It’s been a good long while since hockey fans have had any variety in their options when it comes to enjoying a digitized version of their preferred sport. While Electronic Arts doesn’t hold a literal exclusivity deal with the NHL, their sheer amount of money and resources, along with simple name brand recognition, have given them a figurative monopoly when it comes to creating any sort of hockey-based video game. Some mistakenly see this as a non-issue, since EA puts out a reputable hockey sim on a yearly basis, but long time fans of the sport know that there’s a swath of untapped potential going to waste. Titles like Blades of Steel, Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey, and NHL Hitz found success through deviation, catering to an audience seeking the thrills of an arcade styled variant of the sport—an audience oft ignored. In an attempt to correct this injustice, indie developer V7 Entertainment is lacing up their skates and sending us back to a time when helmets were unheard of and the size of your mustache mattered just as much as your stick handling skills—welcome to Old Time Hockey.
It would be hard for anyone to misinterpret the jovial tone V7 is going for here; from the lyrics of The Donnybrooks’ rendition of “Old Time Hockey” which can be heard when browsing the menus, to the blatant jabs directed at the NHL and Gary Bettman in the game’s introductory screens, the sense of lighthearted fun should succeed in putting a smile on the face of any hockey fan, young or old. The game’s soundtrack in conjunction with the names of fictional teams and players, plus the classic-looking fonts and logos all hearken back to a time when the rules were a little more lax, goalie pads were a wee-bit smaller, and bench clearing brawls were a tad more common. Old Time Hockey does a great job setting the mood, but once the curtain lifts and you actually take to the ice it becomes readily apparent that a strong introduction can only take you so far.
Old Time Hockey features several different control schemes, including the default option which feels like the classic NHL ’94, and more advanced settings that resemble what you’d see in EA’s more recent titles. Unfortunately, as a result of what can only be described as a horrendous design choice, before using the advanced settings in any of the game’s modes they first must be unlocked by playing through the game’s campaign.
Playing through the first dozen or so games of the story mode can only be described as painful. You’re forced to watch as opposing teams out maneuver you, out hit you, and downright out play you, and there’s not much you can do about it. This isn’t because of inexperience with the game’s systems or a lack of skill on the player’s part, but rather because the opposing team’s A.I. simply has access to functions that the player does not. Contextually it sort of makes sense; the story mode puts you in the skates of a beer league team at the very bottom of the standings. Expectations for the squad are low, and the overall skill level of your players is even lower, but anyone willing to put on a pair of skates and pick up a twig would know how to slash, hook, and perform a simple slap shot—these aren’t exactly high level skills.
As if to make sure the player’s frustration is purposefully prolonged, not only is basic functionality denied from the start and then drip-fed game by game, but there are also arbitrary goals the player has to achieve in order to successfully complete a match and move on to the next opponent. That’s right, merely out-scoring the opposing team isn’t enough, apparently, as doing so but failing to reach the side-objectives will result in a failure and the need to replay the game. It seems like rather than focusing on making a fun game, V7 put all their attention into finding ways to go against the typical sports game formula, and their success in that regard lends heavily to their game’s failure.
I wish I could say that once you’ve fully unlocked all the control schemes the game gets better, but Old Time Hockey’s flaws go far deeper. For a game branded as having an “arcade style”, the pace at which it flows is severely disappointing. If often feels like you’re skating in quicksand rather than on a sheet of ice, as players lack any sort of acceleration, making a quick transition game hard to achieve. The puck physics also leave a lot to be desired, as it’ll often lose all momentum after making contact with the end boards, or just bounce around in an inexplicable manner.
The game’s most egregious sin is its artificial intelligence. Regardless of the difficulty setting you choose, it’s not uncommon to see players shamelessly floating in all three zones, failing to chase down loose pucks or even move at all for lingering periods of time, making it seem as if they’ve completely forgot what they should be doing. Watching your goaltender—whom the player cannot control in any way—make a save and then pass the puck right back to the opposing team is almost as heart breaking as witnessing the lone man back opt to go for a line change in the middle of an odd man rush.
Old Time Hockey’s horrendous characters models will hurt your eyes, while its annoying sound effects—which get repeated ad nauseam—will make you want to mute your TV. Those willing to put the game’s presentational issues aside and trudge forward with the experience will still more than likely concede after only a few matches based upon the fact that the game just feels poor in all regards. Lackluster physics and animation, awfully unresponsive controls and input lag, and an overall feeling of sluggishness make this game hard to recommend to anyone, regardless of their affiliation with hockey. With its extremely annoying story mode and no online functionality outside of basic leaderboards, Old Time Hockey’s only lasting appeal lies in its local multiplayer options, which are appreciated, but far from enough to redeem the experience as a whole. It’s clear that the guys over at V7 Entertainment have their heart in the right place—and there is a market for this type of game—but this shot on net has gone high and wide.