EA Sports returns to the ice for another season with its 13th annual edition of the popular NHL series. While designed to maintain the winning mix of playability and accuracy for which the series is known, NHL 2005 also adds a few notable features. Gamers who master the new "Open Ice Control" system will be able to switch quickly from player to player -- even those not currently in control of the puck -- allowing their squad to set up passes and one-timers, rush the net for rebounds, or double-team a threatening forward. Along with the game's "Total Player Awareness" features, which are designed to allow timing-based passes and aimed shots, skilled gamers can learn to use all six men on the ice like a single, dominating, well-oiled machine.
Individual player personalities are more prominent in this year's game, as specific AI and animations have been added to reflect the real-life athletes' tendencies, toward agility versus power, for example, or offensive versus defensive play. The game's skating engine has been revamped as well, designed to offer more direct control without sacrificing the feeling of realistic momentum. Other favorite features and options return from previous years, including a refined dynasty mode that features quick and accessible informational updates, and a greater focus on the meat-and-potatoes management challenges a real GM faces in running a successful franchise. In addition to skating as any of the 30 NHL teams in standard modes, gamers can also compete for the World Cup of Hockey, as one of the top eight national teams, and play in re-creations of the actual international arenas that host the tournament.
Last year's game was a major step forward, and left many fans eagerly anticipating NHL 2005. All they wanted was a tweaked version of NHL 2004, one that tightened the gameplay screws, improved the franchise mode, and so on. Instead of that, EA Sports has delivered the hockey equivalent of Rock'em Sock'em Robots. There are more bone-jarring, knock-a-player-on-his-butt hits in one game of NHL 2005 than you'll see in a week of watching real hockey. The problem is that the defenders appear to be drawn to the puck handler, and once he gets within range, a suction effect takes place that moves the defender into the offensive player automatically. It's as if an animation takes over, leaving you helpless to avoid contact.
There are gameplay sliders that are supposed to lower the aggression of the players and their hitting effectiveness ... but they're all smoke and mirrors. They don't have any effect at all; they might as well not even be there. Defenders attack viciously, making it impossible to set up plays or work the puck. Worst of all, player ratings don't matter in the slightest as even the smallest left winger can knock a burly defenseman on his rear.
The game is all about smashing the other guy into goo and hoping for a breakaway or a lucky pass in front of the net for a one-timer; it's a pinball-paced game of body checks and turnovers. Big hits are great, they're a big part of hockey, but this goes way overboard and moves beyond being fun and ends up being nothing but frustrating.
For some reason, EA decided to remove some features from previous versions. The create-a-player feature is gone, replaced with the ability to create a team or play the World Hockey tournament. You no longer may customize the period length. You get 5, 10, or 20 minutes and that's it. Box scores for simmed games are no longer available. It's a mystery why these features are no longer in the game, but their absence is noticeable.
Last year's franchise mode showed a lot of promise, but needed to be fleshed out more. This year, a new "e-mail" feature is included to give you a better idea of the day-to-day happenings of your team. It's certainly easier now to keep pace with the ins and outs of your franchise, but it's all a waste because of the bizarre team goals that the team owner puts on you.
For example, in one test as the Blue Jackets, the owner said he wanted the number one pick in the draft. After the season, when the Jackets surprised everyone and made the playoffs, the owner was ticked off; he wanted that number one draft pick, not a trip to the post season. After year two, when my Jackets defied the odds and made it to the second round of the playoffs, the owner fired the coach (me) which brought an end to the Blue Jackets franchise. This pretty much makes franchise mode useless when winning games isn't as important as securing a draft pick or "finish[ing] in the top ten in power plays." It doesn't make a lick of sense.
If there's any redeeming feature in NHL 2005, it's that the online isn't too bad. It still plays too fast and there's still way too much hitting, but at least it hides some of the more egregious A.I. issues. Hopefully, NHL 2006 will return this series back where it belongs, because the 2005 version is a complete and total disappointment.
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