Hockey Video Games

With the NHL lockout upon us, I have been looking for some way to make up for this lack of hockey viewing. I've always been a big fan of hockey video games, so I figured that might do the trick. Over the past year, I've bought 2 hockey games: EA Sports NHL 2004, and ESPN NHL 2K5. I was very happy with EA's 2004 effort, but there were some annoyances and I appear to have misplaced it during the move, so I figured I'd get a 2005 game.

EA Sports is pretty much dominant when it comes to just about any sports game out there, and hockey is no exception. Ever since the halcyon days of NHL 1994 for the Genesis, EA has dominated the hockey space. So last year, in an effort to compete with EA, Sega announced that it's own hockey title was going to be branded with ESPN. Not only that, but they dropped their prices to around $20 (as compared to the standard $50 that EA charges) in the hope that the low price would lure gamers away from EA. So in looking at the reviews for EA's and ESPN's 2005 efforts, it appeared that ESPN had picked up significant ground on EA. With those reviews and that price, I figured I might as well check it out, so I took a chance and went with ESPN. To be honest, I'm not impressed. Below is a comparison between ESPN's 2005 effort and EA's 2004 game.

To give you an idea where I'm coming from, my favorite mode is franchise, so a lot of my observations will be coming from that perspective. Some things that annoy me might not annoy the casual gamer who just wants to play a game with their buddies every now and again. I'm playing on a Playstation 2, and I'm a usability nerd, so stuff that wouldn't bother other people might bother me. I'd also like to mention that I am far from a hardcore gamer, so my perceptions might be different than others.
  • Gameplay: Playing a hockey game is fun in both games, but ESPN is the king here. EA's gameplay was one of my minor annoyances. The controls were jerky and awkward, the speed of gameplay was too slow by default (but could be sped up), and the player behavior could be extremely frustrating (especially with Off Sides turned on). ESPN, by contrast, has smooth controls and movements, a good default gameplay speed, and much better player behavior and computer AI. EA's gameplay was rife with 2 line passes and off sides calls, which makes for frustrating play. Another advantage for ESPN is that it offers more and better gaming modes, including a franchise mode which is deeper than it's EA counterpart (more on that later) and a skills competition (which EA doesn't have). Advantage: ESPN
  • Sound: EA wins this one, hands down. Both games have decent sounds during an actual game, but where EA excels is in the maintenance screens. In all EA games, not just hockey, they have assembled a trendy group of songs from real mainstream bands, most of which seem appropriate as a soundtrack to a sports game. I don't know if EA has launched any bands into stardom, but they seem to have a knack for finding good music. ESPN totally falls flat in this respect. The only music they have that is even remotely compelling is the ESPN theme song, which is good, but short and when it repeats for the 10th time, it grates. Their other music is this lame generic instrumental rock music. Normally this wouldn't be that bad, but it just pales in comparison to EA's stylish lineup. This becomes especially important in dynasty or franchise modes, as you spend a significant amount of time tweaking team settings, doing offseason stuff, etc... Both games have play by play announcers that get annoying after a while, but EA's is slightly better in that their comments are usually relevant to what is happening. ESPN commentators will inexplicably throw out some odd comments from time to time. Advantage: EA
  • Graphics: Both games have decent graphics engines, but I think EA has a better overall look and feel. This goes both for the menu design and the gameplay design. The menus are neat and orderly, they look great, and are easy to use (this will be covered in more detail in the usability section). ESPN's menus are allright, but nothing special. In terms of gameplay, while ESPN has a better experience, EA just looks better. Their player animations are great, and their graphics engine is simply superior. ESPN has some nice touches (it sometimes feels like you're literally watching ESPN, as all of the screen elements have the same look and feel as ESPN tv) but it doesn't quite reach EA's heights. Advantage: EA
  • Usability: This isn't something that is usually covered in video game reviews, but this is an area I think is important. Again, this is something that becomes more relevant when you get into dynasty or franchise modes, where a lot of fiddling with team settings and player manipulations are required. You need to be able to navigate through a number of menus and screens to accomplish various tasks. I think EA has the edge here. Their menus and screens look great and are easy to use. More importantly the controls are somewhat intuitive, and there are usually enough hints at the bottom of the screen to let you know what button to press. ESPN, on the other hand, is awful at this. Sometimes their screens are poorly laid out to start with, but when you add to that the clumsy controls, it just makes things that much worse. Take, for instance the Edit Lines screens, typically consisting of one or more lines, along with a list of players you can substitute. Neither interface is perfect, but ESPN's list of substitutions is tiny and requires a lot of scrolling just to see your options. Another good example is sorting. EA's sort is generally accomplished with the O button, while ESPN makes you use one of the least featured buttons on the PS2, the L3 button (and I needed to use ESPN's help to figure that out). ESPN is just too awkward when it comes to this sort of thing. Gameplay controls are fine for both games, but EA is much better when it comes to the maintenance menus and screens. Advantage: EA
  • Depth of Features: As already mentioned, ESPN has more and better gaming modes than EA, and even within the modes, they have a much deeper feature set. Most notably in their franchise mode, where your control of the coaching staff, contracts (which are themselves much more detailed than their EA counterparts), young players, scouting, and drafting is very detailed, to the point of even setting up travel itineraries for your scout and exerting a large amount of control over your minor league team. Even when it comes to unlockables, ESPN has the edge. On the other hand, EA covers most of the same ground, but in a much less detailed fashion. Their simplistic approach will probably appeal to some people more than others. I have not played enough of ESPN's game to really give a feel for this, as one of the most enjoyable things about a franchise or dynasty mode is to watch your young players progress. EA's simplicity could make for a better overall experience, despite the lack of detail. Sometimes, less is more. One other thing to keep in mind is that ESPN's depth is partly nullified by their usability problems, sometimes making their more detailed features more confusing than anything else. If, that is, you can even find them. There are some features, such as the ability to specify line matchups for a game, which must be found by accident (as there is no way to even know such features exist, let alone how to use them). Advantage: ESPN, but it depends on what you're looking for. More depth doesn't necessarily mean more fun. EA's simplicity might be a better overall experience.
  • Injuries: One thing that really annoyed me with EA's 2004 game was the lack of information about injuries, especially when simming significant parts of the season. You'd sim 10 games, find out one of your star players was injured, but there was nowhere to look to find out how long that player was injured (if you were lucky enough to have your injury occur recently, you might find out through the news ticker at the bottom of the screen, but that goes away when you move a few games ahead). ESPN is better in that there is an actual injuries screen you can check. Unfortunately, that's where ESPN's advantages end - their auto-substitution code sucks, and it sometimes doesn't work at all. Indeed, injuries in general seem to really screw the game up. This is one of my major problems with the game. The game actually locks up for unknown reasons, and I literally cannot continue my franchise mode because one of my players got injured. I'm serious, I've tried it five or six times in the last hour, and nothing works. This is inexcusable, especially for a PS2 game (where there are no possible patches), and is reason enough to avoid ESPN's title altogether. Advantage: ESPN (technically, if it worked, ESPN would be better - the bug is more of a symptom of a larger problem that will play into the next section)
  • Franchise vs. Dynasty Modes: ESPN offers Franchise mode, while EA offers Dynasty mode. These are basically the same thing, where you take the role of general manager and control a team through many years, as opposed to just one season. It allows you to build your team up with young talent and watch them grow into superstars, etc... Personally, since I've been playing hockey video games for many years, and since these are among the first hockey games to have this mode, it is the most attractive part of both games (from my perspective, at least). I've already gone over some of the differences, most notably the difference in depth of features. EA is more simplistic and ESPN is more detailed. Unfortunately, since ESPN also has poor usability, the additional detail doesn't do it much good. Add to that the inexcusable crashing issues (ESPN seems to have a lot of problems handling its rosters, which leads to the game locking up all the time) and I think that EA wins this category. Honestly, it's difficult to tell, because I literally cannot continue playing the ESPN franchise. It freezes every time I try, no matter what settings I use. I honestly don't know how they could release this game with such a glaring bug. Advantage: EA
  • Customizability: ESPN has far more configurations than EA, and their defaults are near perfect. Even better, you aren't forced to choose these configurations when you start a season, but you do have the ability to change them if you want. Basically, ESPN has a lot of power under the hood, but you aren't confronted with it unless you really want to look. This is one area in which ESPN really accels. Unfortunately, it's not as important as some of the other areas and this is also sometimes hampered by poor usability. EA has some configuration too, and for the most part it's fine. Again, simplicity has its virtues, but their options are considerably fewer than ESPN's. Advantage: ESPN
  • Auto Line Changes: One thing that annoys me in both games is the auto line changes feature. It always feels like one of my lines gets the shaft. In EA, it's often the second line, which only gets around 5-10 minutes of ice time, while lines one and three get the lion's share. Line four usually gets screwed as well, but you kind of expect that. This is really baffling to me, as the second line contains, well, your second best players. They should be out there almost as often as the first line (one would think they'd get the second most ice time). ESPN is slightly better in this regard, but the third line gets next to nothing and in some games, the fourth line doesn't play at all. I'm not sure why that is, but both games could use some work when it comes to that. Advantage: ESPN
I could probably add a lot more to this, but in general, I think EA's game is better right now (at least NHL 2004 is, I can't speak for 2005, which some believe is a step back). If ESPN can work through some of their rough spots, they could really give EA a run for their money in the future. As it stands now, they're probably better if all you're looking for is a straight hockey game, but if you want to get into seasons or franchise modes, EA is far superior. EA doesn't have the depth, but their interface is excellent. ESPN has lots of neat features not available in EA, but their value is largely nullified by a lack of usability, not to mention the inexcusable crashes. Again, it's astounding that such bugs made it through, and I just can't get past that. If they can fix these bugs for next year, they'll be in good shape. Of course, there might not be a next year for hockey, so that might be a problem.

Before I finish, I just want to stress that I'm talking about EA NHL 2004, not 2005. I've heard that the newer edition has generated a lot of complaints, but I have not played it so I can't say. Again, I'm no expert, but I'm not very impressed with ESPN's entry into the hockey gaming space. Perhaps in a year or two, with improvements to the UI and bug fixes, that will change.