no interactive faceoff where timing is crucial. Input your move and see a second or two later if you win the puck.
Replay Value : 40
As a single player game, NHL Rivals lacks the pizzazz to keep you coming back. The season mode lacks depth, and the hockey isn't terribly involving. Both EA's and Sega's hockey franchises far exceed Rivals in both areas. The inclusion of online play is a bonus for Rivals, but there are so few people playing it online that finding a game can be tough.
Overall : 62
Despite a few nice features in Rivals (crowd noise, online play, and decent neutral zone play to name a few), overall the game falls flat. It's hard to get excited about this game knowing there are much better hockey simulations on the market. For a first year release, it is decent. If Microsoft can improve the game's shortcomings in the future and add a deep franchise mode, it could be a hefty contender in the hockey market.