Back again for its 12th year is EASport's NHL franchise, in the form of NHL 2004. Year after year PC gamers are blessed with quality action from all the major US sports, however as of late, the NHL series has been lacking. With an aging engine, unrealistic arcade style gameplay and limited flexibility, NHL 2003 failed to impress us here at 3DAvenue, but more importantly, it failed to impress the majority of fans. Although NHL fans on the PC have no other choice as far as hockey gaming goes, EASports luckily thought it was necessary to give the NHL series an overhaul, and boy did the series get an overhaul with NHL 2004!
First of all, it is nice to notice that EA have again paid attention to the game mode aspects, by adding a new "Dynasty Mode". With this, you are given the ability to chose a General Manager built into the game, and take your franchise to the top. Along the way, you'll be rewarded with experienced points which can go towards upgrading your facilities and staff, or it can go towards team related aspects, such as giving you the edge when it comes to signing a free agent. On top of this, Dynasty Mode also gives you complete control over your team on the days you do not play. For example, should you want to prepare for an upcoming game, in the days before the game which are free for your team, you can force them to haul in the long hours and do extra practice, or your can choose to let them rest. Don't take this decision lightly however, as it will effect the team's ingame performance. Forcing them to train extra will give them a boost in skill, while resting will give them a boost in endurance. It isn't a "one or the other" decision though, you can do lighter training which will still give you some extra skills but with minimal endurance loss.
When it comes down to it though, ultimate success, whether it be in the Dynasty mode or just a quick game, comes down to your ability to play on the ice. Fortunately for lovers of realistic gaming, NHL 2004 has really turned virtual ice hockey up a notch when it comes to ingame action.
First of all, it is obvious that this year EA have done some serious tweaking to the game's engine, as even the before game cutscene showcases much more fluent and realistic movements and reactions. Last year we saw a lot of emphasis shifted towards the before game preparations and story telling (with regards to the team rivalry's etc), however this year, we see a quick and appropriate pre-game introduction for the teams without too much nonsense.
However you can only begin to appreciate the tweaking to the game's engine after the puck has dropped, as after the first few minutes of first playing NHL 2004, I was quite surprised. To start, the puck is no longer an extension glued on your stick, and bone crunching hits are not required to jar the puck out, even sharp and unorthodox movements by yourself will probably result in a lost puck. If the defense wants the puck, and you're not controlling it well enough, they will simply take it right from under your nose. Although the possibility of a loose puck was present in last years version, there is no doubting that this year, puck control is much more realistic.
As the game continues on, after a goal here and there, you may notice something - linebackers are no longer present on the ice, or in other words, huge spectacular hits are no longer something you can just perform at will. While there are still check functions in the game, unless you have one hell of a physical player, chances are you will have a hard time trying to just skate up and pummel the puck holder. What this does is add incredible detail to the game's realism, no longer are players being decked to the ice every few seconds, rather, if you want to perform as a solid defense, you'll need to fight hard for the puck with a high possibility of all 10 active players being on their feet.
However this is not to say hard checks are lacking in NHL 2004, it just means they are harder to pull off, and when they do occur, they are much more realistic. In the previous NHL titles, it was not uncommon to see a defender skate up, knock the puck handler silly and then skate off in the matter of a second or two. This year, if you do pull off a hard or impressive hit, chances are you will not be available to just skate off with the puck, after all, in real life, the force you deal out in the form of a body check is the same amount you will receive in reaction - it is great to see EA finally acknowledge the human and physical world limitations of body collisions.
Ever since EA's very first NHL titles, fighting has been a feature, and NHL 2004 is no exception. A major problem with the previous versions and fighting was that they failed to provide realistic brawls, it was often too clean and not intense enough - and lets face it, fighting in the real NHL is never a pretty site. However this year, I can happily say that fighting has finally been fixed. During the game you will be told a fight is about to break out, which are usually caused by unnecessary big hits. Should you wish to continue with the fight, you simply press a button, and whola, the heat is on. Once the gloves have dropped, WWE Smackdown eat your heart out! Rather than distant arms swings, this year the majority of fighting is done in very close quarters, with both fighters grappling each other trying to get the better position, and once the punches start to land, the fight is not too far from the finish.
One problem I had with the fighting system was that you are given the choice to participate in a fight or not. After the first few times a fight is presented to you, you start to think it must be your lucky day, however eventually the novelty wares off. It would have been better to see an automatic fight system in place, because when it comes down to it, in the long run, it is better you avoid the fights and keep your players checked into the game. Once you realise this, you rarely care for fights, and hence they rarely occur. If the game forced you to fight, atleast then it could keep a balance in the amount of fights that occur, because in real hockey, they tend to occur beyond anyone's control.
If I could bring up one last gripe with the gameplay, it would have to be the pass game. Included with the control scheme are a few functions to pass, most of which achieve the same thing - a loose puck. I'll admit that I'm far from the best NHL player, but I found it very hard, even on the easy settings, to keep the puck in my possession. I know that in real hockey, possession changes very rapidly, however I was losing the puck for all the wrong reasons. Often passes would seemingly shoot off in a direction I did not choose, or totally blow by a teammate who does very little to even attempt to trap the puck. I'm sure with lots of practice I would keep this issue under control, however for the players out there who aren't experts, keeping control of the puck will probably become an overly difficult thing to achieve. It seems EA were trying to be a little too tricky with the pass game by apparently giving you "complete control" over the puck, but I failed to even control it at all in some instances.
Unlike many other EA Sports titles, NHL 2004 does not necessarily excel in graphics, atleast, the strongest point isn't the visuals. That is not to say they're not any good, infact compared to last years they are still significantly better. For one, the textures appear to be of greater quality and resolution, last year a lot of the uniforms and ice markings were slightly blurry, however this year, everything is crystal clear. However the most impressive improvement in the visual department is the crowd. Rather than the flat garbled mixture of colours, which looked more like a bag of Skittles than a crowd, as seen in last years version, this year we have fully 3D crowds which react to the ingame action visually. Don't expect unique faces etc for each crowd member, but it is still great to see this level of detail finally implemented. Overall, while other EA titles like Madden 2004 and NBA Live 2004 look substantially better, the graphics still enhance the gameplay in a modest manner.
Controlling your team is where NHL 2004 really impresses. New in 2004 is a few basic controls, including various pass types, new check functions, a dedicated hook button etc, while retaining the usual shot/speed/change player functions. These are reasonably essential parts of the controlling subsystem, which can be executed on both the keyboard and most control pads.
However, if you want the absolute experience NHL 2004 has to offer, then you'll want a control pad that has atleast 12 buttons and 2 analog sticks (where 2 of those 12 can be found while pressing down each analog stick). What this does is allow you to take control of a new system which expands the control you have on both the offensive and defensive attack. On offense, the right analog stick gives you complete control for manual deke's, something which comes in very handy when trying to weave through tight defenses. On the other hand, defense also has use for the right analog stick, allowing you to take control over your close range body checks. The offensive use for the right analog stick is far more useful, but there is no doubt an analog stick control pad comes in handy in any case.
Whether us PC gamers like it or not, EASports have a monopoly on the PC sports market. Unless I'm mistaken, EASport's NHL 2004 is the only up to date ice hockey game on the PC, so obviously, you don't have much choice - this game being successful is essential from a fan's standpoint. Fortunately, NHL 2004 is very successful, especially when you compare it to the previous versions in the series. NHL 2003 was indeed a very rushed title without any sign of simulation aspects, and while NHL 2004 is not quite there as a sim yet, it's as close as any title in the series has ever been. With a refined engine, much more realistic gameplay without huge hits every 3 seconds, and with the usual array of offline and online game modes, NHL 2004 is a must have for any PC NHL gamer. Finally the series has hit a sweetspot, and I tell you what, I can only imagine what 2005 has in store for us.