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ESPN NHL Hockey Xbox

Published by SEGA
Developed by Visual Concepts Entertainment/Kush Games
Released - Out Now
Price : £39.99

Here in the UK it's difficult to realise just how popular Hockey (which we call ice hockey) is on a worldwide scale. Support for the game in the UK is on the increase but in a lot of European countries, Canada and the US support for the game is phenomenal. As a result of this there have been many hockey games on many formats over the years, some good and some not so good. However the game we review today, ESPN NHL Hockey, for me is the greatest of the lot. Never before have I been so addicted to a hockey title and I'd definitely place this as one of the finest sports simulations ever created.

ESPN NHL Hockey is absolutely choc full of game modes. You can jump right into a Quick Game or Exhibition Match, take part in the Playoffs or play through a whole Season. You can also play in a one-off tournament or if you're really feeling like a game for the long haul then there is an excellent Franchise mode for you to compete in that offers all the options you could possibly wish for. You are given feedback via email (just like you were in ESPN NFL Football) which is excellent as it means that deaf gamers will miss out on nothing. There are also various skill challenges where your skills are put to the supreme test. You also have a choice of four mini-games. Pond Hockey, Shootout, Mini Rink and Super Speed are all on offer and are all great fun. You also have a Skybox which holds various unlockables that you earn by completing various challenges. My favourite aspect of the Skybox was the air hockey table and two player games on this was almost as entertaining as the main game itself. If multiplayer games are your thing then you'll be pleased to know that like all SEGA's ESPN titles, ESPN NHL Hockey fully supports Xbox Live.

Well the game modes are certainly top notch and very worthwhile but what's the gameplay like? Fortunately it plays the best hockey that I've ever played on a home console. It's difficult to describe just how realistic the game plays. The quality of the AI defence is very impressive and whilst the keepers are not impregnable they certainly take some beating. The game has various difficulty levels and three control schemes so whatever your ability or control preference you'll be well covered. If you play on a difficulty level that's not providing you with a challenge you'll be given a text message mid-game asking you to try a different difficulty level (which I thought was a nice touch).

What I really like about the ESPN games is the way the game rewards you for taking time to learn all the techniques. Like ESPN NFL Football, ESPN NHL Hockey has a series of challenges that can be completed in most of the game modes. These challenges cover all aspects of the game such as winning a face off or scoring first or scoring a first timer. You'll be notified in text when you've completed a challenge and from the in-game menu you can check on what challenges have been completed. Completed challenges score points that can be used to unlock historic team jerseys, historic teams, historic masks and mini-games (Pond Hockey and Super Speed are initially unavailable).

Graphically ESPN NHL Hockey looks excellent. Earlier this week we looked at NHL Rivals 2004 and for me ESPN NHL Hockey is head and shoulders above Rivals. The animations and player models look much better. The speed of the game is much more realistic than in Rivals and the game has a very natural pace about it. All of the arenas in the game look great, although my personal favourite is the historic one, and the way the ice degrades during a game period is brilliant. The quality of the reflections on the ice is also impressive and easily the best yet on the Xbox. The presentation is just what you would expect from an ESPN endorsed title in that it's first class and the use of cutscenes during a game is excellent and helps create the illusion that you're watching a top TV sports show.

ESPN NHL Hockey is absolutely fine for deaf gamers. As you would expect the game commentary isn't subtitled but this doesn't spoil the game in any way except that, if a player is taken off injured the commentator will sometimes say what the injury is and this is not shown in text. All information is shown onscreen though. Penalties, offside, puck frozen and icing rulings etc., are all shown in text so you'll know exactly what's going on. The instructions in the various game modes such as the mini-games and skills tests are all delivered exclusively in text so there are no problems there either. The manual is a little lacking although in fairness it covers the various control schemes in great detail and these are the kind of details that you look for the manual to provide.

I can't claim to have played all the hockey games that have ever been made but after playing virtually all the EA NHL games, last years NHL 2K3 and this years NHL Rivals 2004, ESPN NHL Hockey stands head and shoulders above the lot. I'm not claiming the game's perfect but it's certainly not that far away and I certainly don't have any problem playing the game for hours on end. The game is so addictive that I'm becoming a nuisance hogging the TV when others in the house want to watch the TV. Essentially SEGA are set to have total domination when it comes to hockey games because not only are they shortly to release Eastside Hockey Manager (current working title) which has been developed by Sports Interactive, they now also have an equally stunning game in the shape of ESPN NHL Hockey. Hockey fans have never had it so good.

Overall Game Rating: 9.4/10
The best Hockey game you can currently buy for the Xbox, ESPN NHL Hockey is a truly superb effort that is a true classic in every sense.

Deaf Gamers comment:
Game commentary is unsubtitled but otherwise it's fine for deaf gamers.