Although EA’s long-running NHL series has seen a yearly release since 1991, NHL ‘94 is still talked about today in terms of being one of the best sports games of all-time. It lacked the simulation quality that the developers have been aiming for since the series jumped to 3D in the late 90s. A more realistic hockey game is ideal for fans of the sport, but when it feels too real, it alienates the casual fan base that just wants to score goals and check someone into the boards. This is why NHL ‘94 is still played today, with its fast-paced action, sick one-timers and bone crunching hits. V7 Entertainment’s Old Time Hockey shows promise, simplifying hockey for casual fans, but retain those looking for a modern take on the arcade-style that many grew up playing. With 2K no longer developing hockey games, EA is the only name in town when it comes to the sport in video game form, but V7 Entertainment aims at the arcade market instead of competing with the yearly simulation release.
From the first trailer, it was clear that Old Time Hockey would be a different experience than the NHL series. Old Time Hockey looks and feels like a cross between NHL ‘94 and the movie Slap Shot. The game is set in the ‘70s where players weren’t required to wear helmets, penalties were less prevalent, and fighting was commonplace. In fact, the game’s story mode has you playing as the worst team in a bush league, in an attempt to escape the bottom of the standings. While the goal may seem simple enough, you are must learn the controls through the first set of games, limiting what you can do in each game. Don’t feel discouraged, as limiting your control hamstrings any attempt you have at winning a game. Not only that, but a myriad of gameplay imbalances and issues hamper the entire experience.
First and foremost, passing is a fundamental skill in hockey, regardless of the level of play, and it feels utterly broken in Old Time Hockey. Any time you pass the puck, your player will become unresponsive for a hot second, breaking the flow of the game. While V7 Entertainment has patched the game recently, it still doesn’t feel as smooth as it should, but it is nowhere as terrible as it was at the game’s launch. One-timers have been a staple of the classic NHL games for quite some time, but for some reason, they are excluded from Old Time Hockey. I’ve tried countless times, but it is not possible to pull off. Players must have control of the puck before shooting, and they are quite slow firing a snapshot directly after receiving a pass.
In traditional fashion, games are high scoring, although I found the AI completely unbalanced, even on the easiest difficulty. Numerous times, the AI had won a faceoff and skated directed towards my goalie with my AI defenders not even trying to stop him. At this point, the computer will fire a slap shot while inside the crease for a goal. However, if I try to perform the same thing, the AI will always swarm my player with the puck; hooking and slashing along the way. It also feels that the opponent AI is considerably faster than anyone on your team, regardless of the stats of the teams. There is a speed boost, although, if you are carrying the puck and use it you will lose control briefly.
Fighting is one of the core mechanics of the game, hell, a looped line brawl serves as the game’s main menu visual. Fighting controls are simplified to only two buttons, punch, and dodge. Three hits are all it takes to down a foe to their knees, but you can dish out additional punishment while they cower on the ice. Blood flows from players, leaving their mark on the ice, but fighting kind of feels awful. You never have a real sense that your controls are mimicking the action, and dodging doesn’t seem to work at all. Penalties are occasionally called, but you can get away with a lot of infractions. Most games, I won’t earn any trips to the sin bin, but still, end up with more penalties than the other team due to my undisciplined teammates.
Although V7 Entertainment may improve the experience and I do enjoy the visual look to the game, Old Time Hockey does not play well. I was looking forward to playing something akin to the games I played growing up, but the game didn’t come together. Skating doesn’t feel as tight as it should, shooting lacks one-timers, passing feels too stiff, and fighting is lackluster and barely functional. The visual style certainly captures the look of the era, with thick mustaches and mullets, and small backyard arenas.
Note: The Old Time Hockey review is based on a digital PlayStation 4 copy of the game, provided by the publisher.