Electronic Arts has committed its full complement of sports games to the Xbox, and NHL 2002 will be one of its first games to be released on Microsoft's new console. The NHL series has been heralded as the best hockey game on any system for almost a decade, so hockey games on the Xbox are getting off to a rather healthy start. After spending some time playing the Xbox version, we've found that it's shaping up to be the superior 3D entry of the franchise thus far.
EA's NHL series has always been the leader where gameplay modes are concerned, and the 2002 iteration is no exception. There are six primary modes included in the Xbox version. You can play a head-to-head exhibition game, or you can let the computer choose teams for you and play a quick game. There is a season mode that can be adjusted in just about any imaginable way, as well as a tournament mode for up to 16 competitors. If you're feeling lazy, you can always cut to the chase and jump right into the playoffs or practice your breakaway skills in the shootout mode. EA also included a healthy franchise mode that can be played for 10 consecutive seasons. You're able to comb the free-agent market, draft, and work around your veteran players retiring. The create-a-player mode has also undergone some enhancements, including a face builder that allows you to choose from dozens of eyes, noses, and mouths. EA stated that player-created characters will be focused on throughout each game's presentation, enabling you to build a bond with your alter egos. The card mode that's included in NHL 2002 is the equivalent of the Madden challenge found in EA's football series. You are awarded one of 189 cards for completing specific objectives, like scoring a hat trick, taking 10 shots on goal in a period, and killing penalties. The objectives that must be completed to acquire cards change with the game's four difficulty settings. Cards award you with in-game alterations, like bigheaded players or godly powers, like the ability to inflict the opposing team with the flu.
The gameplay enhancements included in NHL 2002 are many, and they go well beyond cosmetics. Of particular note is the breakaway cam. If you break in alone on goal, the game will switch into letterbox mode and the sound will be muted save for the thump of the player's heart and the swish of his skates on the ice. In the close-up camera angle, it's easier to see the portions of the net the goaltender has left open. While playing with snipers like Patrik Elias or Mario Lemieux, this gives a decided advantage to the offense. Also new to the franchise is the gamestory presentation. The gamestory follows small subplots in the game like a player scoring a hat trick or a goalie on the verge of a shutout. Important replays will be saved on the Xbox hard drive to be replayed when called upon by the announcers. Also new to the NHL franchise this year will be the big hit cam and the big save cam. Again, the camera will jump to letterbox mode and show off the aggression present in the game or some serious leather flashing on the part of a goaltender. The emotion meter plays an integral role in each game for this year's outing--big hits and timely goals can get the crowd pumped up, and in turn, your players will exhibit increased capabilities.
There are a couple of additions to the control scheme as well. Saucer passes are performed automatically to lift the puck over a defender's stick or you may hold the deke button to cruise into the zone in a shooting position while quickly shifting the puck from the forehand to the backhand preparing for the shot. Another new addition to the NHL series is puck control ratings. A player with a strong rating will reach his full puck-handling potential shortly after receiving the puck, while lesser skilled players will take a while to gain their composure.
Apparently, upgrading the graphics for NHL 2002 on the Xbox was EA's secondary concern--it looks nearly identical to the PlayStation 2 version. Thankfully, the slowdown present in last year's PS2 version is a thing of the past, though the positive aspects have returned. Polygonal coaches still stalk the benches, the first few rows of the crowd are modeled in polygons, and striking facial animations occur regularly. The player models haven't changed much from last year, but their animations have been completely recaptured--players will now kick the puck to their sticks or reach back and snare a pass if it's off target. The checking animations have been completely reworked as well, and more player interaction has been included so that the short cinemas shown during a stoppage in play appear more lifelike. Another new addition is the ability to map three goal celebrations to three face buttons on the controller to allow for customizable taunting after lighting the lamp. With 700 faces included in the game, all of the NHL's stars are immediately recognizable, and small details like Johan Hedberg's blue moose mask have been included. NHL 2001 was a great-looking game last year, and the 2002 iteration looks even better on the Xbox. With more animations, a smoother frame rate, and added features like the breakaway, big hit, and big save cams, NHL 2002's graphics on the Xbox are a slight but definitive improvement on those of its predecessor and just a nudge better than the PlayStation 2 version.
The big problem with sports games is that the commentary often repeats incessantly. Visual Concepts has done a great job of keeping the commentary of its Dreamcast sports games fresh, but EA has fallen short in this regard in the past. Play-by-play announcing is handled once again by the overly dramatic Jim Hughson, but EA has chosen the popular Canadian announcer Don Taylor to handle the color commentary this time around. EA Sports stated that it wanted to inject some vitality into NHL's presentation and therefore snagged Taylor for his reputation as a quick-witted commentator. Taylor constantly cracks jokes and criticizes players, giving the game an arcade feel. Even the public-address announcer cracks silly jokes at the conclusion of each period. The sound effects for shots and checks echo this exaggerated tone--when a big slap shot is let go, the sound of a rocket launching can be heard. There are 45 licensed tracks included in NHL 2002, and they are played at various points throughout the hockey game when the situation dictates. Hockey purists may be turned off by NHL 2002's arcade feel, but they'll be happy to know that sim-related audio aspects like team-specific chants and ambient crowd noise haven't been pulled from the game.
The first installment in EA Sports' legendary NHL franchise on the Xbox is looking to get the franchise off to a good start on Microsoft's new hardware. The dodgy frame rates that plagued last year's PlayStation 2 game have been cleaned up, there's a career mode that can be played for 10 consecutive seasons, and the gameplay has been further refined through the implementation of several new control techniques. If you're a hockey fan or just a fan of hockey video games, NHL 2002 should be high on your list of games to check out when the puck drops shortly after the launch of the Xbox.