NHL 2001 is an excellent hockey game that improves over last year's version by adding numerous new features and enhancements. Longtime fans of the series and newcomers alike will welcome the new gameplay customization features, the stronger computer team artificial intelligence, and the expanded player-creation and team-creation features.
Perhaps NHL 2001's most noteworthy addition to its predecessor is the comprehensive selection of customizable artificial intelligence settings included in the options menu. In this screen, you're able to adjust numerous on-ice factors that directly influence the outcome of each game. Passing accuracy, the length of time a player takes to recover from body checks, the duration of speed bursts, the frequency of injuries, the odds of a goalie giving up big rebounds, and more are fully adjustable in NHL 2001. With the inclusion of these options, you can almost fully customize your individual experience with the game. Combined with the three basic difficulty settings, the artificial intelligence menu makes NHL 2001 one of the most accessible sports games available.
NHL 2001 also includes an enhanced career mode. While this feature emerged in NHL 2000, it has been polished in this year's game. For example, the free-agent signings now offer some visual feedback to let you know which players are likely to sign with your squad and which are not. A little smiley face will appear next to players who are interested in negotiating a deal with you, while others may show a little hate-filled angry face. Happy face or no, you won't always get your man, and in fact the entire trade system has been tweaked to make player transactions very tough. In general, you can no longer dupe computer teams into foolish trades, though they'll still often propose ridiculous trades to you and will negotiate such deals among themselves.
The rookie draft is largely unchanged, which is both good and bad. With the impressive advances of some other sports games in this regard - for example, the excellent draft and signing features in NFL 2K1 for the Dreamcast console - it's somewhat disappointing that the draft is still only two rounds long. The game also lacks a minor league roster and actually suggests that you place extra players on the waiver list when your roster fills. Still, you can trade draft picks over the course of the season, which is quite convenient, and the ability to exit out of the draft screen to modify your roster and then come back to select additional players is also very handy. Off-season information on retired and waiver-wire players is available at the end of each campaign, so you can see which player slots you need to fill as you enter the draft and free-agent periods.
In terms of gameplay, NHL 2001 is just short of ideal. The artificial intelligence adjustment features are a significant improvement to the game and will undoubtedly please fans of the series. If you don't make adjustments, the pacing and style of the game are virtually the same as in last year's fast and enjoyable version, so fans of the series will have little difficulty getting up to speed in NHL 2001.
That said, the computer opponents this year are rather more talented than last year's computer-controlled teams. Even seasoned veterans will find themselves outmatched in some games, particularly against powerhouse squads like New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Dallas. This is partly due to good reasons, such as more-aggressive and more-intelligent computer players, more-agile goalies, and the new momentum meter that lets one team gain a boost in its skill ratings when it controls the play. However, the occasional long-distance goal that popped up in NHL 2000 has become much more common in NHL 2001. While mid-ice wrist shots do occasionally find their way past goalies in the real NHL games, you will often find that soft floaters beat your goaltender two, three, and even five or more times every game in NHL 2001. What makes matters worse is that these goals almost always tend to pop up at dramatic moments in a game - for example, just after you pull ahead or tie the score. This annoying problem still seemed to occur with regularity even after a patch that claims to improve matters with long-distance goals.
The other problem with NHL 2001's gameplay is less prevalent but still worth noting. Namely, certain players in the league seem to be imbued with superhuman abilities when you play the game on the highest difficulty level. These include well-known superstars, such as Jaromir Jagr, Eric Lindros, and Pavel Bure. When you attempt to check these guys, you will very often skate right through them as they bolt past you for a breakaway. Fortunately, this issue only seems to crop up at the hardest setting, so if you like a tough match, then you may be able to adapt to the computer's godlike abilities - or at least welcome the challenge.
NHL 2001 also tends to serve up some rather inaccurate goalie statistics for those keepers unfortunate enough to play for your team. Even with goalie control set to automatic, the goaltenders on your squad often achieve a save percentage of 85-88 and a goals-against-average in the high 3s to mid 4s - unacceptable numbers for an NHL goalie, incidentally. These stats would seem to result from the game's emphasis on fast action and scoring, since by comparison, simulated games in NHL 2001 deliver very acceptable statistics in nearly every category. It doesn't even matter much what offensive and defensive systems your team uses - the computer will find a way to score and score often no matter what you do.
Graphically, NHL 2001 is light-years ahead of other PC sports games, including EA Sports' own Madden NFL 2001. The motion-captured animations are phenomenal, and there's seemingly a limitless variety of them. You'll notice many different types of shots, hits, goalie saves, and after-the-whistle movements among the players in NHL 2001. The game also moves along at an excellent frame rate, so long as you have a good 3D card. The only major slowdowns in NHL 2001 occur when the game flashes a small picture-in-picture window over the main display, usually when a goalie leaves the net or a penalty is about to end. Also, though it doesn't seem to affect the game's performance, the animation of the crowd - which will actually stand to cheer a goal - is very impressive. If the graphics in NHL 2001 have any downside, it's that they tend to suffer from serious polygonal clipping problems when two players get too close to each other. But the action moves so fast that you tend to only notice this while watching the highly detailed replays of your best goals.
NHL 2001 also features generally excellent sound effects, although the inane play-by-play and color commentary are repetitive and oftentimes incorrect or mistimed. Jim Hughson and Bill Clement may discuss a team's inability to score goals and then come back at the next whistle to say how great the same team is doing offensively this season. Similarly, Hughson often blurts out something to the effect of "Flattened by so-and-so!" when in fact so-and-so missed his check entirely and the player he was attacking is wide open and streaking in on a breakaway. Fortunately, you can turn off this commentary and just listen to the excellent skating, shooting, and hitting sound effects, not to mention the great arena music and PA announcements.
EA Sports provides a freely downloadable utility that lets you import your own music into the game - you can even select certain tunes to play when a goal is scored, a penalty is called, and whenever other specific game situations crop up. Similarly, the face-in-the-game feature introduced last year is slightly enhanced for easier editing and importing of photographs to map onto custom players' faces. A new feature also lets you import a team logo and map it onto a custom team jersey.
In the end, NHL 2001 is a great follow-up to its predecessor. It has a few problems that keep it from being the perfect hockey game, but they're easily overlooked in light of the game's many impressive qualities.
Editor's note: The preceding review is a re-evaluation of NHL 2001 on GameSpot - the original review overlooked certain significant features that, after consideration, invalidated the original review that the game received. GameSpot regrets the error.