Microsoft Game Studios first
venture into hockey has turned out pretty much exactly like its other
sports titles: All style and no substance. There is no denying that NHL
Rivals 2004 looks good, but the hockey game underneath the pretty
graphics leaves a lot to be desired. Other hockey titles this year have
given us create-a-deke features and freestyle control but Rivals 2004
offers no such innovations. What we are left with is gameplay that is
severely dated. Simple straightforward hockey was fine back on the SNES,
but sports fans want to be a little more involved in their games these
days and Rivals 2004 simply cant compete with what EA and Sega have
done this year.
Rivals offers pretty much
everything that you would expect from a hockey game in terms of modes.
It features all of the NHL teams and players as well as an in depth
season mode. There are exhibition games as well as a mode called
"Instant Rivalry" that slaps you into a game and doesnt let you pick
the teams. On top of all of that is the online mode complete with XSN
support. Rivals certainly isnt lacking modes of play.
problem with Rivals 2004 is that the gameplay itself is, well, not fun.
The game is easy to pick up and play with all of the controls youd
expect placed within easy reach, but if you have played any other hockey
games this year, the game just feels too simple. The only thing the
least bit innovative about Rivals 2004 is that you can pass with the
right thumbstick, and that seriously pales in comparison with what you
can do in other games. The worst part about this simple gameplay is that
it just isnt very solid. Everything feels far too loose and sloppy and
you never feel that you have quite as sharp of control over the game as
youd like. Face offs are presented as a sort of rock-paper-scissors
game where you have to choose to body check, hit the opponents stick,
or hit the puck. In a way it is interesting, but it isnt very realistic
and I would rather just jump back into playing hockey rather than take a
thirty second break every face off so the game could set up its little
roshambo game. There is also a weird delay between pressing the button
for a shot and the player onscreen actually shooting the puck. This
makes for a lot of cases where you think you are going to get off a
quick shot and instead run right into the defender you were trying to
in Rivals 2004 is just as broken as the gameplay. Goalies give up a huge
number of rebounds each game instead of snatching up the puck as they
would in real life. This would normally be a big problem, but the
computer controlled players rarely take advantage of the loose puck and
will more often than not just skate right by it as is slides around the
open ice. On defense the computer controlled players are pretty much
worthless and do a very poor job of interrupting set plays or just plain
getting in front of the player with the goal and trying to stop their
progress up the ice. You can literally skate circles around the AI most
of the time in this game, and coupled with gameplay that is already far
too simple, you are left with a game that isnt all that fun to play.
interesting thing that Rivals does is separate the players into
different roles. The different roles are snipers who are your goal
scorers, agitators that break up plays, enforcers which are more likely
to start fights, and balanced players who are pretty good in everything.
Each role has a special action that you can execute such as a spin
move for snipers or an extra powerful check for enforcers that help
give each player a unique advantage. This role playing system is
actually pretty cool and adds a little bit of strategy to the game, but
it is wasted amid Rivals 2004s shoddy AI and gameplay.
online element of Rivals 2004 is just what you would expect. You can
play standard online games as well as participate in leagues and
tournaments complete with extensive stat tracking. There is also an
online exclusive mode called Pickup Hockey that takes place on outside
rinks. In this mode, there are only human players so games consist of 3
on 3 (or 2 on 1, or 1 on 1, or however many people there are up to 6)
match-ups where you can only control one player rather than switching
back and forth like in the regular game. Pickup games are only available
on Xbox LIVE, which is a shame because they are probably more fun than
the regular game.
graphics in Rivals 2004 are very good, at least when everyone is
standing still. The player models look great, if a bit blocky, and the
arenas and ice are extremely detailed. The animation, however, can only
be described as jittery. There arent any transition animations so when
you go from a deke to taking a shot the game looks horrible because your
player goes from a normal skating animation to a fully cocked and ready
to shoot position in about half a second with no movements in between.
audio side of the presentation, Rivals fails to impress. The commentary
is bland and is too slow to keep up with the action. The grunts and
groans of hockey sound pretty good, but some sound effects like for a
hard check or a hard slap shot just sound off. The crowd noise is very
well done, however, and it is nice to hear the crowd reacts to the
action on the ice at just the right times. You can also use custom
soundtracks with Rivals 2004, and being able to listen to your favorite
tunes almost makes the game bearable.
are looking for a hockey game on Xbox, it is best to look elsewhere
because Rivals 2004 just cant cut it. Its only saving grace is its
online play, but Segas ESPN NHL Hockey does everything a lot better.
The gameplay is too simple when compared to the other hockey titles out
there, and the AI is pretty much worthless, so Rivals 2004 just isnt
very much fun to play. Pickup hockey online promises to be a lot of fun,
but it isnt worth it to pick up this game based on one mode that only
LIVE users can enjoy. Give it a rental if you have nothing better to do,
but there are better hockey games available on the Xbox that are more
deserving of your cold hard cash.
Eric Qualls (12/09/2003)