There are quite a few excellent enhancements to the gameplay and the computer's artificial intelligence hidden beneath NHL 2002's dizzying array of flashy new features.
Last year's NHL 2001 was about the best computer ice hockey game most fans of the sport could have hoped for, even if it wasn't a perfectly realistic simulation of the sport. Using that outstanding edition of the long-running hockey series as a foundation, EA Sports could just as well have added on a bunch of superficial extras and called the new product NHL 2002. And to some extent that's exactly what happened. But fortunately for fans of the series, let alone anyone who likes hockey, there are quite a few excellent enhancements to the gameplay and the computer's artificial intelligence hidden beneath NHL 2002's dizzying array of flashy new features.
NHL 2002 is essentially similar to NHL 2001, so fans of the previous version will likely be very happy with this year's installment, too. The AI sliders that made NHL 2001 so approachable and customizable are still available in NHL 2002, and they once again let you custom-tailor the computer into just the sort of opponent you'd like to play against. Other returning features include the rookie draft, the ability to trade draft picks, the "big hit" and deke buttons, and the options to import your own music and photos for custom players. The new features in NHL 2002 are hit and miss. Longtime fans of the series will likely find a few of the new features disagreeable, but to its credit, EA Sports has included the option to easily toggle just about every one of the game's new features on or off.
And the first thing many players will want to do is toggle off the new color commentary provided by Don Taylor. For some reason, despite years of trying to assure gamers that the NHL series is a serious sports franchise, EA Sports just gave up trying to be serious when it brought this guy on board. His comments, while occasionally quite funny, rarely ever have anything at all to do with hockey. They are merely one-liners that are included for humor's sake, and they give the game a rather unwelcome comic air. As if trying to keep this flavor consistent across the board, the developers also gave the PA announcer nothing but comic lines, such as, "Tonight's 50-50 number is...not yours." Oddly enough, the PA announcer's comments are often much funnier than Taylor's, but they're still out of place. You can turn the commentary off, but even when you select that option, you'll still hear several of Taylor's lines in each game. Aside from the commentary, the rest of the game sounds excellent and more or less exactly like the real thing.
NHL 2002 adds a lot to the core game, including an in-game NHL "trading cards" book, similar to the ones found in some of EA Sports' PlayStation 2 games (NCAA Football 2002 for example). You can accumulate points by completing various specific objectives, such as scoring a hat trick or reaching the 20-goal plateau in a season. These points can then be spent on trading cards, which in turn unlock other special features. The most common of these is the ability to turn the player on the card into a hero for varying periods of time. Others include unlockable goal celebrations and arcadelike power-up items, such as superfast shots. As with the commentary, most hard-core fans of the series will likely prefer to ignore a lot of this stuff, aside from the fun of trying to collect all the available player cards.
NHL 2002 also adds special camera views for dramatic moments in the game. The best of these is the breakaway camera, which zooms in on your offensive player as the game fades out all sounds except for that player's heartbeat. The idea is excellent and can truly add a sense of drama to a breakaway. However, if you're skating toward the goal at the bottom of the screen, the breakaway camera will maintain that perspective instead of shifting around to follow the attacker in from behind. As a result, the goal and the goalie often block most of your view. Again, you can turn off the breakaway camera if you find it disruptive, but it'll probably impress you at least a few times.
A similar, but far more frustrating, new graphical effect occurs whenever there is a dramatic body check or goaltender save. The gameplay freezes for a moment and you get treated to a Hong Kong-action-movie-style montage of three different views of the hit or save. Occasionally, this can be pretty spectacular--but unless you set the frequency slider for this effect pretty low, you will quickly tire of the seemingly random and repetitive interruptions caused by this replay.
On the other hand, a more original and very well done new replay option is found in the new "game story," which basically tracks the flow of the game and flashes back to key moments, either much earlier in the action or just a few seconds ago. These replays pop up during stoppages and can be skipped simply by pressing an action button on your controller, but they are often worth watching just for fun. Some of the themes you'll see during a game story update include a hot goalie, a hat trick, one team dominating the play, or a dramatic comeback by one side or the other.