David M Singer
Nov 21, 2003
Microsoft is entering the world of hockey gaming. Despite the corporation name behind it, they must be considered the underdog entering the realm of EA, Sega and Midway. Can they actually make a dent in this market long dominated by EA? Can their Xbox-only rookie version get a following? You bet. With some smooth play, and great online features, Microsoft's NHL Rivals will most likely pick up a nice cult following within a few months.
The look of NHL Rivals is fairly standard - and that's definitely a good thing. The default camera angle is one most hockey gamers will be used to, allowing easy transition into the game. The graphics and movement are smooth. Speed of the game doesn't seem hinder it in any way.
Hey, it sounds like a hockey game - can't go wrong with that, right? Well, the little things can definitely make a difference, and this a nice plus for NHL Rivals. Checks along the board, the skating effects and a clank off the post are all done very well. Sam Rosen and John Davidson are the announcing duo. While I wasn't expecting much here, the commentary was pretty smooth and kept up with play most of the time. I noticed no errors, and after a few games there was little repitition.
Once again, MS followed a fairly common set of controls for NHL Rivals. It makes picking up the game easy from the get go. Passing using the pass button and a directional move with the thumbstick was just ok, and I found passing back to a trailing guy sometimes didn't go so well for me. However, NHL Rivals also has pinpoint passing. Using the other thumbstick, you can have complete control over the puck. This can allow for things like using the boards to move the puck up to a guy ahead, or a nice drop-back, no-look pass. Using both sticks like that in a hockey game can take some getting used to, but should be well worth it in the long run. There's also a pivoting feature, making it much easier to flip around and back-check on def ense.
So you're playing the game and there are a few more things to take notice of.
Role playing. Players have labels including Snipers, Enforcers and Agitators. Style of play when not in human control and skillset of the player is made pretty obvious by this system.
The fuse meter. All players have fuse meters, some shorter then others, and the role system helps you know who from the get-go. A few checks, and some hooks later can bring the fuse meter up high fast. When it's full...
Fighting. A couple of "fused up" players gives you the option to fight. Like other games, it's an option here. You can decline a fight if you wish. However - your fuse with those players will remain high, allowing you to just wait a bit if you want to pick your spots a bit better. Fights themselves are fairly basic. Stand and throw. If a player is heavily fatigued already, that will carry over to the fight (so you may not always want to drop them at the end of a shift). Winning a fight can swing momentum in the game, so you may want to only goon it up when it's good for you.
The Rivalry. I'm told rivalry games should produce more hits and more fights, but since that's all I played, I have little to compare.
Online play is simply great. Xbox Live lets you meet up with up to six other consoles for a single game. XSN Sports gives you the option to set up your own league with friends and check out all the stats online.
Pickup games are a really nice feature. Get a couple of friends, and challege another trio to a pickup game, where you just get on the pond and settle it all.
Roster updates. Xbox Live is planning on quarterly roster updates, making roster management much easier.
Room for Improvement
This game is not perfect by any means. In fact, it may not excel in any one area, but covers all of them well enough to probably satisfy many fans.
Faceoffs. While waiting for the puck to drop you can hit A to try and win the puck cleanly, B to tie up the opposing player or X to block him with your body. Catch on? It's rock, paper, scissors. I realize they were probably trying to be inovative, but this is not what I'm looking for in my hockey game.
Default speed. I donít need those super-fast games, but even I needed to turn up the speed a bit.
AI. I want my d-men protecting the puck on the blueline, and I love to set them up for blasts. Unfortunately, I realized I couldnít always count on them being there. You'll find your teammates could be a bit "smarter" at times.
Honestly, it was quite easy for me to like this game. I went in for the preview, and was able to pick it up and play it immediately. Little to no learning curve for the basics, and all the other features can be slowly incorporated into your game, without making it necessary to master to win a game. The surprise factor probably helped out too, as I wasn't expecting the game to be quite as good as it was. To be honest, it played like a game from a few years ago (the "simple" aspect). That may appeal to some. Bottom line: if you own an Xbox, you should at least rent this game to give it a shot; and if you and some friends have Xbox Live, you may get hooked. It's certainly not champ yet, but definitely can become a contender for the future.
You can pick up NHL Rivals here.
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