It's no newsflash to say one of the greatest problems in Wii sports franchises is the feature-stripped, dumbed-down port of HD console versions of games — with motion controls tacked on at the last minute, of course. There are numerous popular arguments for this style of Wii development, especially the low numbers that big-name sports franchises yield on Wii. The equally valid counterargument holds that a carefully developed original sports title for Wii, complete with that big-league license, will sell, and the drought in Wii sports franchise revenue is more an indicator of the poor quality of the titles than the poor sports gamer market on Wii. There's a fair amount of weight to that counterargument, considering Wii systems were originally sold with a casual sports title, and the pack-in for the more recent Wii MotionPlus controller upgrade also featured a casual sports title. There are also the mountains of third-party quick-buck casual sports titles available for Wii. The Wii crowd is a sports crowd. It only stands to reason there is a reasonable sports market for the console and for big-league licensed titles — if only time and attention are paid to these games in design and development.
EA's NHL-license NHL Slapshot is clearly a step — or leap — in the right direction. The game looks and plays like a title developed for Wii, conforming to Wii's lower horsepower graphics hardware, and taking mostly reasonable and sometimes quite good advantage of what has been the signature motion control system in modern gaming.
The kit provided for review came with both game and a hockey stick. The stick is, of course, not a specialized Wii controller. There are no electronics or other enhancements; it's only a plastic shell for the Nunchuk and Wiimote. The stick is an item essentially superfluous for adult and older teen gamers, and I preferred playing without it. It'll be a definite draw for the younger set, and it certainly was around my household. EA can be forgiven for sizing the stick to suit small hands and overall stature, making the stick weakly satisfying as a control device for taller, larger gamers. I was, however, glad to discover that the stick's blade is made of foam rubber, not hard plastic, as while testing out Slapshot with the junior review squad here, I'd imagined I'd have to protect the LCD TV, my shins and the kids from one another. I'm pleased to report there were no such incidents.
The stick comes unassembled and is only a couple moments' work to put together, housing the Nunchuk at the handle and the Wiimote farther down toward the foot of the stick. Taking it apart is more of a hassle, and while hardly a trying exercise, there are little plastic parts on the cable drawer door flap that could break off in the hands of an overly forceful child trying to get the controllers back to play a game for which a hockey stick is not suited. Also, the design of the stick blocks the infrared transceiver on the Wiimote. Slapshot is designed to use the analog thumbstick on the Nunchuk for navigating menus while in-game, but in the Wii system menus — including launching the game — this doesn't work. If you have a second Wiimote, keep it handy for launching the game; if not, you'll have to pull the Wiimote out of the stick shell to get the game started. It's a minor inconvenience, but it's a less-than-ideal design decision. Since the Wii is widely considered the most social of the current generation consoles (in a local living room sense), perhaps EA was counting on most Wii owners having a couple of extra Wiimotes lying around.
The game itself, which supports up to four players offline — there is no online play — immediately strikes the most jaded sports gamer as a cut above about every other third-party Wii sports title. Certainly some baseball titles aspire to such lofty heights, but the Wii software weakness tends to show up in just about everything else on the market. Here the graphics are nicely detailed but sharp, clear, crisp and appropriate to the hardware, rather than showing off horribly and excessively dithered character models and sloppy, jerky animations. Like a lot of Wii titles, NHL Slapshot's overall feel and presentation has a cartoonish vibe, but that's not something to complain about in this game. What's been problematic in the past is striving for photorealism where much in the way of realism just can't be achieved in a game that is revised annually with roster updates and small feature additions. Cartoonish though the graphics may be, especially in the pond minigames and playing as a Peewee, they don't look foolish or silly. To suit the game's appeal to a younger and family audience, the graphics, even the puck marker when play winds up against the nearside boards behind the net, are a bit overblown and bigger than life. It works nicely for this sort of sports title.
Slapshot is designed both for the veteran Wii sports gamer and for out-and-out beginners. NHL legend Wayne Gretzky does double duty as both the title's spokesman and the private coach for Wii hockey players who are just starting out. Gretzky does a fair job with the friendly, family-style instruction: He's neither too pedantic nor too garrulous. It's not even an obnoxious ordeal for gamers experienced with hockey to sit through some of Gretzky's lessons for other players who aren't exactly rock solid on the ice.
The Peewee league is, in and of itself, a welcome addition to hockey gaming. The mode is called Peewee to Pro, and that's exactly what you do when playing in this area: You start off as a half-pint kiddo, a young Peewee league hockey player, and move on up through the North American professional leagues until you earn your spot in the hallowed NHL. In this edition of NHL Slapshot, player selection is limited to a selection of notable NHL players. For future versions, I'd like to see a more robust implementation of Peewee to Pro, perhaps a subset of EA's familiar build-your-own player features. Just to keep things fun, I wouldn't mind seeing some version of the Peewee league in EA's NHL-licensed titles for HD consoles.
After graphics, control in Slapshot is likely to be Wii hockey gamer's greatest concern. Control is good. EA hasn't dropped things like shot-aiming, or some of the other more nuanced control features of the "big boy" editions of the franchises, but rather tailored the features to the Wii control system. I found that skating, checking and shooting with the stick lacked the expected frustrations of fair, but troubled, Wii control schemes. As I mentioned, I preferred playing without the stick — because a plastic stick shell isn't likely to attract me like it will a lot of younger gamers, and also because the stick is just not well-sized for an adult. Using the stick is not an intolerable or annoying exercise, though. I could manage well enough, and with control set up for the Wiimote and Nunchuk alone — the game requires both devices, stick shell or no stick shell — I had no problems playing comfortably.
NHL Slapshot includes the aforementioned Peewee to Pro mode, Season mode, Battle for the Cup mode, and a handful of minigames. Perhaps unfortunately, it doesn't include support for Wii MotionPlus. It's hard to say how much more precise and fluid control would be with Nintendo's controller enhancer, but I'd like to find out. I hope EA builds in MotionPlus support next year, but as it stands now, Slapshot is fun to play, plays well, and there aren't any glaring control issues.
EA certainly deserves a clap on the back for this NHL-licensed Wii title. If you're a sports gamer with any interest in hockey, the publisher probably deserves you as a customer, too. While it's impossible to fairly compare NHL Slapshot to triple-A HD console hockey titles, this Wii game is a state-of-the-art effort in sports gaming for Nintendo's console, a system that is too often overlooked for proper treatment when it comes to pro-league licensed titles.
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