- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003

A year ago, EA Sports released the annual version of its NHL franchise, one of the two titles upon which it built its name, and nearly killed it.

The controls changed. The realism disappeared. The franchise mode stunk. In other words, it didn’t live up to EA Sports’ generally high standards.

It didn’t take long to correct that mistake with NHL 2004 (though the cover curse continued with Dany Heatley). The more arcade-like features have been removed, and the dynasty mode has been revamped Madden-style. The controls aren’t any easier than last year, but the improvements have more than made up for that.

And NHL 2004 has improved no place more than the dynasty mode. The game puts you in the role of general manager, hired to take the reins of a team stripped to the bare minimum in terms of staff and facilities. Your goal is to build your team into Stanley Cup champs — while making a profit, of course.

The game awards you experience points for victories, personnel moves, profit and attendance. For every 100 points, you receive the ability to upgrade your staff and facilities, and those upgrades can affect anything from your team’s performance at home to the amount of time players require to return from injuries.

Perhaps the most intriguing upgrade concerns your team’s scouts. At the lowest levels of scouting, you can see only a few attributes of the junior players eligible for the draft, making your choices little more than educated guesses. But by adding more scouts, those question marks fill in, and you know much more about the value of each player.

The dynasty mode has become incredibly complex, and that’s a good thing. Your team will underperform when it lacks amenities, and by the same token it will play beyond its capabilities if you provide it with a luxurious locker room and other upgrades.

You also have to worry about player morale, which can be affected by upgrades, success on the ice, playing time and practice.

Yes, practice. Any day without a game, you have to decide whether you want to have a long, medium or short practice or give the players the day off. Each has a different effect on performance.

There’s plenty more to do, including setting ticket prices. And if it sounds awfully complicated, don’t let that scare you away. You always can ignore all those extras and just play the game.

And when you do that, you won’t get the exaggerated game and stupid slowdown breakaways of a year ago. It’s back to plain old NHL hockey, neutral-zone trap and all. That means it takes more work to score, and the 15-goal games of the past are no more.

Unfortunately, the more serious nature of the game was reflected in the toned-down play-by-play and commentary, which in years past was the most hilarious — and best — on a console sports game.

The game’s biggest flaw remains in its control. To take full advantage of the game, you have to use the left thumbstick to move your players, the right thumbstick to control their sticks, the buttons on the pad to pass or shoot and the buttons on top for a speed burst. It makes for an unwieldy combination but isn’t impossible.

Impossible, however, seemed to be the task before NHL 2004’s developers after a nearly disastrous version of the game last year. But EA Sports rebounded with a dynasty mode on par with any on a console game, and that alone makes it worth taking a shot.

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