Choosing Jarome Iginla to grace the box cover of NHL 2003 makes a lot of sense. The 25-year-old Calgary Flames sniper will be the freshest face to promote the long-running EA Sports line in some time, which seems fitting when you consider how much of this year's game will be new. A recent alpha build shows that the development team at EA Sports Canada is taking pains to produce a hockey sim that looks and plays differently than its recent predecessors. Hockey fans are being treated to a renovation of their favorite title, which includes across-the-board changes to the artificial intelligence, user interface, online play, and more.
Most noticeable is the new interface. For the first time in the history of the NHL series, the PC version of the game should look and feel like it was designed for the PC. The console-style screens of the past are being replaced with an intuitive new system that has been designed to be much more mouse-friendly. Pull-down menus on the main screen will provide instant access to all the game options. You'll be able to rapidly move between online and offline play, go from a season in progress to a quick exhibition game, and more. This more-convenient interface promises to be a huge help to those who play in season mode, as it provides easier access to stats. A pregame screen will be displayed before every matchup, showing standings and stat leaders for the entire league, along with team-specific info such as who's hot and who's not, trade proposals on the table, a list of injuries, and so on. Editing lines should also be much easier. While you previously had to call up individual player cards to check on skill ratings, now you'll just click on the player's name to display all the requisite numbers on the line-editing screen. In general, what used to be spread across four or five separate screens is being put into one.
Changes are also being made to the in-game appearance of NHL 2003, although they don't seem to be nearly as sweeping as those being made to the user interface. We've already seen many new animations, especially in the cutscenes shown between whistles. They now appear to be more connected to what's taking place during the game. So if you have a fracas around your net before the ref blows the play dead, chances are that you'll see your netminder having words with an opposing forward before the puck is dropped. Further animations have been added to goal celebrations. For example, you'll get to see new fist-pumping scenes, along with players skating by their benches to high-five teammates. Overall, the look of the game appears a bit crisper than NHL 2002, even at this early stage.
NHL 2003's audio quality will apparently receive some attention as well. As we've seen, crowd noise will be vibrant and varied, and it will also feature shouted comments and cheers from individual fans. Jim Hughson and Don Taylor are back in the broadcast booth, with all-new lines. The latter, who served as sort of a third-rate Don Rickles in last year's game, has been dialed down, as have the arena announcer's bizarre observations during stoppages in play. Young bands such as Jimmy Eat World and Queens of the Stone Age are providing music, and players will again be able to import their own tunes if they don't enjoy the default soundtrack.
The NHL series' gameplay appears to be undergoing a number of tweaks. Most notably, EA Sports seems to be making significant changes to the artificial intelligence. We've already seen that players show a significant amount of on-ice awareness, particularly when on the rush. Teammates will now react to what you do with the puck. Move a defenseman across the opposition's blue line and a forward will usually drop back to cover for him. Take a center up the right side and the right winger will slide over into the center lane. Forwards are always moving, especially when breaking out of their own zone, and they seem to be much more aggressive in trying to get open for a pass. This could address a longstanding complaint that many veteran NHL series players have made--in previous games, forwards would go up and down their lanes like foosball figures on rails and stand still at their own blue line during attempted breakouts. Another improvement that should provide more lifelike play is the ability to assign different strategies to different lines. So you'll be able to have your scoring lines playing the skillful combination and your plumbers crashing the net.
NHL 2003's puck physics are being completely overhauled. Even at this early stage, the puck moves more realistically than ever before. The position of objects on the ice appears to have been rigorously modeled, so shots on net constantly rebound off skates, sticks, errant elbows, or whatever else gets between the rubber and the net. Best of all, goalies no longer smother shots in a programmer-determined zone of control, or stop shots with the thin air between their pads. They can now be seen bobbling shots in their arms, deflecting shots off various body parts, and simply being unable to handle short rebounds right in front of them. All this is perfectly in tune with real hockey, and it should result in a much more interesting game down low, particularly for players who love to crash the net in search of garbage goals.
Other changes are somewhat less noteworthy. Judging from what we've seen so far, NHL 2003 will place more emphasis on online play. A login blurb for EA Sports Online is always present on the main menu screen, as is an instant-messenger-like box that keeps track of online opponents. Dynamic deke control will provide players with greater control over special moves so star players can show off their scoring skills. The game breaker meter looks to be a more arcade-friendly twist on the momentum meters used in the past two NHL games. But in place of the almost imperceptible boost of the past, the team that maxes out the meter goes into a zone where defenders move in slow motion. Finally, EA's "GameStory" feature is returning with the ability to track performance over more than one game. So you might see and hear reference to a forward trying to reach a career milestone in points, a goalie working on a string of shutouts, or a team aiming to repeat as Stanley Cup champion.
NHL 2003 is already looking very promising, and its new improvements should definitely make it easier to play for fans of PC hockey games. We'll be able to make our final judgment when the game ships to stores on September 17.