I don’t know an awful lot about hockey, but what I do know is that it isn’t a sport for the faint-hearted. Hard physical punishment is pretty much par for the course and whilst full on blood filled arenas would be frowned upon elsewhere, the physical side of the game, and the fighting in particular, is all part and parcel of the experience. That is never more true than if we head back a couple of decades to ice hockey of the 1970s. A time when men were men and blood was spilled.
And it is the mid-’70s in which Bush Hockey League is throwing us back to, as we get to take a bunch of no-hopers on a journey from the bottom of the league, past a swathe of opponents, through to the playoffs and beyond. But with the NHL games sewing up the realism side of ice hockey as we know it, where does Bush Hockey League fit in the grand scheme of things?
Well, let’s just say that realism and content aren’t exactly its strong point. But if you want some humour, then you’re pretty much sorted. In fact, you’re either going to love the fun that it tries to constantly convey, or hate the fact that it is an ugly old dog that never learns new tricks.
Throughout your time with Bush Hockey League you’ll be tasked with helping push the Schuylkill Hinto Brews to glory. The issue you have however is that this is a team lacking skills, with the individual players concerned with nothing more than where their next drink is coming from. Pitting their wits up against opponents who are hugely more successful than them leaves the Hinto Brews languishing at the bottom of the table, without a cat in hells chance of things ever changing.
Unless that is you can push them to the next level, hitting objectives and turning this team of brawling thugs to bigger and better things.
The problem with the story is that whilst there are plenty of matches included as you attempt to take your team through a full season, whether you win or lose makes very little difference. Instead, to progress your team you’ll need to hit certain objectives in each match. Now, pretty much none of these objectives centre around winning a match and unless it is a primary objective, whether you actually pull it off and hit the requirements matters not. Holding another team to just the 5 goals is simple enough, taking part in 3 fights is an everyday occurrence and pulling off 10 slapshots in a match is easy. But it is the constant worry about having to hit these that ruins the entire gameplay experience.
See, I want to play a hockey game, and any sports game in fact, in order to improve my skills, in order to build my tactics and in order to have some fun. Having to instead focus on hitting objectives instead of scoring goals and pulling off big plays removes the proper immersion normally associated with hockey and should you be wishing to take to the ice for a vital match, will be left frustrated.
In my eyes a sports game should be centred around winning matches and even though the Schuylkill Hinto Brews aren’t ever going to be champions in my lifetime, it would be nice to see even a small part of the game focus on winning instead of… well, I’m not sure what the focus is to be honest.
Your team doesn’t help either and whilst I understand that this is just a bunch of mates who have basically tried to take on the hockey world, the AI controlled players are a bit rubbish. Players will skate away from the puck without hesitation, whilst switching to a closer defender so that you can take control is dodgy at best. The goalies are either total rubbish or completely superhuman, whilst should you manage to pass your way down to the other end of the pitch, the shooting turns out to be a mix of the same, with some long shots going in with ease, whilst little nicks and flicks around the goal struggle to fire the buzzer.
Various control schemes are all in place to allow you to at least attempt to gather up some immersion, but the advanced controls are just far too complex, whilst the one handed beer mode doesn’t allow enough interactive moments. That basically leaves a 2-button option that is simple enough to use, but allows the player to pull off daring shots and passes when the game decides on it. Confidence inspiring it is not though.
But skating around on ice, passing the puck and shooting on goal isn’t the only part of hockey that is interesting. Oh no, for ice hockey means fights and Bush Hockey League is no coward in that area. The problem is, whilst the actual hockey gameplay can be as complex or simple as you see fit, the inclusion of one-on-one fisticuffs is just a bit, well, crap. With the camera zooming in as you go up against an opponent with gloves off and fists clenched, whether you become the victor or loser in a bit of bare knuckle brawling matters little. Mashing the punch button is pretty much all that this boils down to and whether you connect with fist into face is pretty damn random. It’s all over after just a few hits too, before a bit of blood drops, all is forgotten, the puck gets dropped and both teams crack on with trying to win a match of hockey.
Away from the Story and the now standard option to play in an Exhibition Game is the only other port of call – and even then the inclusion of just ten teams lets things down. By all means give it a shot if you wish to take to the ice with or against a mate or three, if only so you can remove the mitts and get down to the fight scenes, but I struggle to think that anyone will be too bothered about making Bush Hockey League a staple inclusion of any weekly or monthly friends get together.
Or at least I would struggle to think that if the multiplayer wasn’t any good. But strangely it is, and it’s quite possibly the best bit of the entire game. Whether you’re helping the Hinto Brews to glory with a team mate alongside you, both fighting for control of the same team, or prefer to go head-to-head in a versus mode over in Exhibition, skating around, shooting on goal and taking in the odd fight or five is good hilarious fun. At least for a while it is anyways because it eventually gets a bit stale.
No matter whether the gameplay is good or bad though, much of the draw of a new title boils down to the visuals and the audio. And again Bush Hockey League is very much a marmite title in those respects too.
It must be said that this game is in no way pushing the capabilities of the most modern consoles, but the strange visuals are somewhat appealing and in an alternate world it would no doubt be delightful to look at a bunch of semi-drunks battling it out on the ice. In what world the even stranger fight sequence celebrations belong though I’m not too sure. But here and now in an environment that feeds off of realism, 4K and as many frames per second as the naked eye can handle, Bush Hockey League will be an instant turn off for many.
The audio though is a somewhat different kettle of fish. Even though the commentary is highly repetitive, it does allow for a bit of immersion to take hold – even more so when you team it up with the absolutely stunning musical tracks that have been included. Mostly confined to the menu screens, the soundtrack will appeal to a huge range of gamers, no matter what their musical taste – and they all fit in brilliantly with the slightly absurd, hugely mad world that Bush Hockey League is delivering. The likes of Bad Manners scream the Can Can, The Pogues star, Glenn Miller warbles and Victor Mizzy with The Adams Family Theme tune gets the feet tapping. It may seem like a strange old mix, but it’s been an absolute delight to take in these sounds.
Unfortunately though, a decent soundtrack does a game not make and the rest of Bush Hockey League comes across as a bit of a let down. From the grind of a seemingly pointless Story, and the one off hits of an even more pointless Exhibition Game, you won’t find much to keep anyone other than the most ardent of hockey fans from going back – and even then it’s never going to have much of an appeal over the NHL games that are out there. By all means give it a shot with a mate or two, but the repetition will soon win over the day.