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NHL Rock the Rink (PSX) Review

Publisher: EA
Release Date: March 2000

Background Info

The press release that announced Electronic Arts' Rock the Rink perfectly sums up this game. The press release states, "Rock the Rink is knockdown, drag-out, score at all costs, 3-on-3, fast-paced arcade action hockey with no rules and tons of scoring." And I must say, the game certainly delivers on every single count. Rock the Rink brings on the cheap shots that would even make Marty McSorley jealous (and the lack of rules would befit his play).

In case you haven't figured it out, Rock the Rink is the hockey equivalent of games like NFL Blitz. The game emphasizes over-the-top gameplay without attention to annoying things like realism, lines getting tired, players getting injured, penalties, offsides, and so on. In fact, in some respects the game takes a step back in time to the days when gamers didn't demand simulation style sports games.

Sure Rock the Rink carries a full NHL license, but that's where the realism stops and the fun begins. Besides boasting 28 NHL teams, look forward to playing as your favorite rink heroes, such as the Dominator, Eric Lindros, Brett Hull, and the multitude of other NHL stars. Or take one of many Rock the Rink specific teams to the top or create your own. If that weren't enough, the game has fighting, power-ups, upgrades, and unlockable features.

Presentation/Graphics : 85
With so much hype already dedicated to Rock the Rink, you'd think I'm absolutely nuts for the game. Well, gameplay-wise I am. Unfortunately the graphics in Rock the Rink seem a little dated. The rinks themselves look fine, albeit bland. Don't expect NHL stadiums to be modeled in the game. Rather, much of the action takes place on outdoor ponds or in cheap looking buildings. The look is deliberate. The developers intended the game to have a feel reminiscent of pickup games, or some schoolyard play. Rinks, however, do feature team logos. The borders lack much detail, with an occasional snowmobile or other static object on the side of the outdoor rinks. The indoor rinks have more detail, including lights which reflect off the ice and cheering fans, complete with waving arms. Rinks lack the surrounding glass, although the boards are certainly present.

The players are a mixed bag. Coming in two sizes, the skaters are either bulky or a little scrawny. The larger players have huge torsos compared to the quick offensive players. While player numbers are clearly visible on each skater (even on the skinny boys), the uniforms are rather blocky. It's hard to explain, but there just seems to be something missing in the player models. They simply don't have the same quality as the players in some of EA's other sports franchises, such as the FIFA series or NCAA football games.

When a fight occurs, you get a close-up view of each combatant. At this point you really notice the cheesy player graphics. This was the lowlight of the game. You'll think you're playing a first generation PSX title. With only two players on screen, you'd expect more detail comparable to some of the boxing or fighting titles. Instead you get players that actually look worse than the on-ice skaters.

As you progress through the game, you earn equipment upgrades such as better skates, sticks, and gear. Each upgrade is accompanied by the respective piece of equipment flashing during the game. A little annoying, but you get used to it. But the real jewel in the graphics department is the animation in Rock the Rink. Special moves are earned in the game, such as high-powered spinning slapshots. Each move has a distinct animation. You need to watch closely as some of them are over in the blink of an eye, but they are there. Slapshots utilize different animation sequences than wristshots, and goalies kick their legs out and dive to the ice to block the incoming puck. As players circle around the rink, ice is kicked up; however, skates do not leave impressions in the surface.

A totally bizarre animation concludes each game. The first time I saw it I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. After a game, both teams line up shoulder-to-shoulder and start doing a dance like the Rockettes. It was so queer and unexpected that it just fit right in with the game.

Rock the Rink provides three camera views. Unfortunately, all the views look down the ice. If you like to play side-to-side, you're out of luck. Furthermore, all the views are somewhat low. Playing with the highest view, you can't see over half the rink. This can affect gameplay if you want to pass out to the point. At times you have to blindly pass the puck and hope a player is there to receive it. Another complaint is the lack of a replay mode. Some of the goals are spectacular, and I'd love to see how I beat the goalie.

Presentation/Audio : 98
Whoa! EA did their homework and put together a fantastic audio package. The sound in Rock the Rink places it in the upper echelon of all PSX titles. While the game has play-by-play commentary, it is minimal. Some may complain, but in reality, it's not an issue. The pace is so fast and the scoring is so plentiful that had EA attempted to keep up with the game you'd have a real quagmire. There are times when a comment is made on the ice, but for the most part, comments are saved until after a goal is scored.

The post-goal comments are always fresh, and unless you play many games in a sitting, you'll rarely hear the comments repeated. The comments tend to be wisecracks, such as "Nostradamus predicted that goal over 400 years ago." Truly unique and entertaining, the comments keep the game light.

The music, while not my first choice for casual listening, fits right with the game. The soundtrack includes a dozen songs from the Hanson Brothers (not the teenie boppers), Facepuller, Feisty, and Transmitter. The hard-rocking tunes reflect the raucous nature of the play and add to the adrenaline rush as you move up ice.

Interface/Options : 95
There's not a whole lot of unique modes of play you can derive with sports games outside of racing. Rock the Rink is no exception. Upon startup, the main menu appears with the available options. The first three choices are all game modes - Arcade, NHL Challenge, and King of the Rink. The other choices are the omnipresent Options menu and also a Records and Rewards screen.

While the small number of game modes appears to limit the game, most gamers will find that the game has a considerable amount of life in it. Of the three modes, two are available to the single player, and each mode utilizes the unlockable items in the game. The Rewards menu shows the available options as well as how to unlock the remaining rewards. Rewards range from playing with tiny players, players with huge heads, soundtrack options, goal sizes, crazy shots, etc. The fact that you can utilize any reward in any game mode is a pleasant surprise.

The Records screen shows the cumulative record of a user. User profiles can be maintained with the memory card, and each user has a unique set of records. The amazing record system keeps track of every game you have played (you do need to save and load your profile to update your profile), and tallies wins and losses, goals, one-timers, hits, fights, and more. At the time of writing this review, I was amazed that I've played nearly 100 games in Rock the Rink!

The available options include difficulty (easy, medium, and hard), game length (first to 5, 7, 10, 12, 15, or 20 goals), camera view, catch-up logic, sound, and memory card access. Playing on easy, the game has a slow pace and the scoring is easy. Moving up through the difficulty levels quickens the pace of the game as well as leads to longer attacks since the computer goalie improves his defense.

Gameplay : 93
Rock the Rink contains the usual arcade mode, where one or two players can pick any of the available teams and battle it out. The arcade mode is great for a quick game, but most of the game lies with the NHL Challenge mode. In this mode, your task is to take a team through the Easy, Medium, and Hard Championship. Win the Hard Championship and it's off to the Ultimate Championship.

When you first start the game, the only available teams are fictitious EA created lines. The Easy Championship consists of two games in each of three categories. The categories reflect the types of upgrades (better sticks, skates, and gear) that are won in Rock the Rink. With the upgrades comes better performance in areas like shot power, agility, and goaltending. Winning two games in one category automatically makes that upgrade to the team you chose. After winning two upgrades, you can play in the championship game, where you wager one of your upgrades. Since each upgrade enhances your team's skill, it's best to earn all three upgrades prior to playing the championship game. Each game you play is against an NHL team, and as you beat the teams, those teams are unlocked for play in all the game modes.

Moving up to the Medium Championship, you still earn upgrades, but now it takes three victories in each category to win the prize. Likewise in the Hard Championship. Winning the Hard Championship opens up the final game - the Ultimate Championship where you take on the defending NHL champs, the Dallas Stars.

When you first start Rock the Rink, the only level available in the NHL Challenge mode is the easy level. If you can't win each game your first time out, you are in for a rough time. The speed of the game is agonizing and the computer opponent is downright easy to beat. Once you move up to the medium level, the CPU teams are much tougher but still beatable. Some are especially tough, and I found it best to abandon my chosen EA team in favor of a real NHL team. Doing so required me to replay the easy level and earn upgrades. You can't use the upgrades earned with one team with another team, which in essence extends the life of the game. Winning the medium championship with an NHL team was easy, but the real challenge came with the hard level. This level featured some of the fastest hockey I've ever played. With a short rink and a tough AI, scoring was extremely difficult. Even seasoned hockey gamers will find this level a tough play.

To beat the goalie on any level, the best approach is the one-timer. On the higher levels, this is almost the only way to score consistently. The control of the skaters is tight and passing is quick which makes one-timing a simple exercise. Passing, incidentally, is done by tapping the X button. Tapping the square button sends a wristshot, and holding the square button unleashes a slapshot. Rock the Rink also has a "cool shot," which send the puck to the net with a little extra speed. However, the problem with these shots, especially on the higher levels, is that they require a couple of seconds to complete. With a quick AI defense, your shooter is never open long enough to finish the move. Your player ends up getting flattened and you lose possession of the puck. To be honest, I quickly stopped using this feature as I progressed through the game.

Two lines are used in Rock the Rink. Usually one line is speed oriented while the other is power oriented. Players fit either a finesse or power player, and they are distinguished based on their size in the line selection screen as well as on the ice. Since the players never fatigue, it is possible to play entire games with the same line. At times you will find that some lines work better than others against select opponents.

If you read the preview of Rock the Rink, you will recall I made mention of several money plays in the game. I am glad to say that these money plays are gone in the final version. While you can still knock the goalie down and get a cheap goal, it occurs less frequently. On the higher levels where the competition is tough, cheap goals are nearly impossible. About the only guaranteed scoring method is the one-timer, and even those come infrequently on the hard level.

While the CPU goalie is rock solid on the more difficult levels, the AI of your goalie is highly suspect. I found my goalie out of position on many shots that led to cheap goals by the CPU. What made me even more frustrated was when I accidentally pressed the L2 button. According to the manual, the L2 should cause your player to taunt the opponent. However, every time I hit the button when on defense, my goalie leaves the net and charges the puck. This leaves the goal completely exposed for a wide open goal.

Replay Value : 95
With the exception of the goalie's lack of intelligence, which can be mitigated by staying the heck away from the L2 button, Rock the Rink is a solid play. The incredibly fast pace and back-and-forth action is intense and pulls you into the game. The fact that I've played around 100 games is a testament to the overall quality of the game. While the graphics may not be the best, the gameplay is some of the most exciting on the PlayStation.

Realistically the main reason why the replay value is high is because of the NHL Challenge mode. Winning the Ultimate Championship requires a minimum of twenty wins. If you want all the upgrades, you need another eight wins. I guarantee you'll need more than twenty tries to beat the game. Along the way you can unlock an incredible number of features. Rewards are spread across all three game modes, so unlocking them all will take some time. Some of the rewards are useless, but others make for some interesting play.

Even without the upgrades and rewards, Rock the Rink is a fantastic game. If you want a change of pace from the traditional hockey simulation, you can't go wrong with Rock the Rink. The true arcade style action appeases the single player and head-to-head players.

Overall : 93
Electronic Arts has brought the NHL into a wacky new world, and I think you'll like what you see. Rock the Rink is arcade action at its finest. With incredibly fast action, this game gives your fingers a workout. From the moment the puck is dropped to the final whistle, Rock the Rink's gameplay and music reel you in. The NHL Challenge moment is just what it implies, a challenge. While the road to the higher levels is mundane early on, the difficulty jumps in the medium and hard levels. The reward system is a unique addition to a hockey title that keeps the arcade style of play fresh.

By: James Smith 3/17/00

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