NHL 2004

1_1NHL ’04 ices the competition with new features.

After a few years of treading water, EA Sports is starting to steer its hockey franchise back on course and in the right direction. On its face, NHL 2004 is not a great game, but new developer Black Box breathes life into the stagnating franchise. While it’s rough around the edges, playing more like a prototype than a finished product, there’s finally a reason to get excited about the future of the series.

On the ice, it plays better than ever. This is still arcade hockey and not a true-to-life simulation, but it’s good arcade hockey, not an up-and-down-the-ice breakaway fest as was the case in earlier versions. The defensive positioning AI is strong, making it tough to simply race down the ice for a clean shot. In fact, getting a quality shot on net is no easy task as defenders do everything they can to get in the way or knock players off the puck. The skating model and puck-to-stick physics are surprisingly improved as well.

While the game is a significant upgrade, it feels a bit incomplete in certain areas. The goalies refuse to freeze the puck, and will attempt to pass it out of net even in a crowd, leading to a lot of cheap goals. The offensive AI also lacks patience and simply launches the puck from the blue line whenever the opportunity presents itself. That’s not to say the game is easy, but the AI wastes a lot of scoring chances because it refuses to wait for teammates to get in the zone. It’s like a basketball player launching three-pointers with no one underneath—it may work every once in a while but it’s hardly an ideal strategy.

2_1The game’s General Manager mode is a fantastic feature but it’s woefully underdeveloped. You play the role of a new GM and must rebuild the franchise from the ground up in terms of facilities and staff. As you win games and make deals, your GM rating increases, which provides you with the funds to hire better scouting staff, practice facilities, marketing agents, etc. Player ratings fluctuate throughout the season because morale affects their performance—you need to keep your stars happy with plenty of ice time. It’s a cool idea, but it stumbles because you’re not able to access nearly enough information from around the league.

Worse, when the CPU offers you a trade, you cannot view detailed player ratings or the age of the players involved, only the overall rating and position. So unless you know every player, including rookies, like the back of your hand, you have no idea as to what the player offers. Toss in the fact that you can’t even play the All-Star game (or even view All-Star rosters), view league retirees, or use the GM mode with more than one owner, and you are left with an incomplete feature that leaves you feeling disconnected from the league.

Playing NHL 2004 is like watching a snazzy presentation, as if EA Sports is saying, “Here’s the direction we are heading. You’ll get the final version with the following game”.

System Requirements: Pentium 700 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 20 MB HDD, Win98

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