Review: NHL Gamecenter Live for PS3

(Full disclosure: My subscription to NHL Gamecenter Live was provided for free. The PS3 application was purchased by me.)

Despite having NHL Gamecenter Live for the past two seasons, I've hardly used it. I felt it was redundant with Center Ice, and I only logged in when working late on-site somewhere, but I often found that having it in the background ate up too much memory on my system for it to really be worth it. The video quality, which auto-adjusted based on speed, seemed better this year compared to last yer, but I ultimately opted to watch standard definition Center Ice on my upstairs TV when I couldn't use the HD Center Ice downstairs.

A few weeks ago, a Playstation 3-exclusive app was announced that would bring NHL Gamecenter Live to the console world. Now this got my attention, because one of my main sticking points with Gamecenter Live was that I didn't like watching it on my computer screen. Yes, I could output from my laptop to the VGA input on my Sony Bravia TV, but what would the point of that be when I already had Center Ice? Gamecenter's start-and-stop feature were all well and good, but it wasn't worth the trouble to hook everything up and watch the lower-resolution computer feed just to see an out-of-market game from the beginning.

After using the PS3 Gamecenter Live for a week, I can easily say this: I just might cancel my Center Ice subscription next year and stick with this. It's that good, and in fact, it almost make NHL On The Fly obsolete for me. I'll get to that in a bit. First off, let's talk pricing.

The PS3 application isn't free; it costs $10, which isn't much but still a matter of principle when you've already shelled out for the native computer application. If you have the Playstation Plus subscription, then you can download it for free. So if you don't already have Gamecenter Live and you're considering getting it simply because of the PS3 app, make sure you know about this extra cost.

Once you download and install it, the NHL shield shows up on your Video menu. Open it up and you'll sync the application with your Gamecenter Live account. From there, you have all of the features of Gamecenter Live. However, the interface has been redesigned for a console controller. Usually, this makes things messier, but I actually think that this streamlines the interface over the computer browser version.

Here's how it works: when you load it up, you'll get a selection of today's games. If the game has already ended, you can watch it from the beginning, a condensed version (essentially a 10-20 minute edited version of the game, which is fantastic for watching after you've been out for an evening and are tired), or highlights. You can pick from any game, though you'll only get the home feed. Center Ice feeds depend on your provider, but on DirecTV at least, you'll get the home and away HD feeds.

It's very important to note that you won't get your local market team. Let me repeat that. YOU WILL NOT GET YOUR LOCAL MARKET TEAM. So this doesn't eliminate the need for your cable or satellite subscription to get CSN or Fox Sports or whoever broadcasts your local team. I imagine there's a few tech savvy hockey fans that have shut off their satellite/cable bills and simply go off Hulu and other streamed media. This will give you all the NHL hockey you want and need except for those local broadcasts. Local teams show up after 48 hours of the original game broadcast. Be warned.

Ok, so you pick your game, watch it live or on one of the forms of replay. In addition to that, you can navigate the entire season's calendar with the L1 and R1 buttons. So you have access to the entire season's NHL archive, either in full, condensed, or highlight form. Just like an infomercial, you can hear me say, "But wait, there's more!" There are also archives of the last two seasons, and a ton of classic games. I don't have an exact count for classic games, but it has to be in the hundreds and it dates back a good 20 years or so.

What's deemed as classic? Player milestones, important wins, critical playoff games, and -- of course -- Cup-clinchers. What's not deemed as classic? Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings bloodbaths from the late 1990s. I figured the NHL wouldn't have these in here, as they're not exactly the family-friendly image that they want to promote. Still, it sure would have been fun to watch those again.

Classic games are not edited down into highlights or condensed versions. You can scroll through the game's timeline, but it's the entire broadcast. If you missed Gary Thorne and Bill Clement doing the ESPN broadcasts, now you can enjoy. And there's a marked quality difference, as classic games obviously come from standard-def feeds.

Ah, yes, picture quality. That's an important issue. You're probably wondering just how good can a streamed game look on an HDTV? Pretty darn good, actually. There's an obvious drop-off from an HD feed via satellite or cable. However, the difference isn't that much. It looks far, far better than when you have a standard-def feed on an HDTV. If HD is a 10 and standard def is a 5, I'd put this around a 7. In fact, if you're on a smaller TV -- say, 32" or less -- I really don't think you'll notice much of a drop-off at all. It's grabbing the home HD feed, so you get the aspect ratio of HD. Every game I watched was smooth with no interruptions or stuttering; same goes for the highlights and condensed games. I'm running this on a standard Linksys wireless router, so it's limited by that speed; I'm not using a direct ethernet connection or anything like that.

The reason why I say I might choose this over Center Ice next year is because the drop-off picture quality is minor enough that I still get a great picture on my HD screen. I'll still get true HD with Versus games, NHL Network, and Comcast Sportsnet, but just for random "What's on tonight?" NHL games, it does its job well. And here's the kicker; if you're one of the rare hockey fans that has a PS3 on a standard-def screen, I would absolutely recommend this over Center Ice. I tested this on my standard-def TV in the other room, and even though the resolution is lower, you're getting the HD feed which is a widescreen aspect ratio. Next to the ridiculous clarity, that's the next-best thing about HD hockey broadcasts, so any hockey buff could appreciate the wider angle, even on a standard-def TV.

And the reason why I said it makes NHL On The Fly obsolete? Well, I don't think any of us watch On The Fly for its sparkling commentary -- it's because we want to watch highlights in HD. With Gamecenter Live via PS3, you can pick and choose the highlights for any game and also select the length (condensed games for longer play, or highlights for a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am version). Why deal with Gary Greene and Kevin Weekes blabbing away when you can select just the games you want without any sort of talking heads getting in the way?

All in all, I have nothing but good things to say about NHL Gamecenter Live on PS3. The interface is solid, the quality is just a hair below true HD, and the package of highlights and archives essentially eliminates the need for a nightly highlight show. If you're on the fence about getting it, keep Googling "NHL Gamecenter Free Trial"; there seems to be random deals that pop up, from 10-day trials to 60-day trials (it helps if you limit Google's search to the past week). If you sign up for the free trial, I'd just go ahead and pay the $10 to download the PS3 application so you can see what you think.

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