Treyarch and Visual Concepts have teamed up again to bring the popular Dreamcast NHL 2K series to the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. The new game in the series, NHL 2K3, is set to ship this November. Although Electronic Arts has just recently released NHL 2003, Visual Concepts hopes that fans will find more depth in the gameplay of NHL 2K3, which is being touted as a more simulation-oriented NHL experience.
All of the NHL teams and players and even a large number of international teams are included in the game. For each team, there are a large number of offensive and defensive play sets that you can choose from, and you are also given a choice of playing with either your team's home or away jerseys. New to the NHL 2K series is a fairly standard franchise mode that allows you to play a full NHL season with general manager, coaching, and even scouting abilities. While the franchise mode isn't as impressive as the one featured in Visual Concepts' NFL 2K3, it does seem to be adequate. Also important to note is that the game incorporates the ESPN license. As a result, it has a very polished menu system with the ESPN look and feel, and the in-game overlays and stats information all have the ESPN style.
There are three different control schemes in NHL 2K3. The basic scheme is perfect for new players who just want to hit the ice with a traditional level of control, while the intermediate scheme adds a few more options to the basic configuration. The advanced option gives you much more control by adding a modifier button that lets you change the actions of the other buttons on the controller. This advanced control scheme takes some getting used to, but it really gives you an incredible amount of control and lets you quickly decide between using a wrist shot or slap shot, a regular pass or a dump pass, and more.
The gameplay in NHL 2K3 is realistically paced, and while it may actually feel a bit slower than that of EA's recent NHL games, the pace resembles play in the real NHL. Passing the puck to teammates, lining up shots, and setting up one-timers work very well and feel quite realistic. NHL 2K3 gives you the ability to actually aim your shots by giving the analog stick a subtle nudge just as you shoot. The shots you take generally stay on target, but they change trajectory enough to hit any corner of the net you wish to shoot for. This extra control seems almost necessary now that Treyarch has developed a new goalie system that makes their abilities more true to life. Goalies in past NHL games have had to return to their ready-state animation before going into additional shot-block animations. In NHL 2K3 the goalies now have an active animation cycle that allows them to go from one save to the next. For instance, when a team has a power play going and is pressing its attack hard and crowding the net with multiple players who are trying to slap the puck in, you'll see the goalie reaching in one direction after the next and using every limb in order to deflect the shot. It's actually very impressive to see. Also new for NHL 2K3 is the ability to initiate line changes on the fly using simple controller commands, which avoids having to go into a menu screen.
Visually, NHL 2K3 is shaping up nicely. The player models and textures used in the game are very detailed and represent the size of the players very realistically. The faces of the players have been modeled to look like their real-life counterparts, and it's possible to recognize them by their faces. The arenas feature a good-looking crowd and lots of details like monitors hanging above the ice and advertising banners. All of the action on the ice can be seen from a variety of different camera angles including overhead, three-quarters, side, and rink views. All of the different camera angles have adjustable zoom levels that allow you to get as close to or as far away from the action as you prefer.
While we're impressed by this latest version of NHL 2K3, we'll have to wait until we get a final build of the game before commenting further. We haven't had a chance to try this latest build online, but it is important to note that the only version that will feature online play is the Xbox version, using Xbox Live. Needless to say, hockey fans looking for another game to try out should definitely be excited about NHL 2K3. Check back for more information on the game as we approach its November 12 release date.