While gamers on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 were enjoying EA Sports’ annual hockey mastery, those who call the Wii their console of choice were left out in the cold, so to speak. Sure, there were a few games released to help feed the need for virtual ice, but a quick look over the HD fence and Wii players could clearly see that the grass was indeed greener on the other side. Well, Nintendo gamers rejoice, because EA Sports has finally brought its brand of digital hockey to the Wii and even brought The Great One along for the ride.
Gamers who pick up NHL Slapshot will immediately notice that this is a different breed of hockey compared to past EA Sports offerings. A much more arcade-like feel, with an emphasis on bone crunching hits and high scoring games, NHL Slapshot stirs memories of the Nintendo 64 and Playstation classic Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey, complete with flaming puck and hit effects.
The biggest change to the EA Sports hockey experience is in how the game actually controls. NHL Slapshot comes packaged with a hockey stick shell that you can insert a Wii Remote and Nunchuck controller into, and literally start taking slapshots and delivering big hits with the appropriate gesture. This new control scheme mostly works very well. Simply flicking the stick forward will result in a wrist shot, while winding up and then flicking will unleash a mighty slapshot. There are just a few nagging issues - sometimes the game won’t register your smaller movements (like when trying to shoot in close) - but for the most part the full motion hockey controls only add positives to the experience.
It’s just a shame the actual hockey stick peripheral is (and I’m being polite) a total piece of trash. Just getting your controllers into the plastic casing is a difficult enough process, mostly due to the fact that the cord that connects the Wii Remote and Nunchuck needs to be forced into a very tiny area that is covered by a piece of plastic and which constantly flies open with the simplest of gestures. The controller also features a very serious design flaw, in that the Wii Remote’s pointer is obstructed, meaning that you have to either take it out every time you want to select the game from the Wii Menu, or use a second controller that the game will register as ‘controller 1’ upon start-up.
All the traditional EA Sports staples are also present in the controls. You control your player via the control stick on the Nunchuck, pass with the ‘A’ button, and perform deeks with the ‘C’ button. The ‘Z’ trigger on the Nunchuck also gives your player a temporary burst of speed. Players can also choose to use the Wii Remote and Nunchuck without the stick peripheral, however I can’t recommend this option as it takes the most unique aspect of NHL Slapshot and throws it out the window, leaving only a very generic hockey experience. The game also allows you to play as the goalie, which is a welcome - albeit shallow - addition that suffers from simply being too boring to actually play.
In terms of gameplay modes, traditional modes like ‘Battle For The Cup’ and ‘Season’ make appearances in NHL Slapshot, but are this time joined by the all new ‘Pee-Wee To Pro’ mode. In this mode you will guide your character, a young hockey prospect, from his pee-wee hockey days (coached by Wayne Gretzky - lucky kid) through the ranks of the CHL (Canadian Hockey League), AHL (American Hockey League), and all the way to the NHL and, eventually, superstar status in the big leagues. This Wii-exclusive mode is a great addition to the franchise as it allows you to become personally invested and, in the case of many kids growing up who never got a chance to play hockey (or team sports in general), to re-live the dream of one day lifting the cup.
Sadly, the game doesn't feature any online multiplayer modes - this is a strictly local affair. That isn’t to say the game doesn’t feature some great multiplayer modes. You can, of course, just take on your friends in a straight up game of hockey, but you can also challenge them to one of the game's several ‘mini-game’ options, such as ‘2v2 Mini-Rink' (a two vs. two game of hockey), ‘Shooter VS. Goalie’ (where the player shoots the puck from the blue line and the goalie attempts to stop it), or the venerable ‘Shootout’ mode.
In the looks department, NHL Slapshot definitely won’t win any awards; the graphics are jaggy, poorly rendered and even blurry. The players themselves do animate very well, however, both in their actions and facial expressions. The same cannot be said for the fans though, who are simply 2D images set in a cheering pose. No effort whatsoever has been made to give them ‘depth’, making the whole experience look more like an early PlayStation 2 sports game than a title released in the latter half of 2010.
The game’s soundtrack, when compared to NHL 11, takes a 'less quantity, more quality' approach, with all the songs feeling more appropriate in this title. (What hockey game could go wrong with the Dropkick Murphy’s ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston, or ‘Olé!’ by the Bouncing Souls?) The songs are also much catchier and easier to listen to repeatedly than NHL 11’s metal-oriented sounds, and the audio comes off as clear and crisp.
The voice acting is also top notch, with series mainstays Gary Thorn and Bill Clement continuing to deliver the same great play-by-play announcements that gamers expect from an EA Sports NHL title. The only downside is that their commentary is kept intentionally vague, so that the lines can be used in several different contexts and are therefore repeated more often than they should be.
For the entry price of $70 you get the game and the hockey stick peripheral, which is relatively expensive for a Wii game, even one bundled with a shell (for comparison, Mario Kart Wii is $50 and Link’s Crossbow Training is $20), and whose plastic casing can only be used in one title thus far. However, even at that high price, this is still the best hockey game on the Wii and hopefully not the last, because the hockey stick peripheral - despite all its shortcomings - is a very fun and even somewhat realistic way to enjoy the game.
NHL Slapshot is a fun game, make no mistake about it. The game takes the same NHL experience that EA have been serving up for the past decade and moulds it specifically to the Wii’s strengths. The lack of online multiplayer will turn some people off, especially when both NHL 11 and NHL 2K11 feature worldwide multiplayer modes, but if you’re looking for an intuitive, simple and engaging hockey experience that is a total blast to play, then you should definitely check out Slapshot.