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The NHL and the players association have been in a lock-out over salary caps for more than half a year now, and the season has now been cancelled, meaning the only way to experience NHL action is now in gaming form. Thankfully ESPN still released its 2005 edition, and it has come with a new budget price of $50 – without stripping down any features or detail.

After ESPN’s sketchy opening alliance with Konami, they moved onto a deal with Sega in 2002 and never looked back. Although EA Sports is undoubtedly the biggest seller of sports games, the ESPN range of NHL/NBA/NFL games more often than not receives higher critical acclaim. This year’s NHL is no exception, but unfortunately it will be the last year of its existence – with EA signing an exclusive deal with ESPN for 15 years, Sega selling off its Visual Concepts development company, and EA buying exclusive rights to almost every sports league under the sun…but enough of this consumerism bitterness, and onto the real game.

One of the best things about every game in the ESPN range is the presentation, and it continues to excel in NHL 2K5: the menus look just like you are watching ESPN, you get the professional commentary of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, and the camera views simulate like you watching TV. All the different modes of play are here, whether it’s just a one-off quick game or an insanely deep franchise mode over many years, but there are also all new party modes – which are various mini-games that offer a more light hearted approach.

The gameplay is very solid, as usual, and it is definitely the most diverse of all the hockey games on the market. Thanks to the difficulty slider, you can set things up exactly how hard you want them – which helps you to improve at your own rate, as well as allowing the game to be a fun goal-scoring arcade game with three friends (taking off ‘Icing’ can help this greatly!) or a tough realistic simulation against the computer.

Graphics wise, ESPN always sets the bar, and although this isn’t quite as detailed as the NBA and NFL 2K5 versions… it is still stunning. It is quite amazing to compare the EA and ESPN versions of any of the sporting titles, as EA really doesn’t come close for realistic graphics, and ESPN seems to improve greatly every year. You would think with the cheaper price-tag that many corners would be cut, but nothing has been stripped, and many features have been improved from past years. The only little gripe is that this Australian version has no Xbox Live support, despite the fact that the USA version did – it seems quite weird to leave that out, but it is one of the only drawbacks.

If you have any kind of interest in the NHL, or just love to play games where you can score goals and have fights midway through, then this is for you. It can get a little repetitive for people not into the sport, but the quickness of the game and the party features offers many thrills and spills for the $50 price-tag. It is definitely the closest thing you will get to real NHL in 2005.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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