NHL 2002 Preview

We visited EA to check out its latest pucks game for the PlayStation 2, NHL 2002. Find out how the game plays and get the full details on all the new modes in our hands-on report.

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It's just a little over a month after E3, and EA Sports has already bestowed an updated version of NHL 2002 for the PlayStation 2 upon the press. Not that the version on display at E3 was lacking, but this new version showcases many of the features that were only talked about at E3. EA's focus in developing NHL this year is gameplay, as EA undoubtedly believes it already has a winner in the graphics department after watching the competition fall flat over the previous year.

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There will be six gameplay modes included in the final version of NHL 2002, but currently there are just five. You can play a head-to-head exhibition game, or you can let the computer choose teams for you and play a quick game. There is a season mode that can be adjusted in just about any imaginable way, as well as a tournament mode for up to 16 competitors. If you're feeling lazy, you can always cut to the chase and jump right into the playoffs or practice your breakaway skills in the shootout mode. EA is promising a career mode this year for the first time on the PlayStation 2. You'll be able to play 10 consecutive seasons, comb the free-agent market, draft, and work around your veteran players retiring. The create-a-player mode has also undergone some enhancements, including a face builder that allows you to choose from dozens of eyes, noses, and mouths. EA stated that player created characters will be focused on throughout each game's presentation, so you'll build a bond with your alter egos. The card mode that's included in NHL 2002 is the equivalent of the Madden challenge found in EA's football series. You are awarded one of 189 cards for performing specific objectives, like scoring a hat trick, taking 10 shots on goal in a period, and killing penalties, for example. The objectives that must be completed to acquire cards change with the game's four difficulty settings. Cards award you with in-game alterations, like bigheaded players, or godly powers, like the ability to inflict the opposing team with the flu.

The gameplay enhancements included in NHL 2002 are many, and they go well beyond cosmetics. Of particular note is the breakaway cam. If you break in alone on goal, the game will switch into letterbox mode and the sound will be muted save for the thump of the player's heart and the swish of his skates on the ice. In the close-up camera angle, it's easier to see the portions of the net the goaltender has left open. While playing with snipers like Patrik Elias or Mario Lemieux, this gives a decided advantage to the offense. Also new to the franchise is the gamestory presentation. The gamestory follows small subplots in the game like a player going for a hat trick or a goalie on the verge of a shutout. Important replays will be saved in the PlayStation 2's RAM to be replayed when called upon by the announcers. Also new to the NHL franchise this year will be the big hit cam and the big save cam. Again, the camera will jump to letterbox mode and show off the aggression present in the game or some serious leather flashing on the part of a goaltender. The emotion meter plays an integral role in each game for this year's outing--big hits and timely goals can get the crowd pumped up, and in turn, your players will exhibit increased capabilities.

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There are a couple of additions to the control scheme as well. You may now perform saucer passes to lift the puck over a defender's stick or hold the deke button to cruise into the zone in a shooting position while quickly shifting the puck from the forehand to the backhand preparing for the shot. Another new addition to the NHL series is puck control ratings. A player with a strong rating will reach his full puck-handling potential shortly after receiving the puck, while lesser skilled players will take a while to gain their composure. EA Sports is also working on adaptive AI for the goalies that will cause them to get hip to a player using the same shots to score. This feature hasn't been implemented yet, as the same money shots still continually find the back of the net.

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As stated previously, upgrading the graphics for NHL 2002 was EA's secondary concern. The same graphics engine from last year's game has returned, but it's been tweaked slightly to eliminate the slowdown present in last year's outing. Otherwise, NHL 2002 features all the shining moments from NHL 2001. Polygonal coaches still stalk the benches, the first few rows of the crowd are modeled in polygons, and striking facial animations occur regularly. The player models haven't changed much from last year, but their animations have been completely recaptured--players will now kick the puck to their sticks or reach back and snare a pass if it's off target. The checking animations have been completely reworked, and more player interaction has been included so that the short cinemas shown during a stoppage in play appear more lifelike. Another new addition is the ability to map three goal celebrations to three face buttons on the controller to allow for customizable taunting after lighting the lamp. With 700 faces included in the game, all of the NHL's stars are immediately recognizable, and small details like Johan Hedberg's blue moose mask have been included. NHL 2001 was a great looking game last year, and the 2002 iteration looks even better. With more animations, a smoother frame rate, and added features like the breakaway, big hit, and big save cams, NHL 2002's graphics are a slight but definitive improvement on those of its predecessor.

The big problem with sports games is that the commentary often repeats incessantly. Visual Concepts has done a great job of keeping the commentary of its Dreamcast sports games fresh, but EA has fallen short in this regard in the past. Play-by-play announcing is handled once again by the overly dramatic Jim Hughson, but EA has chosen the popular Canadian announcer Don Taylor to handle the color commentary this time around. EA Sports stated that it wanted to inject some vitality into NHL's presentation and therefore snagged Taylor for his reputation as a quick-witted commentator. Taylor constantly cracks jokes and criticizes players, giving the game an arcade feel. Even the public-address announcer cracks silly jokes at the conclusion of each period. The sound effects for shots and checks echo this exaggerated tone--when a big slap shot is let go, the sound of a rocket launching can be heard. There are 45 licensed tracks included in NHL 2002, and they are played at various points throughout the hockey game when the situation dictates. Hockey purists may be turned off by NHL 2002's arcade feel, but they'll be happy to know that sim-related audio aspects like team-specific chants and ambient crowd noise haven't been pulled from the game.

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The next installment in EA Sports' legendary NHL franchise on the PlayStation 2 is looking to be an improvement on all fronts. The dodgy frame rates that plagued last year's game have been cleaned up, there's a career mode that can be played for 10 consecutive seasons, and the gameplay has been further refined through the implementation of several new control techniques. If you're a hockey fan or just a fan of hockey video games, NHL 2002 should be high on your list of games to check out when the puck drops this October.

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