If there's one sport Electronic Arts has had little to no competition emulating, it's NHL hockey. EA's NHL series has served as the benchmark for hockey video games for almost a decade. Many developers have tried to top it, and many have failed. The series' rookie effort on the PlayStation 2 established a solid foundation to build upon last year, but a lack of adequate AI and bothersome frame rates limited the game's long-term appeal. But with NHL 2002, EA Sports has listened to the critics and produced a 3D version of the series that finally rivals NHL's two-dimensional glory days on the Genesis and SNES.
If you like a lot of meat to your hockey games, the NHL series has always been the filet mignon of digitized pucks. However, the NHL series' first iteration for the PlayStation 2 was the exception. With no franchise mode and few frills in general, it succeeded in becoming a solid multiplayer experience, but those looking for depth from single-player modes were forced to retreat back to the PlayStation version of the game. NHL 2002 has an incredibly deep franchise mode that can be played for 10 consecutive seasons. Player statistics are tracked in 18 and 21 different player and team categories, respectively. Career statistics accumulate over 10 years, but many are lost once a player retires. In the season mode, you may draft, surf the free agent wire, manage a budget, and attempt to compensate for veteran players who retire. The only problem with the franchise mode is that some things are performed for you by the CPU, like which players are interested in joining your team. It can be frustrating to offer more than a player is truly worth in a trade, only to be turned down. In addition to the deep season mode, there's exhibition play for up to four players, a tournament mode for up to 16 teams, and a shootout mode to help hone your breakaway skills. Another new addition to the series this year is an extensive card system similar to the one used in the recent Madden football games. You are awarded points for performing specific tasks while playing, like scoring a hat trick or winning all your team's road playoff games. The points can then be used to purchase some of the game's 189 cards, which unlock new features within the game. NHL 2002 also includes the ability to create players and then sign them to a team or track the developments in a game via the EA game story. While the franchise mode could use some more interactivity, on the whole, NHL 2002 provides more than enough gameplay modes to keep the most die-hard hockey fan content.
Like the gameplay modes in NHL 2002, the amount of control you have over your players has also been greatly improved. You may now perform saucer passes to lift the biscuit over a defender's stick, and the deke controls have been improved so that a player may now compose himself before taking a shot and shift the puck from the forehand to the backhand in an attempt at fooling the goalie. A new variable puck control feature has also been added--one that makes it difficult to knock skilled players off the puck. Players also are designated as snipers, heroes, big hitters, and big shooters. When you use a player at the end of the game and he's rated as a hero, this can often make the difference between mounting a comeback and getting spanked. You may even map different animations to three of the Dual Shock 2's face buttons for customized after-goal celebrations. EA Sports has included adaptive goalie AI that is supposed to adjust the goalie's strategy depending upon the in-game situation, but it's almost impossible to notice. Last year's game has some serious AI issues that made games against the computer a cakewalk. For this year's game, EA has gone in the complete opposite direction where AI is concerned. There are four different difficulty settings, and winning games on anything but the beginner and easy settings is nearly impossible. You can build a three-goal lead going into the third period, only to have it wiped away by three seemingly harmless slapshots by the computer. This is made more confounding by the emotion meter. Once a team has achieved full emotion, almost every shot it takes ends up stretching the twine. It's especially frustrating to be dominating play and not gain any team emotion. Goalies will often misjudge soft, fluttering shots--allowing them to slip over a shoulder into the net. Yet all but the best breakaway shots are stopped without a rebound. This results in games turning into a barrage of slapshots and depletes NHL 2002 of a great deal of the one-on-one elements that have made past installments in the franchise so much fun to play. Fighting has again returned, but the button-mashing skirmishes end so quickly that it's almost laughable. NHL 2002's saving grace is that most of the problems associated with the game in its default state may be remedied by adjusting 10 different gameplay sliders.
NHL 2001 looked great last year, and the same game engine is being used in NHL 2002. The most obvious improvement is in the animation. Players will now kick errant passes to their sticks or readjust their bodies to accept less-than-perfect passes. Player models have been slightly improved so that they're a bit more rounded, and their faces no longer appear lifeless. There are 700 faces included in the game, and while some of the less-popular players look eerily similar to their real-world counterparts, some of the more-popular players, like Mario Lemieux, look nothing like their real selves. Like last year's game, NHL 2002 includes all the visual niceties that immerse you into the game. Clipboard-toting coaches bark instructions from the bench, the first few rows of fans are constructed of polygons, and players will talk trash to one another while waiting for the face-off. This year, a breakaway cam has been instituted--it switches the screen into letterboxed mode when you break in alone on the goalie. The transition from full-screen to letterbox takes some adjusting, but it's easy to get a handle on the mechanic after practicing in the shootout mode. Once the breakaway camera has been mastered, it adds a great deal of drama to the game. The sound becomes muted so that the only audible effects are the players' heartbeats and the sound of their skates cutting into the ice. Similar to the breakaway cam, big save and big hit cameras have also been instituted. Unlike the breakaway cam, however, these cams are almost impossible to come to grips with. They both freeze the action to show goalies performing kick saves or players being checked to the ice from a variety of angles--however, it's difficult to judge when the game will return to live play, resulting in many awkward moments. As with the gameplay modes, you can turn off most of the graphical features that interfere with enjoyment of NHL 2002. The biggest improvement to NHL 2002's graphics is the frame rate. Last year's game would regularly slow down when more than 10 players were onscreen at once, but this isn't the case with NHL 2002. It plays with a nice fluidity no matter how much action is taking place onscreen--creating an increased sensation of speed. NHL 2002 is the prettiest hockey game ever made, but it isn't a drastic improvement upon last year's game in most visual respects.
Even in the 16-bit days, the NHL series was no slouch where audio was concerned, and NHL 2002 falls directly in line with this tradition. The overly dramatic Jim Hughson has returned to deliver the play-by-play commentary, and EA Sports has brought in the popular Canadian announcer Don Taylor to handle the color commentary. Taylor constantly cracks jokes, making fun of the players, or even makes comments regarding the game itself, like "Look at those animation routines." Even the public address announcer attempts to be humorous between periods. Repetitive statements from both announcers have been greatly toned down in this year's game, but after a week, most players will be ready to turn off the commentary altogether. Sound effects are right on par with what you've come to expect from the series, with the exception of sound effects used for big hits and shots. When a player is checked especially hard, you hear an explosion, and when firing lethal slapshots, you can hear a rocket blasting off. Team-specific chants have again returned, and you can hear players taunting one another while waiting for the drop of the puck. Hockey purists will likely be annoyed by NHL 2002's humorous color commentary, but as with most other features in the game, you can turn it off. Without commentary, NHL 2002 is as close as it comes to sitting in a real arena for an NHL game.
NHL 2002 is the deepest, most realistic 3D NHL game on the market. Its graphics are impressive, its depth of gameplay modes is staggering, and the gameplay is predominantly tight. Aside from quirky goalie AI and some default settings that must be adjusted, it will be difficult to find a more realistic game of hockey on any system for the next year. If you're a PlayStation 2-owning hockey fan, NHL 2002 is a must-buy. Fans of sports video games in general would also do well to give it a strong look.