The majority of hockey games in the past have done an adequate job of re-creating the blazing speed of the NHL game while providing just enough visual cues to allow the player's imagination to fill in the rest. With the power of the PlayStation 2, things have suddenly shifted. No longer do players have to imagine what goes on behind the scenes. NHL 2001 ushers in a new era of hockey games, where the gritty moments are exposed and the classic war of attrition that is NHL hockey is blatantly displayed for all to see.
It wouldn't be an EA NHL game without a multitude of gameplay options, and NHL 2001 has plenty. You may play seasons, exhibition games with or against up to three friends, tournaments, and shootouts. If you're the type of person who likes to cut to the chase you can head straight to the playoffs on a quest for Lord Stanley's cup. It's hard to find another hockey game that has as many adjustable features as NHL 2001. Even the most miniscule of factors - such as pass speed, shot accuracy, puck elasticity, and believe it or not, puck friction - can be adjusted to your liking. With all these options, it's puzzling why EA has decided not to include the franchise and challenge modes that have become commonplace in EA sports games. You may, however, create your own players, assign them abilities, and sign them up for season or exhibition play.
NHL 2001 is the most graphically advanced hockey game ever. No other hockey game even enters the same solar system. The player models are so lifelike that it's almost scary. Each has an animated facial texture, complete with blinking eyes and a mouth that moves while yapping at the opposition or while celebrating after scoring plays. Players have gloves that can be removed to expose hands with five fingers and a helmet that they take off while they're on the bench. But what really brings NHL 2001 to life are the thousands of animation routines packed into the game. The goalies sweep ice shavings out of the crease and pile them up on the posts, polygonal coaches bend down and whisper strategies into players' ears on the bench, and plenty of slashing and positioning takes place before each drop of the puck. Players act completely independent of one another, so while one is scratching his head or adjusting his jersey, the others might be checking their stick blades for cracks or shaking their heads in disbelief. It goes a long way toward making the experience incredibly believable. Other small touches - like the goal light casting a red hue on the player jerseys, each game beginning with a camera shot from the tunnel, and the absolutely stunning reflections on the ice - take the levels of believability to dizzying heights. The only negative is a bit of slowdown that takes place while skating near the team benches, but it rarely hampers the gameplay experience.
While NHL 2001 has brought the series a long way in the graphics department, it still has some distance to go where gameplay is concerned. The pace of NHL 2001 seems slow and plodding on the default speed setting, but it may be adjusted to kick up the action a notch. Anyone who has a shortage of friends to play against may find NHL 2001 less than challenging. There are four difficulty settings, but even the all-star setting fails to require adept playing skills. The AI isn't particularly intelligent, as the computer refuses to dump the puck, even while playing with muck-and-grind teams like the Sharks or Flyers. The only noticeable differences between playing on rookie and all-star are how easily your players are knocked off the puck and how quickly the goalies flash the leather. When Jaromir Jagr gets separated from the biscuit after a slight brush with 5'6'' Theo Fleury, it becomes obvious that player attributes have been taken a bit too lightly. The referees might benefit from a pair of bifocals, as penalties are rarely called unless the sensitivity is set on maximum. On the positive tip, NHL 2001 contains plenty of control options, including a spin move, which helps a great deal in getting open shots while down low, and the big hit option, which sends players skidding across the ice. Players skate with a nice fluidity, and the transitions between moves are seamless. The only glaring omissions are drop passes, icon passing, and give-and-goes. Considering the past few installments of the franchise have included all of the above, it's safe to assume that EA simply ran out of time and made the visuals its top priority.
NHL 2001 delivers an excellent auditory experience as well. You can hear players scream after big plays and talk smack to one another in the faceoff circle. The organ sounds great, with specific songs for each team, and the announcers react to the on-ice action faster than ever before. The sound effects are sharp - raspy scraping sounds jump off the skates when edges are dug into the ice, and crowd reactions fire on cue.
It's obvious that EA's intent was to stun players with NHL 2001's graphics, and it has succeeded. There are so many shining moments during each game that the proverbial jaw drop is impossible to avoid. It will be interesting to see if EA can continue to up the ante in the graphics department in the coming years without sacrificing playability or frame rates. NHL 2001 is, without a doubt, the most visually stunning hockey game ever created. It dictates what all other next-generation hockey games have to live up to. While hard-core hockey types may eventually tire of the arcade-heavy gameplay, NHL 2001 is still a solid playing hockey game that will satisfy the needs of most players. Hopefully EA Sports will strive to make refinements so that the gameplay stands up to the lofty standards already set by the game's graphics.