Thunderbolt logo



This is the second term for ESPN’s National Hockey license, and according to my American friends last years effort was a “doo-sie”. I’m guessing that means fairly decent. What with Gary Thorne and Bill Clemet commentating, two of the greatest ‘sounds’ in the game, and the full ESPN experience plus trimmings in the shape and form of the scoreboard, 2004 was a decent game indeed. So what exactly do you add to a title in a genre that is famous for small tweaks and roster updates, to keep the experience fresh and the fans happy? I don’t know, but Visual Concepts sure do.

My only previous Ice Hockey experience, besides falling over a dozen times on my already frozen arse at the ice rink at Leisure World, was EA’s NHL Hockey ’95, a game made ten years ago and still standing strong, so I had a lot of catching up to do and as such scoured eBay for a copy of last year’s edition; after a few weeks of learning what the series was about, upon loading 2k5 it was clear that ESPN’s latest NHL title would be well worth anyone’s £20.

Did you see that fight in the Newcastle game week? He hit him- just like this!

Perhaps the most important tweak is in the controls (take note EA) as they feel a whole lot smoother than before. The addition of foul moves assigned the right analogue stick is very useful too, something which was sorely lacking last time round, so if the opposition is running rings around your defence you can simple smash him in the face to remind him where he stands. Magnificent. You can also stick in cheeky elbows when the ref’s not looking to start a fight, and these moves are almost essential if you need to take a guy out from exposing your team’s weak points. Just don’t complain when you visit the sin bin every other minute. The flip side of this of course if you see far more fouls such as hooking penalties during games than those of real life, which is a tad annoying but you have to live with it seeing as there generally isn’t a match for a well-timed body check (well, maybe CJ from GTA:SA and Cash from Manhunt could make a point).

Total Stick Control allows you to skate backwards on defence, which is a huge help because unless you’re facing your opponent, you won’t be tackling him anytime soon. It’s also a great tool to take out players with, as you can literally be in their faces. It’s best used to challenge for the puck though, as nothing is as effective as blocking any move forward, and you’ll soon be breaking down offensive plays in no time. Another great addition, and something soccer fans have known for years, is the Pass ‘n’ Go move, or essentially the old “one-two”. Simply pass the puck to a team mate and he’ll try to keep possession whilst you skate into open territory awaiting a return pass.

Touch my arse and I’ll smack ya’ with this here stick

It’s quite hard to comment on how hard or easy the game is because it’s always just right; there are so many sliders controlling different elements that it really is your game; if you find that the defence is too easy to slice through but the keepers unbelievably hard to beat, just adjust them to suit your needs. It’s this type of customisation that pleases me as there should never be a game where you feel totally out of depth.

The characteristics of various teams is amazing; the more talented sides seem to be more spread out and make better forward advances, relying more on quality to slow down your attack than numbers, whereas less physical and talent-less teams immediately hoard infront of their goal once they lose possession of the puck, relying on numbers to prevent you scoring. More often than not, the latter type of team are harder to beat as you have to play the puck around in front of them trying to thin out the congestion; it’s what us Brits call the “counter attack”.

Visually, I found ESPN NHL to be so-so. Arenas look spectacular and crowds look individual and often enough partial sections will stand up and wave their arms or shout, with whole tiers jumping up when the goal claxon wails. Players look a bit on the blocky side, and there’s no distinction between jersey and body armour; it just all looks painted on. The player animations during FMV’s are spot on, with sticks flying everywhere on important goals and team mates jumping up and hugging each other, and the actual skating around looks pretty solid, even if turning with the puck seems a tad unrealistic. Where it goes wrong is when players go out towards the boards, in the flanks. When hitting the boards, the players still keep possession of the puck and also stay in the same hunched over position, whereas if you haven’t got the puck, skating into the wall will result in you getting clattered. But that’s only when you get to the boards; most of the computers play seems to be down the centre of the ice, and play only goes out wide when you have enough bodies in the middle so they can’t race through, which then results in the opposition ‘bouncing’ off the walls with the puck.

I’m from Sherwood Forest. I take the puck from the rich teams and give to the poor teams. Here you are, fellow peasant.

Everywhere else though is solid, with players stretching so far to reach the puck that they sometimes end up flat on their bellies, and some slide on their knee’s turn quickly. It’s impressive stuff, and although the above faults are glaring, they won’t detract from the flow of a game much, if not any, at all.

Having commentary in such a fast paced game was never going to be easy, but it seems just right here. They keep chattering on with short phrases about the play without ever losing pace with the flow, with enough expression to make it more realistic but not over the top. When a keeper saves for example, there’s a decent amount of excitement, and when a goal is scored the voices get deeper, just like on TV. Damn hard to explain, but damn easy to understand.

You’ll spend so much time with NHL 2K5 thanks to the wealth and depth of modes on offer. There’s a great party mode which lets you battle it out with friends in tournaments and quick games, and there’s a ton of other options too. Exhibition, Season, Playoff and Tournament are pretty self-explanatory, but it’s Franchise where all your time will go. Contracts now replace the points system used before, with the option of adding incentives so players will sign. Big signing-on fee’s, lump sums and pay-per-appearance all feature and make the choice of which players to sign that little more complex. The new coaching system allows you to hire staff such as scouts and specific coaches, and seeing as each member of staff has their own ability levels which affect their performance, things look to be leaning more towards NHL Eastside Hockey Manager, also produced by SEGA. Hang on….

In fact, it’s almost trying to be like SEGA’s management behemoth. Such things as minors leagues, so you can see your up-and-coming stars in action, reek entirely of SI Games’ creation. And that’s a bloody good thing. There’s also drafting to take care of, but me being European and all, I couldn’t really make that one out.

I was playing Second Sight last night, and discovered this! Look! I can make my gloves levitate!

One thing I raved on about in NHL’s sister title, ESPN NFL 2K5, was the quality unlockables, and the same is true here. Your crib is totally customisable with team-specific photos, carpets, wallpaper etc, and the mini-games like ice hockey are just a dream. There’s even a trivial game, which I stayed away from thanks to my embarrassingly bad knowledge of American sports. The Skybox is back from before too, and although it isn’t anywhere near as customisable as your crib you can still view trophies and awards won in the game and the as-of-yet empty pedestal for the Stanley Cup.

There’s tons to do, tons to play and tons to unlock in ESPN NHL 2K5 which will leave you playing right up until next years instalment, which I won’t even bear thinking about. The fantastic Franchise mode will no doubt be the main port of call, and you could even spend time in the Dream Team section grabbing your favourite stars and beating the hell out of everyone with them. There’s even a roster changer and a line editor which will keep you busy for a while. Hell, everything’s here, there’s stuff I found that I never knew existed in Ice Hockey, and it’ll keep even the slightly interested and intrigued sports fans out there happy. All this for £20. Cheap as chips, depending on where you go.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in June 2002.

Gentle persuasion

Think you can do better? Write for us.