Sometimes it is actually about the journey and not the destination. For gaming that is probably true in general – it isn’t just about the final cutscene where the bad guy falls, it’s about getting your character to that point – but it is perhaps more true of the new NHL Slapshot for Nintendo Wii. EA’s latest sports title, Slapshot, as the name indicates, is an ice hockey game and a decent amount of fun, but it isn’t the pros that make the game great, it’s getting there.
The majority of the game doesn’t center on playing a professional hockey season (although that is available), but rather on the Peewee to Pro game mode. We’ve all seen the various create-a-character setups that have gone into other sports titles before, some of which allow you to, after making an avatar, train him and improve their skills as they play games, but Slapshot goes for more than just that. In Slapshot, if you choose, you can start all the way down at the Peewee league in three-on-three games. You receive a set of season goals (x number of points, y assists, z goals, etc.) and go out and play on a frozen lake somewhere. As to be expected, as you progress through the various levels (Bantam, CHL, AHL/NHL) the goals become more demanding, the opponents tougher, and the rink locations more serious.
This is where the heart of the game is and it works well, although it must be said that the actual player season goals are slightly problematic as they’re not moving targets. That is to say, if you play games with one minute periods the number of goals you need to get over a season is the same as if you play 10 minute periods and obviously you’re going to have far more chances to hit your required number if you have more time to do it.
In Pewee to Pro you do have minor control over what your teammates on the ice are doing should they have the puck, but your main concern is you and your performance. You are graded throughout each individual game on how you live up to expectations and between periods are given notes on your strengths and weaknesses. It’s a cute system although it does become terribly annoying to keep hearing the same minor complaints over and over again between periods and see that your gameplay has been given a nearly perfect score. If you’re doing everything right and your score reflects as much, the notes ought to as well. Yes, there is always room for improvement, but hearing the same minor complaints echoed over and over again in the midst of a seven-nil shutout does get a bit tedious.
The mode also features the ability to earn experience points based on playing well. While initially the points can only be distributed to basic offense, defense, and athletic sections, you do eventually get specific subcategories in which you can level up. Additionally, performing well within a game unlocks special boosts which you can equip in games (better faceoff ability, stronger shots, harder hits, etc.).
Existing on more of an arcade than sim level, any gamer out there with a modicum of experience in any type of sports title will have to ratchet up the difficulty to one of the higher levels or they will end up seeing a lot of embarrassingly lopsided (if you’re the computer) games. It is always nice to see yourself handily defeat an opponent, but it’s also nice if they can at least pretend to hang with you – something that won’t happen on any easy difficulty setting.
Should you opt to skip the Peewee to Pro mode and head straight for an actual professional hockey season, you may very well find yourself disappointed with the title, at least you will if you’re used to playing any other EA Sports title. It is possible to manage your team, edit lines, change strategies, etc., but in comparison to a FIFA or Madden, the options you have at your disposal are minimal. You are not the GM, you are not the owner, you’re a coach who has other people draw up a minimal number of options from which you can select what you want.
Before you get too disappointed by that, it must be said that the actual gameplay is fantastic. Slapshot comes with a mini-hockey stick in which you place your Wii remote and nunchuk (definitely read the instructions or watch the video to see how to build it, because it’s not as easy as it at first seems). There is a short training section on how to use the stick as well, but for the most part it’s intuitive (as it should be). Even without MotionPlus (the game does not support it), the game senses your moves exceedingly well. Hold your stick horizontal and thrust it out when your character is next to an opponent and you will send them crashing down to the ice, have the puck at your man’s feet and make the move for a shot on goal and the character does the same. Using the nunchuk you can aim for your corner of the net and also indicate which direction you want to pass in (done with the A button). Dekes can be performed either automatically or manually, and speed bursts are available as well.
The game can be played without the stick using either the Wii remote alone or a remote and nunchuk, but there is absolutely no reason to play that way. As this isn’t a title that offers a GM mode and that allows for ample tweaking of settings, all it has is the actual gameplay and that is head and shoulders better with the hockey stick.
Much in the way the Madden for the Wii feels like a trimmed down version of the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, Slapshot feels like a junior version of NHL 11. Whereas Madden keeps the same title across consoles but does things differently, Slapshot has been given a different name to denote the differences from its big brothers. It would certainly benefit the title to have online play and a more fully conceived and realized season or franchise mode in future iterations. It would also be nice if it were less arcade-feel and more simulation, but Slapshot has all the makings of the first iteration of a great new franchise. And, if you ever want to play with friends you need to go out and get a second stick because no one playing will want to be stick-free. With decent graphics, good music, and average play-by-play, if you’re looking for hockey on the Wii, Slapshot is unquestionably the way to go.
NHL Slapshot is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.