Hockey has never been one of the more popular sports in America, but it is one of those sports that makes one heck of a video game. I personally have never been a fan of the sport, but absolutely love hockey video games. Microsoft decided to try their luck in the Hockey rink with NHL Rivals 2004.
Earlier this year Microsoft announced its XSN Sports service for the Xbox. The basic premises behind the service was to make sports games online like they should be, competitive, with leader boards and tournaments that’s exactly what you get. With the announcement of the new service came quite a few new sports titles from Microsoft and one of these is NHL Rivals 2004.
Before I even picked up Rivals 2004 I was actually quite skeptical about how the game would turn out. Besides Top Spin, Microsoft sports titles have been pretty average and haven’t been able to keep up with the big boys. This being the first year for the series I was sure about what the game would come out to. Unfortunately the game does what I was afraid it was going to do, and that is make an average showing on the Xbox that doesn’t come close to competing with the big boys.
When Fever was first released for the Xbox it came with a pretty weak amount of game modes, which is exactly how Rivals first attempt has come in. My question for Microsoft is why you would not include more then just the basic game modes. When you see NHL Rivals 2004 you see the standard game modes that you find in all sports titles plus the online support. This just started the game on the wrong foot and then things just stayed on that type of path for most of the game.
When it comes down to it, hockey games are all about the gameplay, and although Rivals has the potential to become a great hockey game, it is just not all there in this version. The first major gripe I have with the game is the dropping of the puck which instead of allowing you to use your timing skills you instead your forced to just the luck of the draw. It’s basically a game of rock, paper, scissors which decides who is going to get the possession of the puck. This is not the way I would prefer to start the game, and hopefully for the 2005 version they will make a much more friendly option.
The gameplay of NHL Rivals 2004 is clearly a simulation style game rather then an arcade. This is different from what NFL Fever attempted to do by combining both worlds, but for the most part the gameplay does show the potential to become a successful simulation style hockey game.
The one thing that ends up hurting Rivals the most from the rest of the pack is the controls of the game are so simplistic that it gives you a game where no skill is required. This is different from EA’s NHL 2004 or ESPN NHL 2004 where the controls are much more open to strategy. In Rivals you are given standard controls which provide you with pretty limited options of what you’re able to do while skating around in the rink.
The controls of the game are pretty straightforward, and like I mentioned a short while ago pretty simplistic. If you have played any hockey games in the past you will easily be able to sit down and pick up Rivals controls in a matter of a few minutes.
One of NHL Rivals 2004’s saving graces is the XSN/Xbox Live support, which does end up playing nicely. Although most of the gameplay problems that exist in the offline games still take place online, it is still a lot of fun to play a game of hockey against people around the world. I am sure there will be leagues and tournaments in the near future with the XSN support, and from my experiences online the competition should be pretty good.
Microsoft sports titles are not always known for their graphics and this is a sports title that keeps that trend alive for Microsoft. The one advantage hockey games have over other sports is that the views are usually pretty wide stretched and pretty distant view which means there isn’t a whole lot of emphasis towards the graphics like you would find in other sports titles.
NHL Rivals 2004 is an average looking title in almost every category and doesn’t go above or below that throughout. The character models of NHL Rivals are pretty basic models and do remind me in a lot of ways like the Fever models. This isn’t really a compliment because the detail is not all there and the models do look kind of blocky.
The rinks in which you skate in are a tad bit better then the character models, which host a good amount more detail and seem to have some nice visual effects to them. The ice itself looks really sharp, and the lighting effects on the ice also are quite good. Overall you would expect a bit more out of the game, even if it’s the first year of the game, with other games looking a great deal better then Rivals 2004 it’s hard to really applaud Microsoft on their efforts.
The one thing all great hockey games have in common is that they are a blast to play both single and multiplayer portions. NHL Rivals at times has it’s moments of fun, the checking in Rivals is the one thing the game truly does well, and for that it does help the game become a lot more fun. It is a hockey game, and for me hockey video games are made to be fun, and this one does do a decent job of that.
Although it is Microsoft’s first attempt at creating a hockey title, it’s hard to give sympathy points when there are much better hockey games out there. Rivals 2004 has the potential to be something, but this year it’s nothing more then average.
The owner and editor-in-chief of Darkstation.com. I've been apart of the website since 2002 and purchased the website in 2010. Owning and running Darkstation is a dream come true. I love video games and I love writing and talking about them even more.