The longest-running hockey franchise in video games returns to home computers with a more robust Dynasty Mode, redesigned color commentary, a new fighting system, and full support of the right analog stick for both deking and checking. Budding General Managers can help upgrade their team's rink, practice facilities, coaching staff, and front office with experience points earned by winning games. As players spend more and more points on upgrades, the team will gradually increase its attributes and will be more likely to attract other free agents and draft picks to the city.
Another enhanced feature is the fighting engine, which is no longer a button-mashing substitute for boxing. Players will be able to chain moves from a grappling position, offering more strategic possibilities during encounters instead of rewarding those with quick reflexes. The collisions that often lead to fights have also been juiced up with more dramatic camera angles and new motion-captured animation. To help maintain its position as the best-selling hockey series, NHL 2004 fixes a number of presentation issues and promises a more realistic experience with computer players individually reacting to in-game situations rather than preset strategies.
Players who grimaced at NHL 2003's humorous approach to color commentary will be pleased to hear that Don Taylor has been replaced with ex-NHL player Craig Simpson, who offers a more traditional take on analysis. In addition to all 30 NHL teams from the 2003-2004 season, NHL 2004 offers 20 national teams as well as an international league composed of 39 teams from Germany, Sweden, and Finland. As with other EA SPORTS releases for 2003, players will be able to track personal ratings and unlock special features using saved games from each of the publisher's sports titles. Both the PlayStation 2 and PC versions of NHL 2004 have the added benefit of online play for head-to-head competition along with chat support.
NHL 2004 is a must-have game for rookie hockey fans and purists alike. There are a number of reasons for this, but the key ones are pretty compelling. In addition to some welcome gameplay tweaks and AI improvements by new developer Black Box, NHL 2004 also ships with a beefy new dynasty mode where Glen Sather or Bobby Clarke wannabes can micromanage their favorite teams for a full twenty seasons. Throw in some impressive new player animations, graphic upgrades, multiplayer enhancements, and a retooled fighting system, and there are more than enough goodies here to justify the upgrade.
The gameplay improvements probably won't be popular with the arcade crowd or anyone else who actually preferred the slapstick commentary, dramatic camera work, and double-digit scores featured in NHL 2003. NHL 2004 delivers a much more authentic representation of the fastest game on ice and this is reflected in its tight checking action (low-scoring games are now the norm) and truer-to-life gameplay mechanics. Defenders clutch and grab at speedy forwards with the same brutal degree of effectiveness they employ in the real NHL, and as a consequence, it's no longer possible to run up the score on opponents by executing stock one-timers, play after repetitious play. True hockey fans have detested the "trap" since Jacques Lemaire foisted it on us it with the New Jersey Devils in the mid-'90s, but like it or not, it's part of the game and Black Box has taken pains to model this in NHL 2004. Although this new close-checking AI is still several notches from perfect -- games can still be won with suspicious momentum shifts or goon factor defensive tactics -- it's nevertheless a significant improvement on past versions.
Also complimenting the game's new sim-like presentation are upgraded control options and an all-new fighting engine. If your gamepad is appropriately equipped, you can now direct two-button touch-sensitive passes and control the direction of your hits and bodychecks with the game's new "Bruise Control" feature (the decision to fight is now left entirely up to the player). If you do decide to drop the gloves, however, the new fighting system offers an entertaining diversion that should appeal to enforcers and speedsters alike. As with past versions, the configurability of NHL 2004 is extensive and everything from the overall AI difficulty to puck elasticity and friction can be set with a series of easily adjustable sliders.
The graphic upgrades in NHL 2004 are subtle -- last year's game was one of singular beauty -- but the results are impressive nonetheless. Complementing the superb rink detail and authentic player representations are convincing new motion-capture animations (player's bodies now skate and maneuver much more realistically) and some terrific new 3D crowd renderings that react and celebrate just like their real-life counterparts.
The audio is also quite solid throughout, with completely overhauled and re-scripted commentary from perennial play-by-play man Jim Hughson and freshman color commentator Craig Simpson (thankfully, the cornball scripting that turned respected Canadian sportscaster Don Taylor into an embarrassment of Geraldo Rivera proportions last year has been dropped). This new broadcasting tandem adds energy to the proceedings, but on the downside, they also let erroneous calls slip out every so often that bear little relation to the on-ice action. The rest of the game's auditory environment -- from the ricochet of booming slapshots to the high-energy "EA Sports Trax" background music -- is equally first-rate.
With close to 90 updated and licensed team rosters to select from -- 20 international teams and 39 new elite European squads supplement the game's 30 NHL franchises -- there's no shortage of player personnel in NHL 2004. What really adds to the game's depth, however, is its new dynasty mode. Assuming the role of GM, you can now draft or scout player prospects and negotiate contracts with your team's veteran and rookie talent while simultaneously adjusting ticket prices, upgrading team facilities, negotiating TV contracts, and even furnishing your office. It's a remarkably immersive experience that can be played either as a standalone RPG exercise or as an absorbing compliment to the core game.
Factor in NHL 2004's noticeably improved multiplayer environment -- where refreshingly lag-free Internet matchups can now be played on the EA Sports online pay service or alternatively through a peer-to-peer, LAN, or conventional multiple gamepad connection -- and the decision to trade up becomes even more clear.
But then again, if you're a PC hockey game fan, you've already gone out and downloaded the damned thing, haven't you?
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