NHL Slapshot brings some of that Wii magic to video-game hockey

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      With the Wii, Nintendo and its licensees have aimed, from the beginning, to deliver a very specific experience—a pleasing sense of connection between your motions and the on-screen action, without really trying to masquerade as a “simulation”. The Wii magic. So, how satisfying and how magical is NHL Slapshot (rated everyone), which was released today (September 7) and is the first Wii hockey game that video sports authorities Electronic Arts have published?

      Many gamers are curious about the stick peripheral that comes with the game; yes, you play this game while holding a reasonable facsimile of a hockey stick. Rest assured it doesn’t feel flimsy or cheap; it’s solid, without being heavy. And it’s not even completely asinine. It’s actually cool. Much effort and thought evidently went into its design—senior producer Joe Nickolls says the team tried 11 different iterations before arriving at the current one, which he says is the first Wii peripheral that Nintendo has ever licensed, that they didn’t build themselves.

      Gameplaywise, simply put, I liked how the experience of skating, passing, shooting, and chasing loose pucks in Slapshot compares with that in other hockey games. Reliable scoring moves, back-and-forth action, tons of hits, and deadly one-timer setups remind me of NHL games of yesteryear. I get a sense that, once I get the hang of positioning and timing, I’ll be able to score most of the time when wide-open. And, whether or not it winds up being a reliable way to score, picking a corner after a speed burst-deke combo is pretty satisfying.

      Graphics and sound are good for the Wii; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the presentation here. But unfortunately, jaggies and flickering constantly reminded me that the Wii is technologically inferior to the PS3 and Xbox 360. I’m not saying it ruined the experience—just that I noticed.

      Game modes are standard for the most part—single game, season, playoffs, mini-games, practice modes, and the like. “Pee-wee to Pro” mode puts you in control of a single player, guiding him through a career, starting as far back as Peewee if you wish (though you can also just enter the NHL draft as a big person, and start in the big time). Starting out as a wobbly, awkward kid and growing into a superstar athlete has novelty value, but aside from the aesthetic (did you wonder why marketing materials for this game were full of images of stumpy 11- and 12-year-old hockey players? I did), the career mode here doesn’t stand out; it’s pretty basic.

      I have very few beefs about the game; NHL Slapshot plays well. Turns out, it’s a lot of fun to play video game hockey with a stick in your hands. Though the fact shooting is motion-controlled but passing is button-controlled is kind of unfortunate. It necessitates an extra level of thought, which dispels some of that Wii magic. If the Slapshot experiment continues next year, hopefully they find a way to make both shooting and passing motion-based. Also, why can’t we do backhand shots with a backhand motion?

      But NHL Slapshot is, not altogether unsurprisingly, as much about hitting as taking shots. The motion-controlled bodycheck, performed by making a cross-checking motion with the stick peripheral, is punctuated with a terrific boom, and screen shake, and feels pretty darn satisfying. Furthermore it feels more 1:1 than anything you do with the puck. And while you may poke-check and stick lift if you like, I didn’t find those defensive maneuvers nearly as effective as good old-fashioned hitting. You’ll be lining up and throwing hits more or less constantly when you don’t have the puck, drawing very few penalties in the process; in my time with the game, the bodychecking mechanic didn’t stop feeling good.

      NHL Slapshot is imperfect and not especially deep (if you’re a hard-core sports gamer, this disc won’t replace NHL 11, also built by EA Sports and which also went retail today for HD consoles Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3), but it embodies the spirit that made Wii Sports such a joy, and the Wii the best-selling console this generation. And dude—you get to play it with a hockey stick. Do I think people ought to at least try it? Definitely.

      Chris Vandergaag is a Vancouver-based freelancer. When he's not gaming, writing, or forwarding links of questionable moral repute, he's asleep.