Friday, January 21, 2011
He shoot, he score!
On other consoles, the basic joy of lacing 'em up and playing a game of hockey was gone in favor of a rigorously complex set of maneuvers that kept players up at night studying control layouts.
Enter NHL Slapshot. EA has finally given Wii owners a hockey game. The results, though mixed, are very encouraging.
To start off with, the game is fun. This is not the sort of in-depth, use the shift button to make a saucer pass, hold down x and y while tapping z to make a triple-deke kind of hockey experience. NHL Slapshot is much simpler and free-flowing than any hockey video game in recent memory. The basic controls are: press A to pass; use the thumbstick to move, aim your pass, or aim your shot; swing the remote to shoot; and shove the remote outward to check. Hitting, passing, skating, shooting, scoring. Isn't that what hockey is at its heart?
Don't be put off by the cheap plastic stick that comes in the box: it flat-out works. It's actually so natural, you'll feel weird playing without it. Shooting is just as easy as flicking the stick. This is a hockey video game, so one-timers are essential. If you're worried about any lag between a quick pass and taking a shot, don't be: the motion-controlled remote still handles these as well as any game ever made. Passing is much more fluid than 2K's offerings was. In their recent games, you had to wait while your player took a hit or slowly got used to the fact that he had just received a pass before he could do anything with the puck. In NHL Slapshot, touch passes are easy to pull off. Experienced gamers will be able to pass all over the ice like the Soviets.
What makes the game so much fun is its simplicity. You don't have to know the right button combination to pull off a saucer pass, and what's more, that kind of knowledge isn't obligatory if you want to survive on anything but the lowest difficulty level. So often, developers have tried to include all the advanced crap that makes playing in the NHL so damn difficult. What they succeed in doing is making a video game that requires almost as much memorization and study as a Jane's military flight sim. And what's more, all that advanced crap actually makes the game LESS realistic. (Oddly enough, in NHL Slapshot, shot-blocking is incredibly realistic.)
The controls on NHL Slapshot can get more complex if you want. There are speed bursts, poke checks, hooks, shot-blocking, and deking. You can go to a team's page and select what kind of strategies they use for offense and defense, and even select different formations for each forward line. That's standard fare in most hockey video games, but it bears mentioning here, since on the surface it's an extremely simple game. But for those who want more depth, it's there.
There are problems with the game. The poke check function has a very low probability of success, while the control for lifting the stick is fundamentally broken. What you're left with is having to shove the remote out like you're cross-checking in order to make a body check, and you'll likely find yourself out of position when you do it.
Some things you won't find in the game are: fighting, any unlockables (unless tiny icons of your trophies count), sliders to adjust the gameplay, franchise mode, or intelligent teammates.
The exclusion of fighting is something that makes sense, given the casual/young gamers EA is targeting. The only hidden gem you'll find is that Wayne Gretzky himself is on the Free Agent list. So if you're an Oilers fan pining for the Great One, or maybe a Leafs fan who always thought Wayne would have looked good in blue and white, he's there for the taking. There are no unlockable teams, players, cards, or any other goodies. What you see is what you get.
Speaking of what you see: the animations are a mixed bag. The in-game animations are some of the best interpretations of skating mechanics yet seen, while the cut-scenes of players faces are ridiculously generic. You'll have a hard time seeing any resemblance to any player.
Some gamers will find the game incredibly easy on anything but the toughest difficulty level (there are four settings). At that highest level, you may wish you a slider to make your poke checks a little more effective, or make the other team's player less likely to simply shrug off five thundering body checks as he plows his way to the net. Where this game is truly the most fun is when you're playing against other people.
The most depth you'll find is in the Pee-wee to Pro mode, where you take your little player all the way through Peewees, Bantams, Juniors, to the pros. You can hold out for your favorite junior and NHL teams, or take your chances in the draft. The mode is quite a lot of fun, but has some real problems. If you're a forward, get used to waiting at the blue line as your defensemen try to carry the puck end-to-end. It's extremely frustrating to get in perfect position for an odd-man rush, only to see your selfish teammate hog the puck giving the other team time to backcheck, and forcing you to either go offsides or be completely behind the play. Raising the difficulty level doesn't make your defensemen any more willing to pass, only more likely to be stripped of the puck at center ice.
Every goal, either for or against, occurs while you're on the ice in Pee-wee to Pro, so you'll be master of your team's destiny, even though you control no players except your own skater.
At its heart, NHL Slapshot is a lot of fun, with basic, intuitive controls that work amazingly well. There is some depth for folks looking for a more immersive experience, but not much. EA sports is really on to something here. They have created a satisfying experience that comes closer to really playing hockey than anything we've seen. There could be more depth to the game, but EA chose to concentrate on doing a few things well, rather than throw in a bunch of semi-functional garbage.
What EA did well:
Beautiful skating animations
Gary Thorne and Bill Clement!
On my wish list for next year's iteration:
Less selfish teammates
Better face animations
Sliders to adjust game play
Final Score: 7.9