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Rock the Rink (PSX)
Hands-on Preview

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: March 2000

Background Info

Several genres of videogames have seen the migration from reality (well, how real can a videogame really be) to over-the-top in gameplay. In some cases, like NFL Blitz, fiction models reality, albeit a little exaggerated. But for the most part, videogames allow developers to alter reality to fit their own needs. And in this vein, Electronic Arts brings us Rock the Rink for the Sony PlayStation. What Midway's NFL Blitz is to football, EA's Rock the Rink is to hockey.

I remember growing up watching hockey on the only station in town that would actually show it. Living in the Sun Belt, there was not much ice so there was never any local incentive to broadcast some crazy Northern sport. Thank goodness for cable television. Anyway, back in those days, multiple penalties meant more and more players getting sent off the ice. I always looked forward to games where each team lost a couple of players to penalties. The ice was wide open and the play was more exciting with only three skaters to a side.

In an attempt to capture this excitement, EA brings us a three-on-three goalfest where the emphasis is on scoring and smashing your opponent. Now it's not completely three to a team; each team does have a goalie as well. But nonetheless, each team utilizes a three-man line. So now that our virtual rink isn't cluttered with too many skaters, how does it look and play?

Prior to booting up Rock the Rink, I noticed the status of the programming. For the current version, the graphics were listed as being roughly three-quarters complete. So when it finally came up and I was at the rink, I was somewhat taken aback. I don't know if it was endless games of NBA2K on the Dreamcast trying to put together a win streak with my Rockets (which are doing much better than their live counterparts), but my first impression of Rock the Rink was that I was staring at a 16-bit console game. The graphical quality of the rink was very good - lights reflect off the surface of the ice and the off-ice graphics were somewhat detailed. What struck me most was the poor quality of the players themselves. They look giant masses of pixels from a distance rather than a hockey player. Once the referee came out to drop the puck, you see a thin, lanky image named Tia. No striped refs here but what EA describes as a "puck girl." Unless you know she is a female, you'll never guess it from the graphics.

But after getting my graphics mindset calibrated by playing some more PSX titles, I took a second look at Rock the Rink's graphics. The second time around, I'd still have to say they are mediocre at best. The detail in the players is lacking and they come across as being giant blocks that move rigidly across the ice. Hopefully EA will fine-tune the player models in the final release.

Once our puck girl dropped the puck, it was all about gameplay and nothing about graphics. In the current build, only two of the three game modes were available - arcade and NHL Challenge. The missing mode, called "King of the Rink" allows three to eight players to compete in a double elimination tournament. Even though EA stated the NHL Challenge mode was only partially functioning, I decided to focus on it.

In NHL Challenge, you start as one of the fictitious teams and take on teams comprised of NHL players. The challenges occur on the easy, medium, and hard settings, and each setting requires a certain number of victories to clear the stage. In each difficulty setting, you play for improved performance. For example, on the easy setting, you must win six games in three categories. Winning a category is rewarded with improved skates, sticks, or armor. Once you clear the easy level, you can move up one notch in difficulty. Additionally, victories unlock the NHL team you just beat.

At first, I had some difficulty with Rock the Rink. The gameplay was somewhat frustrating in the beginning, but as I played through the NHL Challenge, the game became relatively simple. While you can perform spins, dekes, leap frogs, straight arms, and even taunt by pressing combinations of the R and L buttons, the game is easily played using just the D-pad or analog stick and the buttons to the right. On offense, your skater can pass, shoot, speed up, or perform a "cool move." The cool move depends on the type of player with the puck. In Rock the Rink you've got your finesse players and enforcers. Cool moves include things as the corkscrew, where your skater winds up and shoots away. On defense, you can speed up, check, block shots, or put a huge check on an opponent. All pretty basic stuff.

The release notes forewarned that the controls were sluggish. Initially I found the pace of the game a little slow. It was difficult to get players to the puck quickly. With a little improvement the controls should be perfect. The one big problem was that occasionally the puck would get caught behind the net. Virtually every player would converge to the front of the goal and really get to know each other. You'd have to fight your way out of the mass of sweat to get the puck and get the game going again.

And speaking of pucks near the goal, in its current state there are two money plays to speak of. Since Rock the Rink is devoid of the traditional rules of hockey, you can pull opponents down, enter the crease, and each punch the goalie when he has the puck. And that's the problem. I scored many a cheap goal by putting a huge check on the goalie, thereby forcing the puck out of his glove for an easy goal. The other money play utilized the enforcer style of player. These big boys pack some beef behind their shots. There were no cool moves listed for the enforcers, but by pressing the appropriate button, I found I could unleash an extremely powerful shot. From close range the goalie found a way to stop it, but from around mid-ice it was almost unstoppable. In fact, traditional scoring techniques work very infrequently compared to the money plays in Rock the Rink, even when you have a 1-0 or 2-0 breakaway in effect.

Aside from the play, the only other significant comment is in regards to the camera. Fortunately the cameras were listed as only 60 percent complete. The action is viewed down the ice rather than side-to-side. The default is the extreme camera, which puts you down close to the ice. Unfortunately, the view is too close to give you full view of your skaters. Passing is to an unseen player, and your best bet is to go in solo. Moving to the low or high view improved the play substantially. However, at times the game would shift momentarily to the extreme view and pop back out a short time later.

The audio in Rock the Rink is shaping up nicely. The in-game commentary features real-time responses to your moves. The commentary is always fresh and not often repeated. In fact, EA even stuck their necks out with some bleeped out expletives. My favorite comment is "There goes one of those shot things." It's as if EA wanted to utilize announcers who are completely foreign to hockey and have them call the game. Well, it works. The sound effects of the skaters on the ice matches virtually every other hockey game around.

I'm sure the AI and physics will improve significantly as the game development progresses. If so, the play in Rock the Rink will certainly entertain. And even though the graphics seem a little crude at the moment, it doesn't keep Rock the Rink from being incredibly fun. Of course, I still have fond memories of Activision's Ice Hockey on the Atari 2600. That game rocked and so does this one. And how about a game where one your players is named Dude, and you have another player on your team named Other Dude? The clever names are only part of the fun. EA appears to have a fun, extreme-sports version of hockey in the pipeline for its fans and if they deliver on their promise, some very entertaining evenings spent on the rink could be in your future.

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