Originally, this was supposed to be a review of Metal Slug 3. As such, I had prepared accordingly: my quaking thumbs were treated to soothing cream, to soften up their reflexes; a triple cappuccino steamed on the table in front of me; a fan blew, at the highest setting, just a metre from my already sweaty face. A session of relentless, high-octane gaming was about to begin.
As it turned out, due to technical issues I couldn't play Metal Slug - though that review will hopefully appear at some point soon. Instead NHL 2005 was placed in the disc tray. And you know what? I ended up needing that preparation just as much.
One of the more surprising games I played last year was NHL Rivals on the Xbox. It was fast, fun and gloriously addictive in multiplayer mode, though the series was unfortunately discontinued recently. There was something very ironic about the game though: it did a good job of recreating a real sport, yet never really played like anything more than a violent Sensible Soccer on ice.
NHL 2005 is best described as just that - a violent Sensi Soccer, but on a smaller, whiter pitch with the rules altered to allow Fever Pitch-style tackles. Despite the fact that EA have made some nice additions to the series with this version, the core gameplay never really trancends that basic comparison. So while it's clear that EA are doing a good job within the confines of the sport, you get the feeling that the sport itself is never going to amount to a mind-blowing game.
It does, however, amount to a decent game. In fact, NHL 2004 was a very decent game. If you haven't tried it yet, sit down with a friend and play a two-player game of Rivals or any NHL - it really is a lot of fun, and the rules are so simple as to make them almost irrelevant. Get the puck, run with it, pass once or twice, shoot. Or, alternatively: get the puck, get slammed into a wall, lose puck, opponent passes once or twice, shoots. Simple, fast-paced fun.
Off the puck
The problem lies with the lack of improvement on this level. While EA have implemented a FIFA-esque off-the-ball control aspect, called 'open ice', it never really become a necessity, though it works a little better than FIFA's version. It's nice to be able to instruct a team-mate in possession to shoot, or set up a first-touch, or to gang up on opponents, but the overall impact is less than dramatic.
One lovely aspect of the series is the ability to shoot and pass with the right stick and, unlike Pro Evloution Soccer it works fairly instinctively. But that's nothing new to this version of NHL, and only makes the gameplay more comfortable, rather than more in-depth.
European hockey fans... wait, are there any Scandinavians reading? Let me try again. European teams are also represented in the game's World Cup of Hockey event, with teams from the likes of Sweden, Russia and Finland on show. Great. So long as you're from the icier parts of the world.
Aside from the 'open ice' control and some extra-ferocious tackling, the best addition is the 'Free 4 All'. This is essentially the hockey equivalent of jumpers for goalposts street football with one goal and one 'keeper, and four outfield players trying to score as many goals as possible. It's almost like a party game, really, and works very well.
Stick to last year's?
Still, in the end, there's no denying that it's growing ever more difficult to rate hockey games with much enthusiasm, especially if you're not an ardent aficionado of the sport. Even though this is undeniably a good representation, the feel of it is really not all that different from the SNES and Mega Drive titles of yesteryear. The lack of online play is also a disappointment and again one of those inconsistencies in EA's support for Xbox Live in Europe - and if it had been present, then an extra point would have been in the bag.