Hands-onNHL 2002

EA is bringing its NHL franchise to the Xbox later this year, and it's looking like the best version of the game yet.

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While the Xbox won't be released until November, the console already has a healthy stable of sports games on the way. There will be two hockey games available for Microsoft's upcoming console at or around its launch: NHL Hitz from Midway and EA's undisputed champion of digitized pucks, NHL 2002.

Like all previous installments in EA's NHL franchise, NHL 2002 for the Xbox will come loaded with gameplay modes. It will not include any extras that the PlayStation 2 version does not include, though. There will be six gameplay modes including a play now option, season play, a career mode, playoffs, shootout, and tournament. The career mode can be played for 10 consecutive seasons, and both the career and season modes can be played with multiple players. NHL 2002 will include all 30 NHL teams and 20 international squads. The rosters included in the game are accurate up until the second round of this year's playoffs. The elderly Bobby Dollas is on the Penguins' roster, and Rob Blake is a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

New to the NHL series is the breakaway cam. If a player breaks in alone toward the goal, the camera angle will suddenly shift to give you a better view of the action. We did not witness the breakaway cam in action, so it's impossible to tell how the new feature works. Another new addition to the NHL series is the EA gamestory. The gamestory singles out specific players for their achievements through the use of real-time cinemas that show players exchanging barbs with each other while the announcers provide insight into the occurrences on the ice. NHL 2002 also includes a create-a-player mode for the first time in the series' history. You may choose hairstyles, mustaches, beards, eyes, and more.

The gameplay has remained largely unchanged from last year's game. There are still sliders that can be used to adjust anything from puck friction to game speed. The goalie AI seems to have been improved--the money goals that were prevalent in last year's game no longer work. EA stated that it is working on intelligent AI for the goalies that will cause them to learn what your favorite moves are and then adapt to stop scoring chances. EA claims that this will be difficult to implement and that most of the next-generation consoles will likely not be able to process the algorithm. Another new addition is the saucer pass, which will allow you to flip the puck over a defender's stick. EA Sports' NHL hockey games have been packed to the brim with gameplay control options for years now, so it comes as no surprise that NHL 2002 delivers in this department.

Visually, the Xbox version of NHL 2002 eclipses the PlayStation 2 version quite easily. Shields on the players' helmets have a convincing sheen, and the dodgy frame rates that plagued last year's PS2 version are nowhere to be found. More animations have been added to both the coaches on the bench and the players on the ice. The brief cinemas shown between plays are far more varied in this latest edition, so it doesn't become an annoyance as quickly as it did before. The players' faces are extremely realistic. The facial texture maps are more accurate, and many of the star players like Brett Hull and Mario Lemieux have their facial structures modeled out of polygons. The result is a very convincing appearance that leaves no doubt as to who each player is supposed to be.

It appears as if EA Sports has addressed the majority of the problems in last year's NHL game to produce a more refined sequel for the Xbox. NHL 2002 isn't scheduled for release until this fall, but it already exudes enough polish to see that it will be the hockey game to watch.

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