Not being a big fan of Ice Hockey or even knowing much about the sport I was a little apprehensive at first of ESPN NHL 2K5, I was however very pleasantly surprised indeed.

Smooth as ice

The first thing that a new player of NHL 2K5 will most likely become aware of is the graphics, they are straight out of the top drawer featuring highly polished player models and very well detailed arenas all covered with smooth textures and finished off with some very special reflection effects indeed, everything seems to shine quite nicely from the reflections of the players and surroundings in the ice to the reflections shown in the players helmets. The overlay graphics are of a similar high standard too from the TV style overlays bringing up details of the players during breaks in the action to the on-screen additions such as the markers showing which player you are controlling, where the puck is and who if anyone has possession of it.

Controlling your guys around the ice is nice and slick too, although the controls may look complicated at first glance there really isn’t too steep a learning curve involved in getting the hang of ESPN NHL 2K5, what you have however is a very in depth control system that will allow for precise movement of the stick in your current players hands and the controls will also allow you to skate backwards for the purposes of pulling off some more realistic defensive maneuvers. Passing and shooting are as par for the course in sports sims with the X button allowing you to try to pass the puck from player to player by default and the square button allowing you to shoot, holding down square will get your skater to raise his stick and releasing it will send the puck screaming towards the opposing teams goal with a satisfying crack.

The controls also hold up ok during the ingame fighting, yes there is fighting, once the tension on both teams has reached a critical point two players will throw down their sticks and a round of fisticuffs will ensue. During a fight you can move around your opponent, dodge, block, throw punches and uppercuts and once one of you has been knocked down onto the ice the referee will intervene, sometimes this results in the ref comically pulling the victor off of the loser while the triumphant combatant punches his sorry foe repeatedly. You can adjust how often and likely fights are to occur via one of the sliders in the options.

Spoiled for choice

NHL 2K5s options allow you a staggering degree of control over the action if you want although thankfully you needn’t go and fiddle with each and every setting if you don’t want to as this would be very time consuming indeed, usually you’ll find yourself only needing to adjust the most obvious settings such as difficulty and game speed to get it to play the way you want it to.

Another well decked out section of the game is in the unlockables which you can access via the ‘Skybox’ section of the game, as you progress through the game you will meet certain user challenges, these include things like scoring within the first minute of play, scoring a hat trick, getting a required number of assists and so on. Each time you meet the requirements for one of these challenges during play a message will appear at the top of the screen informing you of what you have done and meeting each challenge will earn you a number of tokens, these tokens are the currency with which you will buy the games vast array of extras and unlockables. There are new teams to be unlocked, classic teams from the past, new arenas and some extra modifiers such as a no helmets mode and a big heads mode where all the players heads are blown up massive.

Also in the Skybox area you will find a games lounge where you can engage in a game of Air Hockey against the computer or a friend, test your knowledge of the sport with an Ice Hockey trivia machine which will spit questions at you about the various teams and players and in a new addition to the 2K5 release there is a shuffleboard game. These minigames do feel a bit tacked on but they are a welcome distraction nonetheless.

There are plenty enough game modes to keep you going too, you can jump right into the action with the quickplay mode or go for the slightly more in-depth exhibition match where you can shuffle all of the players from the NHL randomly or go for a fantasy draft. Aside from this you have the games main modes of play which are the Season and Franchise modes. In season mode you get to take a team through a season of play in the NHL during which you can trade players, buy players and deal with all the associated problems like injuries to your squad.

Although injuries do not take that long to clear up you may find that you’ll be better off adjusting your squad manually to compensate rather than allowing the computer to do it for you as the computers skills in team selection and setup are somewhat questionable. You can view the season as a calendar and choose to play any match you like by selecting it from the dates shown, you can also choose any date on the calendar and have the computer simulate all the action up to that date for you.

Franchise mode brings even more to the table by having you hire non-player staff and deal with scouts for finding new talent to bring to your team, you can also look for new players from the minor league if you want to.

The ingame audio isn’t bad, the commentary is pretty well recorded and well done although as with any sports sim in can get a touch repetitive after a long playing session. The sound effects seem to be right on the mark with the puck going hurtling across the ice with a nice ‘thwack’ from the skaters sticks on some of the high powered shots.

I would easily recommend this to any fan of hockey, it seems that this may even be the closest thing to hockey the fans are going to get this year due to problems with the real-life NHL, maybe one of our American readers could fill me in on this? ESPN NHL 2K5 is a very nice hockey sim indeed, it does a stunning job of what it sets out to do although as with all sports sims your enjoyment of it will depend on how much you like the sport it is based on.