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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 February, 2004, 11:39 GMT
Let's play: NHL Rivals 2004
By Darren Waters

Microsoft's latest addition to its Xbox sporting portfolio is an ice hockey game boasting online play.

NHL RIvals 2004
Format: Xbox
Price: 39.99
Publisher: Microsoft
Genre: Ice hockey

NHL Rivals 2004 is one of the best-looking sports games produced on a console to date and at times it approaches photo realism, especially with replays.

Sadly, the quality of the game is purely skin deep - scratch beneath the surface and Rivals is a mediocre offering.

The controls are overly "spongy" and there is a tangible delay between pressing a button and that action being performed.

Hockey is a fast-paced, fast-reflexes game but Rivals feels as though the players are skimming on treacle not skating over ice.

Uniquely for a hockey game, each play has a defined role - balanced, sniper, agitator, and enforcer - which has a special action but this is a little gimmicky and adds little to the game.

The AI - so crucial in sports games - is a little off-key and the goalies in particular seem prone to error, especially to rebounding shots.

Worryingly, opposing computer-controlled teams seem to have a habit of always scoring in the third quarter from a cheaply-taken goal - I would have put this down to my poor play but the problem has been reported elsewhere.

Graphics: 93%
Playability: 80%
Sound: 70%
Lastability: 70%
Overall: 65%

Rivals has the usual single game, cup and tournament modes but no option to run the team as a franchise, which is offered in Sega and EA's rival versions, also available on the Xbox.

Online the game is much better with the option to play against an opponent on the other side of the world as well as up to six other Xboxes able to play in one single game - so it is possible to play three versus three, which is an exciting new development in online sport titles.

It won't be long before an online sports game allows players to occupy one position on a pitch, rink or field, playing with and against a whole host of online players.

Xbox Live also offers access to the XSN Sports network, which means you can participate in online tournaments and create your own events, as well as having full statistics tracking online.

So if you want to know how many face-offs and fights you have won online - then this is the game for you.

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