previews\ Sep 1, 2003 at 8:00 pm

NHL Rivals 2004 - XB - Preview 2

"Wow - what a period of hockey we have just witnessed!"

Sam Rosen’s voice accurately describes the first period action in the exhibition game between the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The pace was furious, up and down the house. Detroit grabbed an early lead, but defensive miscues allowed the Ducks to take a 3-2 lead just before intermission. Then, with time winding down, Detroit’s Steve Yzerman picks up a loose puck on the left side and fires it home into the top shelf, to knot the score.

NHL Rivals 2004 is the name of the game, and was privileged to step out onto the ice for a preview of this Xbox title.

At first glance, the game appeared to look like a tabletop hockey game, one of those older models where the players move up and down bound to rods under the playing surface. Certainly the players in this game could move anywhere, but the general look of the game was similar.

Then the camera controls were fiddled with, the action was brought in closer and this game became a real treat.

NHL Rivals also carries the XSN Sports emblem, which means that this game will have exceptional online support. From standings to tournaments, players will find games available to play through the XSN and Xbox Live network. Also available will be content downloads to keep rosters updated as the real National Hockey League season progresses.

Sam Rosen isn’t the only voice to grace this game. Veteran NHL commentator John Davidson is also present, on the audio track, to bring insightful colorful commentary to the game. The two announcers are superb. The musical score is not as sterling, though as the rest of the game’s elements. The rock tunes just seem a little bland, and lack the fervor that gets the adrenalin pumping.

As for the other effects, this game has them nailed. A hockey puck is made of rubber that is frozen before a game. When it hits the metal post of the net, it makes a loud clanking sound. That effect is perfect in this game.

Another visual effect that is stunning is the goal cam. After scores, instant replay treats the player to the highlight - but this highlight employs the goal cam, a camera mounted inside the goal that rotates and follows the puck superbly. This mimics the technology used in real hockey games and is so realistic that it almost looks like it was pulled from a televised game.

And the crowd is dynamic, three dimensional and a solid part of this game. Player faces have been wonderfully morphed into the game as well.

The game features multiple game modes, from the single game to season, tournaments and playoffs. You can also customize your game with the difficulty level, and by turning on or off the icing rule, two-line passes, offsides and fights.

Other game features include aiming passes, using the thumbstick and passing button. You can also aim your shot using the thumbstick. While a manual was not included with this preview, the open ice time allowed for quick familiarization with the controls.

There was one problem with the gameplay that will likely be corrected by this game’s release date, but does bear mentioning. During the Ducks-Red Wings game, the Ducks keeper slid to his left to deflect a high shot into the corner. However, he left the crease and moved backwards to the side of the net, and was stuck there, leaving the goal wide open. This was the one anomaly noticed in the game in regard to player movement.

NHL Rivals 2004 boasts excellent, fast-paced hockey action. This game has a rich options menu, excellent graphics and exceptional audio support. Not only was this a lot of fun to play, but it was a joy to watch as well.

This game is slated for a November release.

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