a game by Sega
Platform: XBox
Rating: 6/10

ESPN NHL Hockey will,
Rock You!

This game is, hands down, one of the best and most realistic hockey games on the market. Sega managed to massage the kinks out of last year's top-notch NHL 2K3, turning it into a more realistic, fluid looking version of itself just in time to tack on the ESPN name and include some of the channel's voices.

This year's game sticks to last year's winning formula for the most part. You use the four main buttons to control shooting, passing, dumping and puck protection, while the triggers act as a speed burst and a modifier for secondary functions with the buttons. One analog stick controls movement while the other allows you to perform a variety of dekes. The defensive controls are just as straight forward.

Although the control system is fairly easy to master, hockey new-comers might have a hard time mastering the level of in-play strategy needed to truly appreciate this game. In other words, anyone will be able to pick this game up and start playing, but only someone who understands the real game of hockey will be able to avoid the curse of all hockey games - the unbeatable goalie. Newcomers should expect quadruple overtimes and endless back-and-forths with nary a point in sight, while anyone who can set up shots and understands puck finesse will appreciate the skill needed to score.

The game features several modes of play including franchise, tournament, online and two new modes - skills and mini-games. The skills mode allows you to try your hand at All-Star style exhibition competitions for things like puck control, hardest shot and shooting accuracy. The mini-games are much more involved and a ton of fun to play. In that section you can try your hand at two-on-two hockey on a mini-rink or go head-to-head on an ice pond ' two very cool features that remind you what real ice hockey is all about. Finally, ESPN NHL Hockey features a The Skybox, something modeled after The Crib in Sega's recent Football release. Basically this is an explorable room that allows you quick access to all of the game's unlockables, like different soundtracks and a cool air hockey table. Online play relies heavily on Xbox Live's already strong support, delivering smooth game play and quick player match-up.

The most significant difference in this latest Sega hockey game is the graphics, really the only weak point in the last edition. Where once clunky uninspired graphics were the norm, now, well-rendered motion capture and realistic athletes put the final polish on an over-the-top game that excels in its field.

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