NHL Slapshot is a game of simple pleasures. True to its nature, it works best when you indulge in the satisfaction of swinging a stick at a puck and hearing the clack and swoosh as it hits the net. Slapshot has less to offer for those looking for pleasures that require a little more consideration. Playing hockey with EA's stick peripheral is a great experience that can't be duplicated anywhere else, but it's hard to not feel like other parts of the game have been left under-developed.
- Peripheral is a pleasant surprise
- Terrifically animated
- PeeWee to Pro Mode is absorbing
- Gestures just replace button presses
- Gets repetitive quickly
- Presentation obscures the motion controls
NHL Slapshot Review:
It’s amazing that it’s taken EA four years to bring a hockey game to Wii. The console was built around a design philosophy best demonstrated by an subtle and simple sports collection. Given EA’s long and fondly remembered history of hockey video games, it really can’t have taken this long to bring the sport to Wii, but somehow it has. NHL Slapshot is a fresh attempt to lure Wii owners onto the ice. In some ways it’s an impressive debut, and in other ways it’s hopelessly behind the four year-old standard of reinvention the Wii started in 2006.
And Now for Something Completely Peripheral
Slapshot is built around a hockey stick peripheral. It is to a real hockey stick what a toy lawnmower is to its real life counterpart, but as soon as the Wii remote and Nunchuk are put in their proper (and awfully tight) slots, my impression changed dramatically. The stick looks silly, but it feels fantastically intuitive in-hand, it’s downward angle giving a terrific sense of where the puck would actually hit the stick’s edge.
The game has a carefully selected number of motion controls: a flick forward for a wrist shot, a big windup for a slapshot, and manual deking by holding the B button and rotating the stick from left to right. Holding the stick horizontally and shoving it forward triggers a body check, something you’ll rely on heavily in defense. Other important controls are left to button presses, with the A button used to pass and the Z button for speed bursts.
The game design in support of the controls is a reduction, built around sprints up and down the ice, firing off one-timers, pressing for break-away’s, and hitting everyone who crosses your path in the moments in between. Skating speed is noticeably faster, and having a speed burst option makes players seem almost superhuman.
The game is all about finding enough open space for players to get off a shot. Getting one past the goal tender is one of the most satisfyingly kinetic split-second experiences I’ve had in a hockey game. Everything is designed with that in mind, making as short as possible the time a player has to spend chasing after that next gratifying woosh of wood scraping ice, followed by a sharp clack of galvanized rubber and the horn blowing over the cheering crowd.
Yesterday’s Game Once More
Slapshot’s peripheral and the immediate thrill it gives to scoring can’t quite cover the fact that this is an old game design with a new plastic toy in place of yesterday’s button press. Where Wii Sports would be impossible to imagine without analog motions, Slapshot would work fine without the gestures. In fact, the gestures are masks for automations that could just as easily have been triggered with a button press.
Shot animations aren’t directly tied to your gestures, but use the data to trigger a slow, fast, or blazing fast shot with no in-betweens. Likewise, dekes play out at the same speed regardless of how fast or particular you are with the angle of your stick. The game’s overhead camera masks this gap between what you think you’re doing with the controller and what your player is really doing on the ice.
This becomes especially noticeable in the PeeWee-to-Pros mode, where you can take a player from the suburban Bantam league all the way to the Stanley Cup by achieving basic goals and spending attribute points to upgrade your player stats. The mode is the kind of obsessive fantasy roleplay that is especially well-suited to sports, with their scrolls of statistics, charts, and incremental achievements, and it reveals just how much of the game remains definitely out of player hands. With the traditional button-press way of playing hockey, increasing stats adds to various probabilities of success or failure, making it less and less likely you’ll be bowled over by a body check or make an inaccurate pass.
This was a great way of creating depth in an era when controllers had binary buttons that were either on or off. Motion controls are, by definition, incompatible with this kind of game design. To make coherent motion controls Slapshot would have needed a camera tied closely to the player model (which you’ll find in the PS3/360 versions of NHL 11, though strangely not used in the PeeWee-to-Pros mode) and a system of simple gestures that contain a huge array of different potential outcomes (rather than the small number of pre-determined animations here). Instead, EA Montreal has chosen the most conservative of all possibilities, presenting the overhead view model of last generation.
Don’t Expect Too Much and You Won’t Be Let Down
NHL Slapshot is still a likable game, and one that shines when playing with other people. It’s got a great array of modes, some simple mini-games, and a surprising amount of statistical depth for closet roleplaying fans. Playing three-on-three PeeWee hockey is also a pleasant surprise. It’s not at all as clumsy and awkward as the real version, but there’s a definite charm to skating around an empty field with miniaturized players while dogs howl and cars honk in the background. Most importantly, the stick peripheral and the basic motion mechanic of shooting is fantastically satisfying. What the game is missing is depth. Not the statistical encyclopedias of the more traditional sports sims, but the constant sense of being connected to an analog control device whose speed, angle, and motion has meaning at all times, not just in small windows that reproduce the effect of button-presses. In that sense, Slapshot is more of a diversion than a break-through.