NHL Rivals is Microsoft’s first effort into the hockey market, and you can easily tell this once you start to play this game. NHL Rivals had to battle with three other hockey titles (Ea Sport’s NHL 2004, ESPN’s NHL 2k4, and NHL hitz pro) and Rivals was also the last of the games to be released. Hockey fans are very pick about there hockey games, with most fans either going with EA’s effort and ESPN’s game. Microsoft would have to do something real different to win over the hockey gamer. Unfortunately they faile… in this area and hockey gamers are better to look elsewhere this season for their hockey gaming.
The graphics are adequate for a first year hockey title, but aren’t the best there is this season, that belongs to ESPN’s NHL2K4. The player’s faces look nothing like their real life counter parts, and all the helmets are missing the chin straps. Things like the crowd and ice look really good, but these are things you won’t really notice once you start playing the game. The player animations are really stiff, and seem to randomly just happen sometimes, there are quite a few animations but they could have been better executed. I will give Rivals credit in the animations for the penalties such as hooking, slashing, and tripping. As you can actually tell that a player was hooked, slashed, or tripped. The biggest issue I have with the animations is the goalies, they are as stiff as a board. Goaltending is the most animated position in hockey, yet in Rivals it is very poorly done. I counted maybe 5 different save animations, this isn’t acceptable in today’s hockey videogames. The goalies play nothing like their real life counter parts, Dominik Hasek doesn’t do crazy saves sprawling all over the ice, instead he just stands there and makes boring glove saves. Where’s Brodeur’s butterfly style? It’s not there, all goalies play the same style which gets very boring to watch.
As with the graphics, the sound is just adequate if not a tad on the boring side. The play by play and color is handled by Sam Elliot and John Davidson, known from calling the Rangers games on the MSG network. They do a decent job of calling the action, but don’t describe the action enough in detail.. They do tend to get repetitive after a few games. The sound effects such as pucks hitting posts, boards, players hitting each other, pucks hitting pads, are all there but just sound so muffled and aren’t at the level they are in the other games. The crowd does sound nice, but they seem to cheer loud for no reason at random times. I was losing a game 5-1 and the crowd started cheering like crazy for no reason and I was the home team.
With three other games already on the market, Rivals had to have the best gameplay to get the hockey gamer’s attention. They didn’t do this at all. It does play a decent game of hockey, but after a while it just starts to feel really boring. There was no excitement built up during the game. It is missing some main features in the gameplay department such as a deke button. There is no way you can go backhand, forehand, backhand and deke out the goalie. Either you have to shoot or try one move like go left then right, things like this really take away from the game. The only real innovative feature in this game is the right analog passing, which enables you to pass the puck wherever you want to regardless of which way you are facing. This allows for some nice passes behind the back, off the boards and some sweet breakaway passes up the middle.
Another main issue I have with this game is that shots hardly ever miss the net. This is nothing like real hockey where shots constantly miss the net, especially with defenceman at the point on a powerplay. This takes away from some of the fun in the game, as you always know your shots will head toward the net instead of hitting the boards or even another player and deflecting off them. Of course being part of the XSN network there is the X-Box live feature.
The only other hockey game this season to be Live enabled was ESPN’s 2K4 and it had it’s share of problems. So Rivals had a chance to get some hockey gamers with this feature. Online you can play with up to 12 players, 6 on each team which makes for some real team action. You can play all sorts of modes, real games, exhibition, pick up games. 3 on 3, these are all pretty fun. Of course there is also the downloadable rosters so you can keep your rosters up to date. My biggest complaint with going online was that there was no one on when i went to play, and when i finally found a few games they only wanted to play the pick up mode and 3 on 3. I couldn’t find one person who wanted to play a real game, and I looked for about 2 hours.
With all the standard modes, season, exhibition, pick up, and some unlockables, fans of this game will be playing it for a while. One feature I really liked was the ability to make my own league up with as many teams I wanted, and I could place the teams in any division i wanted to. I found this feature to be very unique and something I have wanted in a hockey game for a long time. Going online seems to be this games strongest point if you can find some opponents, then some fun can be had.
With three good hockey games out already, Rivals was facing an tough battle right out of the gate. They had a chance to get some of the hockey crowd if there game offered something new. Rivals failed to do this, in fact there isn’t anything Rivals does better then any of the other games. If going online is all you care about then you should check out rivals, but if you want a game that incorporates all the action, sights, and sounds of hockey you would be better off checking out EA’s NHL 2004, ESPN’s NHL 2K4, or Midway’s NHL Hitz.