"A great start to a new NHL franchise"
Hockey games are nothing new, EA have been doing them for many years now but with the new player in the console market the Xbox and of course the online service, Microsoft has decided that a new hockey franchise needs to come to the fore in NHL Rivals. Has this new rookie got the gusto to go up against the big guns in the NHL 200X franchise from EA and ESPN Hockey?
NHL Rivals is Microsofts first foray into the ice hockey arena and with this in mind its an impressive game. It features numerous modes such as Instant Rivalry, Season, Tournament and Playoffs. Instant rivalry throws you into a game straight away with two random NHL franchises and is by far the quickest way to get a game going in Rivals. The other modes are for someone who wants more then that in a hockey game and wants to choose their team and the franchises destiny on the way to the Stanley Cup. Season mode allows you to choose one of the officially licensed NHL franchises and take them through a season hopefully to the Stanley Cup playoffs whilst tournament allows you to build your own tournament with a set number of teams. There is one thing missing from Rivals which may hurt it in the long run and that is a lack of a franchise mode. Whilst there is hardly any doubt that it will be added to the franchise should Microsoft decide to continue it into the future, with the other hockey titles on the market already offering this, most gamers will see it as an unwanted absence.
However there is an advantage which comes from this decision and that is that the game focuses entirely around the actual games of hockey rather then the back office dealings between seasons etc. As the coach and player you still have to deal with trades and injuries during the season but that is nothing in comparison to what you have to deal with in franchise mode from other hockey games available such as retirements etc. The gameplay of NHL Rivals is brutal. There is no doubt that some of the hits in Rivals are some of the most brutal seen in an NHL licensed video game ever. If you see a player called from tripping get ready to cringe as the rival player hits the ice. You can adjust the speed of the game and obviously the faster the players can move, the quicker goals can come about and more painful the hits might be.
A tutorial mode is included for those who are new to the sport and this allows you to get accustomed to the controls such as passing and dekeing before taking on other players online or the AI in the single player game. One other interesting part of NHL Rivals is what occurs in a face off situation. You can choose between three things to do, a normal hit, a play where you use your body or try to tie up the opponents stick. It becomes somewhat like paper, scissors rock and some plays obviously beat others. You still have to be the first to react when the referee drops the puck however before any of this comes into play.
Something that is becoming part and parcel of hockey games these days is the fighting engines and NHL Rivals 2004 can mix it with the best of them. Fights can be caused by players giving to many hits on the boards, or just one big hit and you can decide to not fight and either avoid a penalty or receive a minor charge or fight and lose one of your players for a substantial amount of time. When a fight is started the games controls change and they are listed on the screen. It is definitely a very indepth fighting engine with you able to duck and weave punches as well as delivering strong blows or grabbing the player and punching them a few times, and when the players go down they really go down as the action replay often shows.
As mentioned before NHL Rivals 2004 is officially licensed and contains all the official franchises and logos from the league. Throughout the season the All Star game is also played and you get the opportunity to take part in this special game during the season on the side you choose to play as. Also if you're not a hockey afficianado you can change some of the rules to suit your style of play. You can turn off penalties such as Icing, Two Line Pass and Offside which can make the game a lot more fast paced with fewer penalty calls slowing up the game.
There are a few problems with NHL Rivals 2004 which hamper the game somewhat in comparison to some of the other hockey games on the market. The first and foremost being the lack of franchise mode but there are other problems as well. Penalties when enabled seem randomly given. You can put a hit on an opponent and not be called then perform almost the exact same move and be called and sent to the box. The animations which are good probably contribute to this by showing the same move for the hit you put on the player which got him sent to the box for a few minutes to cool down. The final gripe we have with NHL Rivals may not be seen as a problem to some people. The goalies appear to be superhuman and human walls. Of course skating up the ice and shooting right at the goalie is going to result in a save nine times out of ten, but passing the puck around and trying to confuse the goalie should sometimes result in a goal and in our opinion it doesn't happen enough in Rivals. The goalies are much to powerful and the AI is not balanced in this respect. There is also no create a player mode which can help keep teams up to date long after the game has hit the shelf, and other games feature it so again it is an absence that may hurt this first title in the long run.
One area the game shines is the presentation. TV Style presentation for sports games especially those based on American sports is nothing new but NHL Rivals along with the XSN abilities of the game has really got it right. The graphic are superb, the animations are fantastic and one definite feature of the game is a dynamic crowd. Not only are they completely 3D rendered, they react to the play which is happening on the ice and will chant and react when goals are scored or just missed. A nice touch to the sound presentation of the game occurs when you pause the game and the commentator Sam Rosen will say something like "we will return after these important messages" to bring across a true tv style for the matches.
NHL Rival supports Xbox Live and the XSN online league service. The live support fits into the game well and when playing we only encountered lag on a few occasions with multiple players in the game at the same time. XSN is supported and leagues are already starting to pop up for the game and you can create your own tournaments for your friends at XSNSports.com if you so desire.
NHL Rivals is a good start to what will probably become a yearly franchise like NBA Inside Drive and NFL Fever. Rivals is most definitely the most impressive first title out of the previously mentioned franchises and if they build upon this and add a franchise mode then a third competitor may truly be in the game. As it stands Xbox Live play is the games most redeeming quality and the realistic and brutal hits are also an asset to the title. If you want a hockey game for Live then Rivals may be it but only if your a big fan of the NHL.