A new hockey season has just started, and that's a cue for the next game in EA Sports' NHL series to hit the shelves. The NHL series has always delivered an unparalleled simulation of hockey on the platforms it's been released on, and each year's version is filled with roster updates and gameplay improvements, though little else. With that said, you're not crazy if you think NHL 2003 looks like last year's version at first glance. There are only a few improvements to help distinguish it from NHL 2002, but these changes further increase the realism of what is considered the best hockey simulation on the market.
The NHL series has always stood out as an outstanding simulation of hockey, both in terms of visual flair and realism. This year's installment has enough options and customizable elements to satisfy gamers of all skill levels and tastes. Those wishing for a fast-paced, action-packed game can turn off all the rules and hop right into a game, while hard-core fans can edit lines and create players to match roster changes during the real hockey season. You'll find a handful of game modes to suit your taste at any given moment. You can simply hop onto the ice in the play now mode, play an international game, play through a playoff series, or start a franchise. The franchise mode will put you in charge of a team for a 10-year span. You can either play every game during a season or simulate each game and take a strictly managerial role. After each season, you have the option to play around with your roster in preparation for next year's season. You can draft new players, sign free agents, make trades with other teams, and retire old players. Statistics are kept throughout the life span of a franchise in several different categories. Disappointingly, the PS2 version has no multiplayer support. Considering that the latest installments in the other EA Sports franchises make use of the PS2's online capabilities, it's a slap in the face that NHL 2003 doesn't support online play.
There are only a couple of new additions to the NHL series this year. The only one to affect the gameplay in a significant manner is the dynamic deke control. Players can now use the right stick to execute manual dekes and skate any which way around an opponent. At first it'll seem like a novelty feature, since you already have a deke button, but you'll find that it allows for some fancy maneuvers on the ice. If you perform a regular deke, your player will skate in a straight line and will sometimes pass right by the net if the deke is performed too late in an attack. A manual deke will let the player twist around to set up a pass or align a shot. It'll take some practice to get the timing down, but it will eventually become a routine in your games.
The gameplay is as solid as ever in this year's iteration. Even though it has some faults, the AI allows for a smooth and realistic game. If you take your center to the right of the rink, your right wing will shift over to cover the position you abandoned. The series' goalie AI has been improved every year, and NHL 2003 is no different. The goalie will make spectacular saves and move out of the net to grab a loose puck that has wandered to your side of the rink if it's safe to do so. You can use a few different kinds of checks when you don't have the puck, and they are useful in varying scenarios. For example, a poke check will knock the puck from an opponent when you are facing him, while a big hit will knock the player off his feet. The computer also does a good job of adapting to the coaching strategies you have selected. In fact, you can set different strategies for each line, depending on the players' abilities and strengths. It's not a necessary element, but it's a good feature for the hard-core player looking to increase the level of realism in the game.
Players are designated as big hitters, snipers, or big shooters. This makes it easy for someone unfamiliar with the game to determine the role of each player on the ice. Instead of just continually shooting at the net hoping for a goal, you can now strategically use your players to increase the odds of getting the puck past the goalie. Some players become heroes near the end of the third period or during playoff games, and as such they'll have a better chance of evening the score with a minute remaining or getting the winning goal in overtime. There are also other gameplay elements that will affect your players' abilities. Players on a hot streak will be faster on the ice and more aggressive, while those on a cold streak will feel sluggish. While these streaks are determined by a player's continued performance in a season, they will be randomly assigned to players in an exhibition game as well.
The card system started in EA's Madden is also featured in NHL 2003. The system allows you to purchase packs of player cards using points earned by performing special tasks like getting a hat trick or racking up five hits in a game with a single player. These player cards can then be used to enhance or weaken that particular player's skills, depending on whether they're on your team or not. It can obviously change a game's outcome against Detroit if you use a gold card on Curtis Joseph to put him on a cold streak for all three periods. You can also get cards that will give a random player the flu, forcing him to sit out of the game, as well as cards that will unlock bonus items and new celebration animations for your players.
Unfortunately, problems from previous installments in the series also crop up in NHL 2003. Sometimes a player will skate right by a puck without scooping it up. This is extremely frustrating for newcomers who haven't mastered the nuances of the control scheme. You'll likely find yourself pulling your hair out as you watch the computer repeatedly grab loose pucks and then take shots at your net because your defenders chose to run into the boards rather than clear the puck. Your AI teammates will also inadvertently go offside sometimes, so you'll have to wait behind the blue line until they decide to come back. It's better just to leave this rule turned off in most cases. Additionally, some of the game's options seem fairly worthless. It has always seemed that the NHL games throw in one obligatory fight every game. NHL 2003 does not seem to vary from this rule of thumb, even if you have put fighting to its maximum. The fights themselves are a ridiculous and easily forgettable button-mashing contest. You'll also find that penalties aren't called very often, even when you have set the penalty meter to its maximum level. Additionally, the computer in the franchise mode occasionally makes some laughable managerial decisions. It will typically reject fair trades you offer, yet will attempt to ask you for a star player in return for a mediocre player.
Graphically, NHL 2003 looks only marginally better than last year's version. That's until you factor in player animations, however. The players look and act more realistic on the ice, and the goalies flop every which way to prevent the opponent from scoring. New animations are included for after play has stopped, and these animations often reflect the current game situation. If you have a player near the goalie when a whistle is blown, the animation may show that player getting checked over the hunched-over body of the goalie, who then stands up and complains to the referee. They all remind you of moments that occur in real hockey games.
The audio meets the high expectations set by previous games in the series. Everything from big hits to blades scraping the ice sounds authentic. The ping after the puck hits the goalie post is as heart-wrenching as it is a real game. Like other recent EA offerings, the game is filled with licensed music. Music by bands such as Jimmy Eat World accompanies the menus and play stoppages. The commentary may get old after a while, though. You'll eventually hear every line by Jim Hughson and Don Taylor, and it gets irritating real fast. If you get bored with the commentators, you can use the player cards to unlock deep and high-pitched versions of the commentators' voices, which helps spice things up.
Ultimately, NHL 2003 is what you expect from EA Sports. It's a great simulation of hockey for all platforms. It looks good and controls just as well. Despite the AI issues that continue to plague the series, NHL 2003 is a fun and realistic hockey game that's easy for both newcomers and die-hard fans to pick up. Players on a budget may want to skip this year's version because it doesn't really add much to the series, but everyone else is encouraged to pick up NHL 2003.