Genre : Sports
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: November 18, 2003
XSN deserves a 10 Minute Game Misconduct
Hockey is my game. I realize that I am one of nineteen people who, this side of the Canadian border, love Hockey first and foremost. I consider myself an astute student of the game and have been playing Hockey all the way back since Ice Hockey to Blades of Steel through the vaunted early 90's editions of EA's NHL Hockey to my current favorite ESPN Hockey for XBox. I even have a soft spot for rock'em-sock'em hockey games like NHL Hitz. So perhaps I am biased when it comes to Microsoft Games Studio's NHL Rivals.
Rivals is a game that focuses just on that, rivalry. The Detroit/Colorado rivalry has been one of the best rivalries of recent memory. The Islander/Ranger games are always a hoot if not for the hockey then for the fan antics. (Last year I saw an Islander/Ranger game and I counted about eight fights in the stands.) Whenever there is an original six match-up you're in for a good game. Hockey is good for traditions like that. Hockey is, after all a game of traditions and superstitions. Some would argue that Baseball is more so, but they would be wrong.
So, where to begin… Well, let's begin with features. NHL Rivals lacks in such features. There is a season, tournament and playoff mode. Forget about Olympic teams, there are none. There is no franchise mode. There is no scheduling of practices or upgrading facilities. On Live you can play in ranked, unranked or pick-up games. The whole ranked and unranked affair echoes of the single player game except you're playing with as many as ten people. The pick-up games are cutesy pond hockey romps which are fun for running and gunning. Too often I found myself being matched up with some nitwit or going against someone who has been playing this game day and night for the last three months. Don't ask why. There are skill levels you can use to match yourself up with someone, but in the end NHL Rivals isn't really a game of skill.
With that being said, let me explain. Hockey is a game dominated by physics and imbued with intestinal fortitude. 220 pound men gliding at thirty miles an hour. Rock hard projectiles flying crotch high at ninety miles an hour. Sticks swinging head level. Then there's that toothless guy from Moosefactory Ontario whose job it is to beat the snot out of anyone who looks at the star forward cross eyed. You figure it out. NHL Rivals lacks the physics. The only discernable difference among players is that some move faster than others. Just about everyone can pivot, stop on a dime and blast off the other way. Everyone's turning radius seemed to be eerily similar. Passing is an altogether affair based solely on Fate. One should consult the Oracle of Delphi before shooting. To top it all off, the physics that seem to be so lax in some areas inexplicably tighten up in others. You can have a lumbering mucker like Dale Purington wheal around and rip a one-timer from the point (assuming the pass connects) but as soon as you try to line Dale up for a body-check at the blue-line, he suddenly stops as if his skates were planted in concrete. Each player is also rated as an archetype. You have Snipers, Enforcers, Agitators and Balanced players. Each player is neatly denoted as to what species he falls into however I failed to glean any discernable difference among the types.
The lack of features and fidelity continues in the graphics department. Player models are fairly basic. There isn't too much variety in body types or animation. Everyone moves the same way. There's a really dark guy who gets in the way all the time, turns out he's the referee. Everyone in the crowd is built from sprites that alternate from hands outstretched to hands not outstretched. The lighting isn't even real lighting. The "glare" from the lights is really 2D sprites. When I saw that I had to shake my head. On the brighter side of things, the game does run at a solid frame-rate.
In the sound department we have yet another lackluster performance. There are some bland rock songs that play in the menus, but since you can load up your own soundtrack that doesn't matter. What I found to be truly telling of this game's design qualities was the fact that shots and passes used the same sound effect. The sounds players make when they get checked or check is also the same. To top it all off you have some really shoddy commentator work done by none other than MSG's own Sam Rosen and John Davidson which really psyched me up until I heard how limited and choppy the lines were.
To put it all in perspective, you must realize what NHL Rivals really is. NHL Rivals is a game that is suited for playing on Live with everyone else playing a specific position. Sure, you can play one on one, but the game mechanics and AI in this game are so lacking that it'd be a fruitless and frustrating endeavor. If you are able to get a game going where everyone is competent enough to play their position then you could have a really interesting and truly dynamic game of hockey. Unfortunately the state of online gaming is such that it is very difficult to get a good ten player hockey game going and even if you did the maturity of those involved would make or break the game.
All in all, NHL Rivals is a game that is sorely lacking. It doesn't help that three other quality hockey games were released this year which cater to all tastes. If you're looking for a good online gaming experience you could easily get that from ESPN Hockey and have a single player game worth putting the effort in to make your own player. If you prefer the solo campaign then you have the uber-flashy and super polished presentation EA's NHL 2004 conveys. If you simply want the cross-check-the-teeth-out of-the-bum action hockey is famous for, and then you've got Midway's NHL Hitz Pro which is a blast to play head to head, however the Xbox version does lack the online component, unlike the PS2 edition. This leaves NHL Rivals standing alone and awkward in the corner which breaks my heart, as I do try to love all hockey games as they pass by my television screen. NHL Rivals is more akin to the talentless and hapless Pittsburg Penguins, but then again with the staff and support and means that Microsoft Games Studio could provide its developers then Rivals begins to resemble the god-awful Rangers who don't even seem to care that they are bound for an early round of golf for a seventh year in a row. In light of these failings, I could not in good conscience recommend this game to anyone, hockey fan or no. NHL Rivals simply fails to deliver what the player has paid for, which is as unforgivable as giving up a goal with ten seconds left in the period.
Score : 3.0/10
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