Ah, 70s bush league hockey — a time when players didn’t need helmets, nor teeth, and craved a beer on the bench as much as a fight on the ice. For most teams, practice consisted of simply showing up to games, and good wrist work was displayed by hacking and slashing instead of stickhandling. Times were certainly different then; simple and exhilarating. That’s what Old Time Hockey has set out to portray, and it’s certainly done its job.
This is the first hockey game available in a long while that’s not been developed by EA Canada, and the result is a very different beast altogether. Hell, it has a beer mode control scheme so you can keep your buzz as you play, something the triple-A publisher would never condone. The thing is, it’s hard not to play Old Time Hockey without comparing the two, and harder still to play it like a traditional NHL video game. In fact, the only things the games have in common are several control schemes.
Yes, there are icings and offsides – but after that, throw away the rule book. Hook, hack, slash and hip check like your life depended on it (’cause it certainly does in-game); channel your inner Hanson brother and go to town. Don’t bother winning face-offs — instead, give your opponent the puck and get to work lining up three devastating hits in a row. That’ll place your team on fire, just like in NBA Jam, making you virtually unstoppable. Pass, deke and send rockets towards the pipes, and you’ll be putting pucks into the back of the net in no time. When you’re up by enough goals, your focus should shift – go and find the nearest opponent with a fist above his head and further antagonise him. When the eventual fight starts, cross your fingers that you’ve succeeded in a line brawl. After all, it’s not truly a game of hockey until you’ve earned that Gordie Howe hat trick.
With period title cards and overlays and an announcer that’s more likely an amateur rather than someone putting on an act (sorry, Vancouver radio host Matt Baker), Old Time Hockey looks, sounds and feels like a 70s broadcast. While the cel-shaded nature of the players only adds to this, the piece that pulls everything together is an inspired soundtrack selection, Canadian to its core. We’re talking polkas, ska and, of course, The Donnybrooks’ titular “Old Time Hockey”. It sums up everything this release is trying to do — go and take a moment to appreciate its grandeur.
When this all comes together, the result is a glorious bit of hockey, one fun to play on your own, and even better with a group of friends on the couch one evening. The trouble is, Old Time Hockey has managed to sabotage itself, putting up several hurdles that prevent this from happening.
There are two main modes on offer: a 1- or 2- player Exhibition mode or 1-player Story mode. The latter puts you in the shoes of the Schuylkil Hinto Brews, a team struggling to find its feet part-way through the 1975-76 Bush Hockey League (BHL) season. The Brews, competitive in Exhibition mode, have stats that start out at nought in Story mode. Told the team is on its last legs, you’ll spend your first eight games learning how to play, locked into Advanced controls. Frustratingly, you’ll only able to use features that are unlocked via tutorials. You can’t poke check until you’re told you can, but your opponents don’t have that restriction. The same goes for hip checks, the ability to go on fire and much, much more. Those accustomed to the NHL franchise — the ones who will understand controls straight away — will struggle with the hand-holding.
The fact of the matter is, you will lose your first games in Story mode, and badly at that. The other team can light themselves on fire, skate circles around you and put the puck in the net with hardly any effort. Electing to try Story mode on an easier difficulty means your opponents don’t have to worry about offsides or icing, so it’s even easier for them to do so. You’ll struggle – and while we understand it’s to drive the point home that the Hinto Brews are truly atrocious — those first eight games are highly frustrating and no fun at all. Being the competitive guy that I am, I actually replayed the first three or four Story mode games several times over, hoping to at least go for a tie rather than a crushing loss. While the story of the Brews is actually quite engaging, it’s a balancing act that V7 needs to reassess. It’s one thing to be told your team is bad, but to be made to feel that while you’re trying your hardest isn’t the greatest feeling.
Once you get to game nine, things change dramatically. You have all the skills at your beck and call. You can go on fire, hip check, hack and slash, hook and hustle – and you’ll do much better. You mightn’t win every game after that — the Brews truly do suck and need to crawl out of a big hole – but you’ll at least be competitive. You won’t feel like you have a hand (or two) tied behind your back, so even the losses are fun. Gameplay from this stage stays true to the Story mode’s narrative, but doesn’t frustrate — things should feel like this from the get-go.
Story mode is a necessary evil, used to unlock Advanced controls in Exhibition mode alongside a third set of jerseys for each time. While the Beer mode and two-button controls can be selected, most hockey fans are going to be used to NHL’s skill stick system; it’s hard to shake the muscle memory. To have that style of control inaccessible from the start is another design decision that I question. Thankfully, the good ol’ Konami code can be used at the title screen to correct this, but it’ll need to be done every time you fire the game up. Admittedly, I can see the appeal of two-button controls, but not until Old Time Hockey‘s Switch release. A Joy-Con seems purpose-built for the scheme.
In the week we’ve had review code, V7 has greatly improved Old Time Hockey with one simple patch. It’s noticeable when looking at our video capture pre- and post-patch; the players are far more for responsive and input lag after a pass is all but gone. Controls that reminded me of my failed attempts to play NHL online as an Australian matched with a bunch of North Americans — laggy as all hell and as if both you and your pixelated player were drunk — quickly faded from memory. I applaud V7 for moving so swiftly to address pre-release concerns, and so quickly. I can only hope Story mode balancing will be addressed in a subsequent patch, though it appears V7 is pretty happy with the experience for now.
There’s still some work to be done. The game gets a bit confused switching between players in your defending end, resulting in a chaotic mess as you have to ignore the player you wanted to control, identify the one you’re actually driving and then react against your opponents. Fighting, easily one of the best parts of the game, takes a while to move from instigation to the actual event – I struggled to figure out if I should just wait for my bout to begin or continue chasing down the puck. Finally, my defencemen continually decide they need to do a line change right as an opponent is screaming down the ice towards my goalie. At least make ’em work for the breakaway, eh?
Old Time Hockey is as bush league as it gets – from a desire to represent that mirrored by the size of V7 compared to the gargantuan EA Canada. It’s occasionally rough around the edges, but in ways that usually elevate rather than hinder it. Questionable design decisions aside, Old Time Hockey is great fun — a reason to invite a friend over, crack a beer and dive back into the good ol’ days.
Old Time Hockey was reviewed using a promotional code on PS4, as provided by the developer. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.