NHL 2K3 may be a bit late to the party, but don't hold that against it. Sega has done an excellent job with adding new features and polishing existing ones to make it worth the wait. Now that the series has moved on to all platforms, no one will have an excuse not to play what has become the best hockey game this year.
The most notable addition in NHL 2K3 is the franchise mode. This is where you are given the opportunity to take on a managerial role of a team. After completing a regular season, you'll have to adjust your roster by retiring old players, recruiting rookies in the draft, and signing/releasing free agents before starting a new season. It's a mode well-suited for those looking for deeper gameplay because eventually you won't recognize half a team's players (because the draft recruits fictional players), forcing you to research their abilities to create an even match-up on your own lines. You don't even have to play the games; you can simulate every season to see how your decisions rate against the computer's decisions.
There are several other gameplay modes as well. You can play an exhibition game, playoff series, a single season, and a tournament mode. You can choose any of the NHL's teams plus a handful of world teams to take into a game. When you complete a game or season, you'll be presented with great game statistics. You can even see where you took all your shots in a game to see where a goalie's weak spot may lie. There is also the new Sega Sports Challenge feature where you can play a game and post your stats online to see how you fare against other people in a bunch of different categories such as goals and penalties-in-minutes. The interface features the ESPN logos, and games are presented as they would be on National Hockey Night on the ESPN channel. This is all aesthetic of course, but it's still a nice touch to immerse yourself in the game.
The actual game itself is going to be as easy or as difficult as you choose. There's a huge list of options you can change before hitting the ice. You have five difficulty settings that are tiered nicely. The rookie setting lets a newcomer still score goals while getting adjusted to the game, while the pro levels and above require advanced controls and setups to get the puck in the net. You can also change whether your shots are auto-aimed and whether you control your goalie or not. You can even adjust hitting power, fatigue effects, and ice friction.
The gameplay is where NHL 2K3 stands out amongst its competitors. The AI seems fully aware of what is occurring in the rink. And even though you'll be able to easily setup shots because of this, the goalie is adept at stealing away most of your well-executed plays. It builds up such an excitement that when you do finally score, you'll cheer and taunt your friend/TV. Another great aspect of the gameplay is that players actually attempt to get loose pucks. This is a problem that plagues most NHL games, and it's great to see that AI players care to sweep it up, or even grab one in midair and drop it to the ice. There is one noticeable AI flaw in the game. If you skate behind the opponent's goal with the puck, mire often than not the defenders will get caught in the goal posts/ You can just sit behind the net the whole entire game like this. It's more of a cheat to win the game while you're ahead, or to get rid of a shorthanded situation.
Hockey rules are also done well in the game. Unlike in NHL 2003 where you'd have problems with your team going off-sides, the AI in NHL 2K3 rarely do this unless you force it to. Also, you'll find that penalties are strictly enforced if you have this setting set to maximum and if you play aggressively. You'll find that it's a toss-up between choosing to check everyone you see and risking calls, or playing defensively and risking more scoring attempts against you. The referee can get in the puck and player's way, and you can even check the goalie, resulting in charging calls.
Gameplay is also dependent on what control setting you use. The basic control scheme lets a player learn the basics of the game like passing, shooting, and body checking. Eventually you'll find this to be limiting as you get the hang of the game, especially on the harder difficulties when the computer uses advanced controls against you such as pinning. The advanced controls let you pin a player against the boards, poke check, hook, and perform other maneuvers. Fights are somewhat better than competing hockey games, but they are still hokey and are still just a minor distraction from the gameplay.
There are many different attack and defense strategies you can use on the ice. It's easy to switch between these strategies using the digital pad and trigger buttons. You can also change lines on the ice without having to pause the game using the digital pad as well. Both of these allow you to continue the game without having to interrupt the flow. The manual also does an excellent job of explaining the rules of hockey as well as how to play.
The only areas where NHL 2003 beats out NHL 2K3 hands down are the graphics and sound. The models and ice just don't look as good as they do in NHL 2003. The animations are also lacking in NHL 2K3, especially in cutscenes. At least there is a good selection of camera angles. The sound is also rather dull compared to EA Sports' game. Pucks hitting the crossbar don't have that intense pinging sound, and hits don't make you cringe. But overall the sound is acceptable and certainly not poor. Commentary is actually pretty good, and won't get very repetitive over time.
The biggest difference between the PS2 version and the Xbox version is the Xbox game's inclusion of online multiplayer support. You can of course play with up to four people on a single console to challenge your friends. But you can also log into Xbox Live and play against countless other people online. It keeps track of your overall win-loss record and disconnects, and it shows your record against specific players. Additionally, if you have a good connection to the Internet, you won't find lag to be a problem playing the game.
Fans who have been complaining about hockey games being too arcadelike can now rejoice. There is absolutely no reason why a hockey fan with an Xbox should skip this title. The new additions, excellent gameplay, and Xbox Live support make this the best hockey game of the year.