Video Game Rentals Delivered

3 On 3 NHL Arcade (XBLA)

David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2009-02-18 01:10:33

3 On 3 NHL Arcade - Rank C, YFKM Award

Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Canada
Date: 2/11/09

Also available for PlayStation 3 (PSN)

I had high hopes for 3 On 3 NHL Arcade. Even if you don't care at all about hockey, there's just something about the sport's fluid violence that lends itself well to translation into videogames. The prospect of a stripped down arcade style game from the makers of NHL 09 (arguably the best sports game ever) definitely piqued my interest. Frustratingly, while the final product does deliver the core gameplay I had expected, its lackluster features prevent me from giving a wholehearted recommendation - 3 on 3 NHL Arcade is TOO stripped down.

On the one hand, I applaud the minimalist approach. Don't know the difference between offside and icing? No problem! The only rule you need to know is "stick hit puck into net". The reduction of skaters to three per team (not counting A.I. goalies) results in immediate and fast paced action. This isn't to say that NHL Arcade gameplay lacks depth. The "skill stick" control scheme from NHL 09 was directly transplanted over, allowing for fancy analog stick puck-handling. If this is too daunting, traditional controls utilizing the face buttons are available, and are perfectly serviceable. This marriage of accessibility and vivacity delivers straight up fun.

The presentation is all about lighthearted whimsy. The hockey players are rendered as animated bobbleheads. While they're not graphically impressive from a technical perspective, the clean design of these macrocelaphic skaters shines as they handle the puck or check each other onto the ice. Even the sound effects of menu navigation reflect this lack of seriousness; the "woosh" noise that accompanies screen transitions is a dude actually saying "woosh".

In a design choice directly reminiscent of Ice Hockey on the NES, NHL Arcade's hockey players come in three flavors: skinny, medium, and fat. The skinny guys are speedy but weak, the fat guys are physical brutes, and the medium guys feature an "all around" style. This is where the game starts to go sour for me. The generic play was charming and functional in 1988, but I was expecting -at least- the depth of 1993's NBA Jam. That landmark arcade sports title featured rudimentary stat variation, so that the cyber-athletes reflected their real life counterparts. In NHL Arcade, sixteen years later, all the "strong" guys are precise clones of each other. The "fast" Sean Avery plays exactly like Alex Kovalev who plays exactly like Pavel Datsyuk and so on. I don't understand why the NHL license was applied to this game, only to be executed in such a lazy fashion. In fact, while several dozen NHL stars are featured, NONE OF THE TEAMS ARE. You can only line up as Team Red or Team Blue. That's a clear "You're Fucking Kidding Me" award winner.

NHL Arcade spices up the action with power-ups, like shrinking the opposing goalie or rocket skates that boost speed. This could be an issue of personal preference, but the tactics of skating rings around other players with a speed guy, or knocking opponents on their ass with an enforcer are enough for me. The power-ups (the banana peel in particular) made me feel like I was playing a cheap Mario Kart knockoff. Freezing opponents (literally, in ice) takes the game in a "zany" direction, one that belies the slick purity of hockey.

I want to stress that 3 on 3 NHL Hockey can be a lot of fun. Like most games of this ilk, it's best played with others. It supports four-player local play, or a full three-on-three six players online (but only with three people on two systems; there's no option for six people on six consoles to join together, WTF?!). What it doesn't support is any meaningful structure or frills. There is no tournament mode, no season mode, no fights, no zamboni races, no post-game breakdowns, NO NHL TEAMS. 3 on 3 NHL Hockey is like a potential athlete with the heart of a champion, but no limbs.

[EDIT: An obnoxious technique has emerged online. A few seconds after your opponent scores on you, the puck is positioned behind your net. Many ruthless players, not that I blame them, time that respawn and knock you on your ass, taking the puck and scoring again. And again. Combined with easily abusable goalie A.I., this is awfully close to being busted.]

[EDIT #2: An industry buddy recently informed me that the hockey players in NHL Arcade do, in fact, have individualized statistics based on their ratings from NHL 09. They're just hidden. If NHL Arcade would simply unhide these ratings, and organize rosters with NHL teams, I would upgrade this game to a Rank B. If it would make power-ups optional, and provide full six system online functionality, it might even pull an A. I don't think this is asking for too much; the "it's only $10" argument falls flat for me if basic functions aren't realized. It'd be like releasing a Call of Duty game without rifles.]

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