Perhaps 2004-5 can be best remembered as another season the New York Rangers didn’t make the playoffs and actually had a decent excuse. It looks like two nations will be taking a year off from hockey without actually having planned to do so. Regardless of who is wrong or right, the hardcore and casual hockey fan will have to make do with a simulation of what might have happened and who might have won what. 989’s recent entry into the arena of competitors that are meeting to fill this need results in the mixed bag that it’s much better than their previous effort, from 2 years ago, yet still in the minor leagues compared to its considerable competition, NHL2K5 and NHL 2005.
Gretzky NHL 2005 has a decent feature set which rivals the competition to a certain degree. You have online play, a rivalry mode, quick game, practice mode, tournament mode, and a somewhat limited franchise mode. The game was developed by Page 44 Studios, which has done several older NHL based titles in the past, and it feels like the high scoring run and gun hockey of the 80’s and early 90’s. Unfortunately, The Trap has been the staple of the recent NHL and the gameplay just feels out of place.
The game’s control scheme allows one to pick up the nuances of play very quickly. One timers, one button passing and quick dumps are easily manipulated and there are a few extras thrown in for good measure. You can hold a shot to build its power meter thereby increasing its strength while simultaneously decreasing its accuracy. There’s also a target icon that helps you determine where your shot is actually going before you release it. If this all sounds good then let me assure you that sounds can be deceiving. For one, the controls feel very sluggish and unresponsive. The quick wrist shot isn’t executable and even the casual hockey fan knows the importance of this. Every shot feels delayed and this adds to the frustration meter in a game that’s supposed to be very quick.
The game’s difficulty/AI isn’t worth discussing. Every game, regardless of difficulty, ends up being a Junior level shoot out with scores like 11-8 or 10-9. Your defensemen, or your opponent’s defensemen, have a bad habit of going well into the neutral zone or even the offensive zone, which results in breakaway after breakaway. The goalies suffer from severe weakness on angle shots and even shots from well beyond the hash marks resulting in numerous soft goals and leaving you throwing your hands up in the air, whether you’re on offense or defense. It’s just not as it should be. Equally, if you’re from the Martin Brodeur school of hockey, wherein your goalie handles and passes the puck, be prepared for a lengthy delay from the point that you pass the puck to the point where you can actually regain control of your goalie. If your pass is intercepted, you’re in trouble.
Gretzky NHL 2005 has decent enough graphics at face value. The character models are okay, but there are plenty of occasions (especially on replays) where characters magically move through each other. The arenas are nicely detailed and the animation is also serviceable. The frame rate rarely drops and performs nicely. There are some jerky movements throughout, but it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what is wrong with them.
From a sound perspective, Darren Pang and Mike Emrick are among the best in the business at what they do, and it seems that a lot of effort was made here to get player’s names correct and whatnot, but their commentary is as often out of place as it is correct. It doesn’t feel like a live TV broadcast and they are much better than this when live. The in-game sounds are decent enough, but not enough to make up for the announcers gaffes.
If it were the only game in town, Gretzky wouldn’t be such a bad thing. When stacked against its competitors (especially a superior one that’s $20.00 cheaper), the game just doesn’t measure up to its competition. Yes, you can unlock various incarnations of Gretzky during his various tenures in different places, but that’s hardly worth paying the extra loot for an inferior title. Like the league, hopefully we’ll see better next year.