When NHL 2K was released almost two years ago, it was the best-looking game of hockey on the market. However, the game ultimately failed to match its contemporaries where gameplay options and player control were concerned. Realizing that its hockey franchise didn't live up to the lofty standards of its other sports games, Sega decided to take a year off to rebuild the game and get it right. Passing the developmental duties from Black Box to Treyarch, Sega is hoping to deliver the definitive pucks experience on the Dreamcast with NHL 2K2.
The major gripe that players had with NHL 2K was its lack of gameplay modes. In the latest build we received, it appears as if this might also be the case with NHL 2K2. That's not to say that there haven't been any improvements--there have. But the game still lacks a proper franchise mode. Instead, you can play exhibition games for up to four players, seasons of 42 or 82 games, a tournament with up to 16 teams, and the playoffs. At one time, NHL 2K2 was to include online play like most of the other sports games available for the Dreamcast, but that feature has been cut from the game for reasons unknown. The lack of a franchise mode is disappointing, but the season mode is still adequate. You can trade players after examining statistics in six different categories, but currently there's no way to trade an uneven amount of players--meaning you won't be getting Joe Sakic from the Avalanche for Mark Recci and Brian Boucher. Player ratings have yet to be set for some teams, so it's difficult to say if they are accurate, but there are already some discrepancies on the teams that have been graded, such as Kevin Stevens' outlandish 93 rating. I also found that if I offered unfair trades, and the computer would allow them to go through. Hopefully this is something Treyarch is working on.
NHL 2K was known as a simple game to play, and NHL 2K2 is no different. The control scheme is basic, with only shoot, pass, check, turbo, and block shot commands to master. Dekes may be performed inside the offensive zone but nowhere else because dumping the puck is mapped to the same button. Spin-o-ramas must be performed with the analog stick because there are no buttons to perform them, and special plays like give-and-gos have not been included. The controls that have been included work fairly well, but there are still some kinks that could be worked out. The default game speed is slow by NHL standards, but thankfully it can be adjusted to four different settings. Even with the speed setting cranked up, players take a while to get going, which can make it hard to score on breakaways even if your winger has outskated the defense by several strides. Another control issue that will hopefully be addressed before the game is released is the inability to stop and start going in another direction. While it's unrealistic to expect someone on skates to cut as fast as a football player, it takes far too long to get going in the other direction in NHL 2K2. Like in its predecessor, shooting and passing in NHL 2K2 is dead accurate, making it entirely possible to score continually from the same spots on the ice if you're good enough. There are three different difficulty settings, but so far only the all-star setting provides a challenge to experienced players. Team management is an important part of any sports game, and NHL 2K2 includes plenty of these options. Using the directional pad, you may change your lines or team strategy on the fly. Lines are broken up by offense and defense, so it's entirely possible to mix and match your lines to get the perfect combination on the ice. Changing lines and strategies on the fly comes in handy at the end of the game when you don't want to use a timeout but need to increase your team's offensive or defensive pressure.
It appears as if Treyarch has reused the game engine from NHL 2K, because NHL 2K2 doesn't look any different. Of course, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Players wear helmets with environmental mapping, cast shadows on the ice and boards, and will jostle one another while waiting for the puck to drop. The player faces look predominantly the same, but this is quite possibly something Treyarch is still working on. It appears as if the same player models have returned from NHL 2K as well, and after two iterations of EA Sports' NHL franchise have been released on the PlayStation 2, they are starting to fall behind the current standards. The goalies, in particular, could stand to be remodeled. Their paddles and gloves look like they're a part of their arms instead of something they're wearing or using. The lack of authentic goalie masks is also somewhat disappointing, but again, this could be added to the game at a later date. NHL 2K2 looks almost exactly like NHL 2K, and it will take a trained eye to see the difference. At one time this wouldn't be a cause for alarm, but it's been two years since the original was released, so hopefully Treyarch still has some work to do on the graphics before NHL 2K2 is released.
The sound is often the last aspect of a game to fall into place, and this appears to be the case with NHL 2K2. A two-man announcing team has already been included in the game, but it sounds as if Treyarch is still ironing out the transitions between statements and the triggers for the color commentary. The play-by-play commentary lacks enthusiasm but manages to keep up with the flow of the game. The color commentator will chime in with comments that are completely unrelated to the play on the ice, which is a sure sign that there is still work to be done. The sound effects are subdued at this stage of the game's development--a bone-crunching check still has few, if any, sound effects attached to it, and the crowd is eerily silent throughout the game. There are sliders that allow you to adjust each facet of the sound, but in this latest build of NHL 2K2, they seem to make little difference. Also noticeably quiet is the arena organ, and if you're not listening for it, you likely won't hear it.
For a game that is only 60 percent complete, NHL 2K2 already has all the pieces of the puzzle intact. Now it's up to Treyarch to polish the game into its finished state. It's disappointing that there is no online play or franchise mode, but the deep season mode is a welcome improvement. With just one other hockey game available for the Dreamcast, NHL 2K2 is definitely worth keeping an eye on as its release date draws nearer. If the gameplay is smoothed out, some more graphical details are added, and the sound is completed, Sega could have a contender on its hands. We'll have more on NHL 2K2 for the Dreamcast when we receive an updated build.