NHL 2003 Review
Where do I begin with this game? To start off, like many other fans in the series, I have been playing NHL hockey since its first incarnation back on Sega Genesis. I have avidly followed the evolution of the game from 16-bit all the way to today's next generation consoles. Being Canadian, hockey is my favorite sport, and probably, my favorite video game. It is the one constant I look forward to each October. This year, having been spoiled by other games, I think I was expecting too much. To say that I am disappointed at this year's effort from EA would be an understatement. The problem isn't really with the way the game turned out, but rather with the way it could have turned out.
When looking at the graphics, there are both good and bad points. The good things, like the new goalie animations, are truly amazing. Thanks to the motion capture of real NHL players, goalies now make all kinds of different saves. There are diving saves, sliding saves, and desperation saves just to name a few. Seeing a goalie rob a player of a sure goal is great eye-candy. All around, the graphics seem to flow smoother this year, and everything looks a bit clearer and sharper.
The only thing that really bothered me with the graphics were the camera angles. As soon as I put the disc in and played my first game, the first thing I realized was that the players were much too large. I thought the camera would zoom out once the face-off was over, but to my dismay, I found the camera stayed in this perspective. I quickly checked thru all the camera views and options, and none of them really appealed to me. The problem is that during game play, the camera is either too close to the ice or too far away. This can be seen in all of the different types of views, which include ice, classic, overheard, broadcast and stands. You can also chose to have auto zoom on or off, but I haven't seen that option change anything. As well, the difference between classic and overhead is almost impossible to detect. Anyone comparing two screenshots placed side by side, would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two camera angles. With the default view (ice), I found it difficult to play since you could only see a short distance around the player you're controlling. This makes passing to your teammates a guessing game, and without being able to see too far ahead, I usually ended up skating right into the other team's defense.
What has been done very well are the replays and crowd animations in between plays. While the crowd on the ice is the same as last year (2D cardboard images), during stoppages in play you can see them cheering, booing, dancing or getting showered with glass (yes the glass can break this year). It doesn't change much from game to game, but it is one of those little things that can make a difference in realism.
Unfortunately, one of the things I really liked last year is nowhere to be seen. I used to love NHL 2002's replays of big hits or saves, but this year, the only replays are after a penalty has been called or a goal has been scored. The in game big hit and big save replays are gone this year. Some people didn't like them, but at they could be turned off for those who found it annoying.
The goal replays on the other hand, are a lot more polished this year, and it's great to watch the puck go in the net in slow motion, while rock music blares. In this sense watching a replay of a goal is almost like a MTV music video, which might not appeal to everyone, but I loved it. However, unless the play results in a goal or a penalty, don't expect to see much in terms of replays. There is a meter called save cam that can be increased or decreased, but despite tinkering with this, I saw no difference in the number of game highlights. This was a big disappointment, since with the cool new goalie animations it would have been great to see them replayed on occasion. What this means you can only really appreciate the goalie animations if you play using the ice cam mode.
Finally, there are the animations for when a fight breaks out. In my opinion, they are completely pathetic. You are zoomed into a screen where the two players are grabbing each other, and from this point it goes all downhill. There are 3 different punches that can be thrown using the buttons on the controller (uppercut, jab and haymaker) but when the skater throws a punch, he moves like he's underwater, and the result is that the fights look like they are taking place in slow motion. The best thing to do in this case is turn fights off in the game, as they become just an annoying interruption.
So far I haven't had much good to say about NHL 2003. Fortunately, once I start thinking about the changes that have been made to the game play, I get a little happier. The biggest modifications that were made to the NHL series can be found at this level. For starters, there are the puck physics, which have been really improved. The puck reacts a lot more realistically when it's shot, especially if it hits the net or the boards. I found that last year this wasn't the case, and any puck that came near the goalie was scooped up right away. The improvement in this area almost makes me forget about the faults in the game. With improved physics, we see more great saves, and when you tie this in to the new goalie animations, it makes for a more enjoyable game of hockey.
For those who found last year's game too fast paced (as I did), this hasn't changed. Luckily, all the same rules and settings are in place this year, which allows you to customize the game to your liking. Everything from penalties, injuries, passing speed, and hitting strength can be adjusted. Thanks to this, the game can be customized to everyone's taste. Looking for higher scores and insane speeds? Just increase the speed and shooting accuracy and you will be sure to fill the nets with pucks.
The only issue this year with the sliders is the number of injuries that occur each game. Last year, I found injuries to be a rare occurrence, so the first setting I fiddled with was the chance of injuries per game. I would advise not to change the default setting, and actually lower it, since this year injuries are a lot more common. In one game with periods set to five minutes, I witnessed 5 separate injuries, the least of which caused one of my players to miss a week, and the other, 2 months. I am glad that EA changed this, but at the same time, it seems they went to the opposite end of the spectrum.
For those wondering about the A.I. this year, rest assured, it has been fixed. You now have both your players, as well as the computer trying to set plays up behind the net. Your big guns park themselves in front to the net looking for either a pass, or to deflect a shot into the net. I was actually pretty amazed at this. It doesn't end with the offense either. Your defensemen don't give up breakaways as often as last year, and when snipers park in front of your goalie, the defense makes sure they pay the price. I've centered a pass so many times, only to see my pass sail by because my winger got flattened by a defenseman. What does all this mean? Thanks to players blocking shots and actually playing defense, the game scores are closer, more shots get deflected, and the total number of shots at the end of the game are both reasonable and realistic.
After discussing some of the improvements, it's time to shift back and look at more disappointments. With regards to new features and modes, if you already own or have played NHL 2002, than really there is nothing new for you. In fact, I'd love to say, "There's nothing to see here, move on people", but that would probably be too mean.
All the modes from last year are back, and they include: play now (pick two teams and just play), the season/franchise hybrid, and international mode (formally called tournament mode). All the teams with their new rosters are here, and if you are die-hard hockey fan this is always important. However, roster updates are not what people shell out their money for. I can go into the rosters for NHL 2002, and with a little work, I can make them reflect the trades that were made in the off-season. What fans really want to see are new features and deeper game modes, and while this version has a couple of new features, it is hard to justify buying it just for this.
That being said, what EA's effort last year was great (I loved NHL 2002), so I cannot hate this year's version just because it hasn't changed much. As the saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". Despite this, I was really looking for some changes to the franchise mode, rather than an exact duplicate of what was available last year. With other sports games getting really deep franchise modes, (especially NFL 2K3 which really impressed me), seeing EA make no changes at all really upset me. For those who are curious, when I simulated a season quickly just to see what would happen, the results were that the New York Rangers won the cup, and Alexi Kovalev ended up winning the Art Ross trophy. After viewing the awards, I was placed into the off-season portion of the game, to see who is retiring, and who is a free agent. This was followed by a quick 2 round draft after which I jumped right back into season number 2. Repeat this 10 times, and you get a feeling for how weak this is compared to something like Madden 2003. At the end of my season, there were no trade offers made by the CPU, and the draft went by based solely on each player's overall rating. To me, this isn't what I would call a franchise mode, as I could have deleted my season, begun a new one, and the results would be virtually the same.
I had mistakenly thought that EA would rectify the poor franchise mode with a new concept that they introduced in NHL 2002 called game story. This was a something that struck me as a great idea, and with a little more work, it would be a feature that could really improve the depth of the game. I was really excited when I read that EA was developing something called game story 2 for NHL 2003. This time, it would not just track events in one game, as it did last year, but focus on things throughout the course of a season. Imagine my surprise when after playing almost 20 games with different teams and settings, I failed and see any game story at all. I have no idea what happened, but the only logical explanation is that EA rushed this game out and never got a chance to finish the game story.
Like the franchise mode, not much has changed with the sound in this game. The play-by-play team returns, and they are as awful and repetitive as last year. The only saving grace is the option to turn the play by play off, and turn up the on ice sound effects. The crowd sounds great and reacts at the right time, which makes you forget about the idiotic things that the announcers say. The sound effects are pretty decent, but the only one worth mentioning is the sound of a shot ringing off the post.
The only area where EA has greatly improved the quality of the sound is in the choice of music. Whether it's during stoppage in play or the in-game menus, the choice of rock songs are well suited to hockey, and when you score a goal, the blaring rock music played while your goal is replayed in slow motion blew me away. If you don't like rock however, you might not be too pleased with the choice in music.
EA Sports has always had responsive and easy to use controls and nothing has changed this year. In fact, they've added something which I believe will become an EA standard, but whether you like it or not is another issue. Previously, the right analog stick hasn't had much use in sports games, but this changes with NHL 2003. EA has added something called Dynamic Deke Control, which is accessed by the player using the right joystick. The idea while simple, doesn't execute as well as I had hoped, and often feels unfamiliar and awkward. Essentially, the player on screen moves their hockey stick in the direction that you move the joystick. This allows you to skate ahead and put the puck to the side or even behind you, so that it cannot be stolen away by a defender. The idea is neat, but I became frustrated with it, and ended up rarely using it.
For those who do like it, as you perform more and more dekes, a meter fills up on the right of the screen called the game breaker. Once full, the player can then press the L2 button to activate the game breaker mode. At this point, everything slows down, the camera zooms in closer, and the user can plan their attack on the goalie. Since I never got the hang of the using manual dekes, I only was able to see this a couple of times. The effect is pretty interesting, but I personally prefer to play without the game breaker (it can be toggled on or off).
The only other thing I'd like to mention about the controls is the horrible way goalies are handled. If you're the type who likes to take control of the goalie to make saves or dart out and try to grab a loose puck, you will find EA's goalie control completely useless. Trying to take control of the goalie to bring him out of his crease to play, is like stretching taffy. The goaltender skates at about 10% of the speed of any of the other players on the ice, and virtually every time, another player will beat him to the puck. If this is an opposing forward, then look out for an empty net goal. I am not sure why EA did this, since in the NHL, goalies often come out to play the puck.
While NHL 2003 does have its faults I have to admit that I will probably end up playing it all this winter, or at least until Sega Sport's NHL 2K3 comes out. Each game is fast paced and exciting, and you always end up playing one more game, even when you promised yourself to go to bed and turn the PS2 off. EA is lucky that they invested some extra time in the game play, because this is what will keep you coming back for more. Whether you like to play the season/franchise, jump right into the playoffs, or face-off with the best players in the world in international mode, if you like hockey there is something here for you.
The NHL cards that could be unlocked last year are back, but if you got bored of them last year, they are exactly the same this year. In fact, all the cards in the game are the same as last year's, and as a result, I ended up not caring about them. What EA should have done is have all-time greats like Bobby Orr, or Maurice Richard as unlockable players, which could then be accessed thru the NHL cards. It's just another example of taking last year's code, and dumping it right back in without making any modifications.
Despite the faults with NHL 2003, I gave it a fairly high overall rating. However, if you own NHL 2002, than don't expect too much, otherwise you will get as frustrated I got. To sum it up, if you take away the goalie animations, the manual deking and the game breaker, what you essentially have is a NHL 2002 with slightly better game play. After playing a few games, you begin to notice these subtle changes, but in reality, it's not really worth spending $49.99 (or $69.99 Canadian) unless you don't own a hockey game on your system. Had EA taken a little more time to work on the franchise mode, and fix the many little problems with the game (i.e. the lack of a decent camera angle, the useless goalie controls, and the lack of any game story at all), then this game would have been a hockey fan's dream. As it stands now, I will be keeping a close eye on Sega's NHL 2K3 (due out in November), and if it offers all that it advertises, then Electronic Arts will have lost a fan that has faithfully purchased this series thru 4 systems and over 10 years.
10/9/2002 Steve Fabbruzzo