We could all do with some ice round about now, right?
The NHL is clearly not as big over here as it is in the US and Canada. In fact, the embodiment of our enthusiasm for the subject might find a pint glass a little loose around the hips. Or a thimble. But if there's one thing the NHL can flog on this continent it's videogames. So whether you know Lindross from Gretzky or wouldn't know a puck from a black pudding, NHL 2004 is still a prospective purchase - after all, what's fun is fun.
We've been playing EA's NHL titles since we had Mega Drives and Super Nintendos, so it's a testament to our lack of interest that we still only understand a handful of rules and only recognise about 15 players' names. We certainly don't know much about running a "Franchise". But with the feeling of hockey by all accounts pretty thoroughly realised on the ice, NHL 2004 developer Black Box is turning its attention to the managerial side of things with a new "Dynasty Mode" packed with options. Winning us over on that front could take some doing.
The idea of Dynasty Mode is to take charge of your favourite team (you're asked to pick one the first time you boot up NHL 2004), and act as their General Manager for 20 seasons. Your overall objective is to be inducted into the GM Hall of Fame at the very end.
Whoever you choose, to begin with your team is just a ragtag band of ice skaters with sticks, your stadiums will be half-empty, and the wallpaper will be peeling in your office. To improve matters, you'll be able to spend hard-earned experience points - earned by maximising attendance and profit margins, and obviously winning - on bolstering your squad in ten key departments. You'll also be able to tend to the wallpaper, and pick up some classy furniture and sleazy posters, but we'll leave that alone for now. Key to progression is tending to those stats - like the quality of medical staff and facilities, which affects how quickly players return from injury; your marketing budget, which affects attendance; the quality of your scouts; or even the quality of team travel conditions and the club gym. Because morale is important too.
Sportsmen with morals? Oh, morale
Each stat works towards morale, attendance and player attributes, so whenever you pick up XP, you'll have to consider carefully where to invest it. Fortunately the game gives you a good idea, labelling prospective upgrades with the likely results, and you can spy on your rival teams' XP investment too, allowing you to gauge the value of each item.
Morale seems to be the key to everything, and virtually every decision, from hiring and firing coaches and players to results and "ice time", will have an effect. Low morale will affect a player's abilities during a game, with the dynamic attribute levels rising and falling. Hockey also has its fair share of prima donnas working to upset your hard work - any player with an overall ranking of 90 or more is considered a Prestige Player, and these chaps will get awfully upset if they aren't on the ice every game, losing interest and skill with every subsequent spell on the sideline.
Fortunately you have lots of tactics to perk up your players' skills, including management of their free time. Each player can be set to take the day off, or engage in short, medium or long training sessions, and each has a statistical effect on the player, maybe increasing shooting skills but also lowering endurance. It's a balancing act that NHL fans are sure to relish.
Grappling with change
But for us, impressive though all this undoubtedly is, we're more interested in what's going on under the spotlights. Whether the stadium is half-empty or close to capacity, whether the commentator is mumbling context-sensitive advice about players needing more time on the ice, whether we've set the ticket prices high or low, whether we've negotiated a good TV contract or set a fair wage cap - we care more about the actual hockey. And at this stage? Well, it's as sound as ever.
Every time we passed NHL 2004 at Camp EA, it was always busy, and since we've gotten hold of some preview code ahead of the game's September 26th release, we've been busy too. Graphically, it's as good as ever, with only a trace of slowdown in places, and hugely detailed players who move extremely organically, whether they're being crunched against Perspex or gliding towards a pass - from every conceivable camera angle. The commentary also seems to have improved. Apart from the aforementioned focus on the state of your team, the two blokes in the box seem to witter amongst themselves quite convincingly, and they have that exuberant "sportsfan!" excitement about them. More than can be said for Mark Lawrenson, right?
And while it may not play as fast as Midway's NHL Hitz series, NHL's passing is quick and the shooting crisp. Powerplays are seamless, all the fluffy cut-scenes and glitzy presentation is skippable, and it plays much the same as NHL 2003. One key change that we quite like is the NBA/Pro Evo style right analogue stick hitting control, allowing you to use the stick independently of movement controls in every respect, whether it's slapping the puck goalwards or slapping yourself into the sin bin. Or whatever they call it. We also like the new fight system for when things get a bit rough, which focuses more on grappling than actual punches and kicks.
Chocker block ice
One of the things we want to try with NHL 2004 but haven't had time to just yet is the online aspect. We'll bring you more on that in our review next month, but if the online aspect measures up to what Black Box is preparing for disconnected gamers, then you won't need to be an NHL fan to appreciate it.