Summary: Sports Interactive games comes out swinging in the first period with NHL Eastside Hockey Manager 2005, taking on all comers and plowing through them like Cam Neely through a soft New York Islanders defense. How does a game with no fancy 3D graphics, no guns, no world conquest score 90% on FiringSquad? Read on!
To give you some background, picture this: Iím sitting at home playing my brand-new Xbox 360 and a half dozen different games for a big feature we have coming up. A package arrives at the door, I open it and see two games for the PC, NHL Eastside Hockey Manager 2005 and Worldwide Soccer Manager 2006. Being the Canadian that I am, I reluctantly give up the 360 and install, of course, the hockey game on the PC. The back of the box looks remarkably bleak, no 3D, no high-res graphics Ė heck, no way to actually play the game. Oh well, I was always a fan of managing in Segaís NHL 2K series.
I fumble around with the interface which, although it is competent, goes about matters in non-standard ways and is generally overwhelmed by the raw amount of options, data and inputs a player can give. What am I doing, playing a game thatís stuck at 1024x768 on my shiny new Dell 2001FP? Oh well, maybe I can trade for Alexander Ovechkin, Eric Staal or Sidney Crosby for some first-round draft picks. What? Denied? Whatís this game doing Ė NHL 2K6 would be all over that like butter on toast!
At about 7AM, with the pre-dawn glow peeking over the horizon, I look at the lackluster record my Oilers have managed so far this season Ė 26-37-3. I cleared the roster of some dead weight to free up cap space, and I picked up Mats Sundin on the cheap after the Leafs dumped his bloated salary. However, Iíd also totally botched coaching, and had to pick up almost as much garbage as Iíd dumped, in order to fill in holes left by injuries. Worst of all, many of these recent pickups proved to be impossible to dispose of in trades and no one bit when they were on waivers. Clearly, this is not your fatherís Buick, or his hockey management sim. The management depth that EHM 2005 offers is nothing short of the legendary capabilities of Football Manager Ė which should come as no surprise to those who know both games were developed by the same company.
I was crushed. Iíd spent days managing the team, getting the best coaches, making great strides in practice with the players, and even figuring out a tactic that generally worked well throughout most of the season. Iíd invested some thirty hours over two days into building this team that had, albeit briefly, danced around 1st place in the western conference only to collapse. With the owners expecting a playoff appearance, I resigned as soon as the Sharks beat me in the second-last game of the season. Unbelievable as it is, that was one of the most emotionally draining experiences a game has ever produced, simply because I invested so much into it.
NHL Eastside Hockey Manager compares to NHL 2K6ís management mode the way a Lamborghini Murcielago compares to a 1977 Honda Civic. Both do roughly the same thing, but one of them is much, much better at it. NHL 2K6 lets you trade players and draft picks, sign new players, and release unneeded ones. NHL Eastside Hockey Manager makes sure you care for the fitness of your players, hire the right assistant coaches to help out in practice and get the best out of your rookies and vets alike, the best head coach you can find, a good scouting staff and of course trainers to properly diagnose and treat injuries.
Of course, all this is on top of an impressive trade and signing system. The AI is very, very savvy about who it lets go and for what. Donít expect your team to be comprised of the Western Conference All-Stars. In fact, you should expect to be very careful in your initial offers and weighing player concerns quite carefully. In an apparent concession to gameplay, the actual negotiations are very limited Ė rarely does a notable free agent last long enough on the market to be tendered more than one or two offers. Often, they take a great while to accept or reject them Ė or they donít even bother.
Players have a wild assortment of stats, preferences and attributes Ė some hidden. It takes scouting to reveal a playerís physical and mental attributes, and skills, but these can change. Furthermore, scouts can only guess at a playerís potential, and even the best scouts are wrong sometimes. Players can seem very good in the minors and destined for greatness in the pros, but once they arrive on the scene many are unable to take the next step. Often this is tied to their potential limitations, but sometimes itís because they were brought up too early to the pros and not given a chance to develop at a more reasonable pace. You may think you need some hotshot rookie center now, but odds are heíll struggle. A year or two of terrorizing the competition in the minors could be just what the doctor ordered.
As manager, you have the option of coaching the games yourself. You can set line-by-line strategies and individual player mentalities, though the actual consequences of these changes are not fully explained. Obviously having an offense-minded team produces more chances for you and your opponent, but what you wonít know is how youíll stack up against a team that uses the neutral zone trap or prefers a finesse defensive style of hockey. The counters to each strategy are just not explained. Of course, it isnít a good idea to change tactics too often either Ė it appears to reduce the playersí capability at any single one of them. Going back to that Oilers season that broke my heart, none of my players averaged over a point per game, but when I resigned and let the AI run a team whose roster was virtually unchanged, the top two scorers Ė Smyth and Daze Ė both made 120+ point runs in the regular season. Clearly, even by handing off the running of practice and coaching to the head coach, there was something missing. The game and manual must do a better job of explaining what works.
Running solely in 2D menus at 1024x768, EHM 2005 isnít exactly pretty, but it isnít unattractive either. Perhaps itís a legacy of my being brought up on DOS games, but the gameís lack of visual appeal is not significant. The lack of sound and music isnít bothersome either. In fact, for what is essentially a giant database tied to a fancy spreadsheet, Eastside Hockey Manager is quite an attractive title.
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