ESPN NHL2K5ESPN NHL2K5 was released on Tuesday, and I've spending some time with it when I can tear myself away from ESPN NFL. Sega's NHL series, since the release of NHL2K3 (the finest hockey game ever made), has been the gold standard for hockey games. The gameplay engine is mature, and that engine, with the proper slider adjustments, plays a very, very good game of hockey. The A.I. in the NHL series is in a league of its own.
So how is this year's version? After about five hours of play, I'm very, very pleased with this year's version. The A.I. is still solid, the graphics have been upgraded, and the animation and 'feel' of skating is a real pleasure this year. Most importantly, this year marks the death of the super-goalie. For the last two years, the goalies were just inhumanly good--NHL2K3 required individual goalie ratings edits to get the best experience out of the game. Finally, that's over. The ability to have a custom zoom setting for each camera angle is back, which is very good news for those of us who couldn't find an optimal camera to use last year. There is also an expanded and well thought-out set of sliders that allow for very detailed customization of gameplay. The second-to-second intensity is fierce, as it always has been in this series, and it's a real adjustment to come from playing NFL to this game--there are no breaks, no time to relax, no moments when you relax.
Complaints? Very few. I don't like the new face-off camera, because it's elevated to the point where I don't see the dropping of the puck that well. 16x9 support has been added, but for menus and some other items like team logos in some screens, they were just stretched instead of being properly resized, which is disappointing.
The biggest difference between this game and ESPN NFL is the level of polish. The gameplay is honed to a fine point, but everything else would have greatly benefited from another month of development. ESPN NFL is polished to such an extreme degree that ESPN NHL suffers in comparison. It's still tremendous, though, and for $19.99 it is a ridiculous bargain.
I haven't decided yet if there will be a slider project for this game or not. There are a few legends (Waz, Hrudey32) who customarily develop excellent sliders for this series, and I would expect them to continue their fine work this year. So I may wait to see what they come up with. Either way, excellent sliders will be available.