We love Americans, and we especially love rubbing their cheeseburger-chewing, corn-fed faces in some sweet videogame defeat. Isn't that what trans-Atlantic friendship is all about?
If you've ever demolished a trash-talking Yank at an online game you'll know what we mean. We haven't, however, experienced this thrill playing NHL Rivals 2004. Ice hockey is firmly a minority sport here, so good as we are at home, we ended up facing off against some chubby New Yorker who plays stuff like this with the same kind of obsession we lavish on Pro Evo.
In short, we got minced. But it's cool because Rivals is yet another addition to Xbox's brilliant XSN, the online service that lets you meet fellow gamers, organise leagues and tournaments, and track down players more suited to our ice hockey standards. Probably five-year-old kids. Blind ones at that.
Problem is, if you are serious about your ice hockey games Rivals' online capability is one of the few things to get excited about. For a start, the Rivals tag sounds cool but adds very little. Like cross-town rivalries in footie, these relationships are important, but all Rivals does to approximate the loathing is to have the commentators say things like, "If your friends don't like ice hockey this is the kind of game you want to bring them to!" Thanks pal, but if our friends didn't like ice hockey we'd just save ourselves the ticket price and buy more beer.
Fair enough, there is more likelihood of a ruck. Each player has a Fuse bar that rises as they get walloped. In matches between rivals everyone's fuse is shorter so the gloves are more likely to come off.
It's A Stick Up
As well as the Fuse bar every player is categorised as an Enforcer, an Agitator, a Sniper, or just balanced. Each has their own strengths, weaknesses and special abilities that must be understood to get the most out of their game. Snipers, for instance, can shoot the dingleberries off a cow's arse but are susceptible to getting creamed by hard-hitting Enforcers.
But, other than those nice touches, Rivals fails to match up adequately against EA's NHL or ESPN NHL. The controls are too loose and there's so much inertia behind players that grabbing a free puck can be an exercise in precision analogue stick control. Passing, too, isn't as fluid or quick as we've seen in other hockey games, and big hits don't feel very satisfying.
Rivals also fails to impress with its presentation. EA's NHL looks wicked, and we absolutely love ESPN NHL's cool TV stylings. Rivals, however, opens every game with the same player animations, consistently chooses crap camera angles for replays, and suffers from rare but annoying frame-rate problems.
Its icey action hasn't completely thawed, it's just defrosted a bit. The XSN support is far superior to the online modes in other ice hockey games, but in every other area Rivals fails to face off. And anyway, where's the fun in getting thumped by lardy Yanks?
Think football games - if EA's NHL is Pro Evo and ESPN NHL is FIFA, this is the equivalent of This is Football. Not necessarily bad, but XSN support is its only advantage over its, er, rivals.