ESPN NHL 2K5 / Sega / Playstation 2
NHL 2K5 takes place during the "non-season" of 2004-05, when the real NHL took a year off due to a lockout. So you basically just get team rosters and such as everything was left at the end of the 2003-04 season.
Interestingly, for an "off year" it's still one of the best hockey titles around. Unlike some of the other 2K titles, the focus here doesn't seem to be so much on emulating an ESPN sports broadcast in the presentation as it is making the game play and feel like one of the classic EA NHL titles from the 16-bit era, just with 3D players and a lot more moves at your disposal.
I've heard complaints about the NHL 2K controls being "too complicated." It's true that pretty much every button on the DualShock is assigned to *something*, but half of it is completely unnecessary if you're not interested. I play the game like it's an old Genesis game on Hall Of Famer difficulty (the hardest setting) and beat the computer 9 times out of 10 - Square for your shot (pressure sensitive to differentiate between a wrist and slap shot, which is one less button than what EA does right there), Square when you don't have the puck to check, X to pass, Triangle to poke check, hold R1 for a speed burst. That's 95% of my button input in an average game and I'm more than competent at it. As with most of the 2K games, customization is king and you can make it as complex and difficult or as simple and arcade-like as you care to, thanks to the detailed sliders that control individual aspects of the computer AI. The other hockey moves are there if you want them - skating backwards on defense, dekes, individual stick handling using the right stick, and without the puck the right stick acts as your "agressive move" which will try to get away with a penalty move like hooking or cross-checking if you press it toward an opposing player. You can also strip away whatever rules you don't care for.
Aside from your 2004-05 teams and rosters you've got a slew of classic "unlockable" teams as well as national teams and a number of different modes of play. You can play a one-off season with any team, or Franchise mode of back-to-back seasons with player contract negotiaton and rookie scouting. Offering player contracts involves more guesswork than I'd like, and I wish they had adopted the "interest meter" system from NFL 2K5, but evaluating and drafting rookies is the best system I've seen yet in any game - you can scout prospects while playing the season, and spend a very reasonable amount of time with them evaluating their skills prior to the draft. You can even watch them do obstacle courses and pick-up games against each other or directly take control of them to get a feel for their strengths. You are allowed to fully edit, trade, and create a bunch of players from the ground up, and the rosters you create are saved as a separate file and then can be imported into season or franchise modes. Each team's minor league club is also represented in the game, and while you can't play as them, you send players down there to develop and can track their progress throughout the season. If you're not up for in-depth club management, there's also a nice Party mode with an arcade game that resembles NHL Hitz in style and a bunch of fun mini-games for up to four players at a time.
There's only two significant complaints I have with the game. One is that there's no "semi-auto" goalie handling option available, as was the default in all the old 16-bit games. The goalie has to either be fully under your control, or fully under computer control including puck handling once he has possession of it. The goalie AI is usually at least basically competent but here and there has some terrible puck movement that leads to either an own goal bouncing off the skate of some defender charging back in to pick it up, or simply dribbling it in front of the net while an opposing sniper is right there to scoop it up and blast it. This doesn't happen every game, I'd say maybe once every four or five games or so, but it's a pisser when it does. The other is that fighting is pretty terrible. Aside from being random and clumsy, fights are also started completely at random and often by players who aren't really fighters. Fortunately, fighting can simply be turned off, just like pretty much everything else that might bother you in the game.
The visuals are quite decent. Faces of the most famous players are rendered pretty well, but there's not a tremendous amount of detail when creating a player and they tend to have a generic and samey look. Player creation is otherwise very detailed though, down to height, weight, equipment type and dominant hand. The crowd is kind of an afterthought and you don't get the cinematic cut-aways and flair that you do with NFL 2K5, but the game looks clean and crisp on the whole and player animation is fluid and detailed. The commentary is pretty good and also keeps up with the action much better than most titles, which is impressive based on how fast the sport can be. The commentary never gets way behind the action like it does sometimes in NFL 2K5.
You also get a "skybox" mode which is like The Crib from NFL 2K5 with all the useless bits cut out. You get tokens as you play for accomplishing various feats, of which the game gives you a handy checklist so you can keep track. Aside from unlocking the various classic teams, there's all sorts of crazy arenas (outer space and 8-bit among others), alternate jerseys for all the teams, and cheats to unlock. You can even play a game of air hockey up there.
As with most of the 2K games from this time it was released as a $20 "budget" game, but has the polish, look and feel of a "real" game. Now it's on the bargain bin at Gamestop for $1, and at that price you shouldn't even think twice about pulling the trigger.
* Gameplay Video