NHL 2K3 may be slightly late to the party, but don't hold that against it. Sega has done an excellent job of adding new features and polishing existing ones to make the game 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 series on the market.
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 for a team. After completing a season, you'll have to adjust your roster by retiring old players, recruiting rookies in the draft, and signing and releasing free agents. It's a mode that's well suited to those looking for deeper gameplay, because eventually you won't recognize half the league (the draft recruits fictional players), forcing you to research the new players' abilities when setting your lines. You don't even have to play the games in the franchise mode--you can simulate every season to see how your decisions rate against the computer's.
There are several other gameplay modes as well. You can play in an exhibition game, a playoff series, a single season, and a tournament. 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 a season, you'll be presented with great statistics. You can even see where you took all your shots in a game to determine what a goalie's weaknesses may be. There is also the new Sega Sports challenge feature, which allows you to play a game and post your stats online to see how you fare against other people in a bunch of different categories. The interface features ESPN logos, and the games are presented as they would be on National Hockey Night on ESPN and ESPN2. This is all aesthetics, of course, but it's still a nice touch that helps immerse you in the game.
The game itself will be as easy or as difficult as you want it. There's a huge list of parameters you can adjust before hitting the ice. There are five difficulty settings that are tiered nicely. The rookie setting lets a newcomer score goals easily 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 from its competitors. The AI seems fully aware of what is occurring in the rink. And even though you'll be able to easily set up shots because of this, the goalie is adept at stopping most of your well-executed plays. It builds up such a tension that when you do finally score, you'll cheer and taunt your friend or TV. Another great aspect of the AI is the fact 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 work to chase pucks down and will even grab pucks out of the air and drop them to the ice. There is one noticeable AI flaw in the game. If you skate behind the opponent's goal with the puck, more often than not the defenders will get caught in the goalposts. You can just sit behind the net the entire game like this, and if you're so inclined, it allows you to run out the clock when you're ahead or wait out a shorthanded situation.
The rules of hockey are also done well in the game. Unlike in NHL 2003, where you'd have problems with your team going offside, the AI in NHL 2K3 rarely does so unless you force it to. Also, you'll find that penalties are strictly enforced if you have them set to maximum. You'll find this creates 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 way of the puck and the players, and you can even check the goalie, which results in a charging call.
The gameplay will change depending on which control setting you use. The basic control scheme lets you learn the basics of the game like passing, shooting, and body checking. You'll likely find this scheme to be too limited as you get the hang of the game, especially on the harder difficulties, where the computer uses advanced maneuvers against you such as pinning. The advanced controls let you pin a player against the boards, poke-check, hook, and more. Fights are handled somewhat better than in competing hockey games, but they're still hokey and 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 directional pad and right trigger. You can also change lines on the ice without having to pause the game using the directional pad. These shortcuts 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, and the animations are also lacking in NHL 2K3, especially in the cutscenes. At least there is a good selection of camera angles. Additionally, the sound is rather dull compared with that of 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. The commentary is actually pretty good, and it shouldn't get too repetitive.
The biggest difference between the GameCube version and the Xbox version is the GameCube version's lack of online multiplayer support. While you can play a multiplayer game with up to four people on one GameCube, there is unfortunately no online support. That's disappointing for those hockey fans looking to challenge others far from home, but then again, the GameCube hasn't gained much ground where online gaming is concerned. At any rate, if you're hoping to play NHL 2K3 online, you should look to the Xbox version instead.
Fans who've been complaining about hockey games being too arcadelike can now rejoice. The GameCube version of NHL 2K3 is hurt somewhat by its lack of online support, but if you don't have an Xbox, then don't let that dissuade you from picking up this otherwise excellent game.