NHL 2002 Preview

We hit the ice with a nearly complete build of this year's iteration of EA Sports' NHL game.

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The puck is about to be dropped on another NHL season.
The puck is about to be dropped on another NHL season.

If you liked NHL 2001, chances are that you'll like NHL 2002. A look at a nearly final build of the game reveals that EA Sports has made relatively few changes to its shinny simulation. That shouldn't be surprising information to anyone paying attention, as last year's addition to the long-running series is widely regarded as the best ever produced. Greater emphasis on realism and the incorporation of a suite of AI slider bars that allowed users to customize nearly every aspect of the on-ice action pleased even hard-core hockey fans.

So, for 2002, EA Sports has apparently adopted an "If it ain't broke..." approach. The design team has confined its changes to relatively minor tweaks that enhance the game's atmosphere. Arcade elements and a sense of goofball fun have been thrown in as well, lending NHL 2002 a bit of a Triple Play feel. The latter three words are likely to exasperate serious simulators right off the bat, as the Triple Play series has lately been excoriated for being more of a parody than a depiction of real baseball. Take heart, however. While the changes won't bring a broken-toothed smile to those who learned to skate before they learned to walk, all the additions can be turned off or ignored.

The TV-style presentation has never been better.
The TV-style presentation has never been better.

You'll probably want to keep some of them on, though. A few of the new twists actually add welcome new dimensions to the game. NHL player cards, for starters, should be appreciated by anyone who used to blow his or her allowance on those neat little wax packs with the grout-like gum. Points earned for accomplishing certain feats during gameplay--ranging from basic accomplishments such as winning a game to tougher challenges like beating Team Canada with Japan in tournament mode--can be spent on these card packs. In addition to providing neat pics of your NHL faves, the cards can be used to boost the hero (see below) skill ratings of the players depicted. The performance enhancement is good for one, two, or three periods, depending on the gold, silver, or bronze level of the card.

In addition to these standard player cards, a number of special cards enhance entire teams or unlock goal-scoring celebration moves and Easter eggs. The penalty free card lets you avoid the sin bin for a certain number of periods, while off-target causes your opponent's next 10 shots to miss the net. Swordsman, on the other hand, opens up a stick-twirling scoring animation, and superstar lets you turn a spotlight on the scoring player and cause flash bulbs to go off all over the stands. There are more than 40 of these cards in total, including nine that unlock Easter eggs like sumo hockey and big-head mode. Purists who find all this too "arcadey" can simply disregard these latter options and just try to gather all 189 cards in the virtual book provided. Collecting should provide players with a lot of fun all on its own, as doubles are common and you'll inevitably have to sell some cards for enough points to buy more packs.

Sights and Sounds

Packs of NHL cards provide player and team bonuses.
Packs of NHL cards provide player and team bonuses.

Furthering the arcade attitude is color commentator Don Taylor, who joins longtime play-by-play man Jim Hughson in the booth for the express purpose of livening things up a little. He offers up little beyond one-liners and zingers about gameplay and brings the game down to a more light-hearted level. Consider lines like, "And the goalie is human after all--but I still say Jim is not," and "Welcome to the game that puts the wow into wonderful." It creates an atmosphere almost identical to that provided by Hughson and Buck Martinez in the Triple Play games, although in the case of NHL 2002, it seems to be a bit more irreverent. However, you will have the option of turning the color commentary off, and leave the play-by-play action on.

You'll never completely escape the light-hearted attitude of NHL 2002, though. Even the arena announcer gets in on the act, with smarmy comments such as, "Fans, if you're hit by the puck, make sure to stand up and yell loudly--otherwise we can't point at you and laugh," and, "Fans, did you know that bats only turn left when exiting a cave? I didn't." It's hard to understand why EA Sports felt the desire to actively make fun of both the game and the gamer. Last-minute changes before the release date would be most welcome, at least in this corner.

New broadcast frills include animated fans.
New broadcast frills include animated fans.

The game's visuals have received many subtle touches that refine the broadcast style of gameplay and presentation. A game story turns up every so often to go over the theme of the current contest, complete with a quick recap and some highlights. You might see a few huge saves recounting how a goalie is earning a shutout or a couple of key goals from the evening's most successful sniper. Crowds now feature a few 3D models that can be seen cheering, booing, and dancing in the stands in cutscenes shown during stoppages in play. Some even wear home-team sweaters or "Puckhead" caps. The on-ice cutscenes have been improved with the addition of more face-off jostling, goalie and coach whining, and close-ups of players deemed by the broadcasters to be key figures in the current matchup. Instant replays now occasionally make use of a Matrix-style 360-degree camera that wraps around the puck.

The graphical frills also make a difference while the puck is in play. New animations include players stretching out to corral loose pucks and passes, kicking the puck up from their skates, and making nice saucer passes over opposing sticks. Player models also track the puck as it moves. Zoom in on the action and you'll be able to see their heads and eyes move with the play. Replays of big saves and shots sometimes take place immediately after they occur, pausing the action momentarily. Breakaway drama has been bumped up a notch with a special camera that isolates the player moving in on goal and covers the screen with a bluish tint. Crowd noise dies, the commentators shut up, and all you can hear is the player's heartbeat. Like almost everything else, it can be shut off for players who might find it distracting. It can also make scoring on the breakaway more difficult, particularly if you're shooting at the "south" goal at the time. In these instances, the net blocks much of your view of the play. So when you're close enough to shoot, you can see little more than mesh and the goaltender's back. Either a higher camera angle or ensuring that the breakaway camera defaults to a point of view behind the attacking player would make this option much more palatable.

Final Thoughts

Instant replays take you to all ends of the rink.
Instant replays take you to all ends of the rink.

The actual bread-and-butter gameplay is nearly identical to that of NHL 2001. All 30 NHL teams are included, along with 20 international sides. You can still compete in quick game, season (career), playoff, shootout, and tournament modes. The AI sliders that revolutionized last year's game are also back for more. You can still customize nearly every aspect of how NHL 2002 plays, from major elements like aggression and shot accuracy to minutiae like puck elasticity. Simulation fans will still likely have to do some serious tinkering with the default settings. Unless some major changes are made before the code is finalized, default play will feature lightning-quick computer opponents who move the puck around like a guided pinball. At the moment, however, this can be brought down to human levels with just a few hours' experimentation.

The breakaway cam takes you down to ice level.
The breakaway cam takes you down to ice level.

Players are a bit more well-rounded now. Ratings now include a hero statistic that rates how good of a performer each player is in the clutch. Those with high hero scores, such as Eric Lindros, Mario Lemieux, and Joe Sakic, wear and "H" shield below their names on the ice. You can even designate a special hero line for last-minute heroics. This fifth line shows up as an option in the latter stages of games or during overtime, when somebody needs a big goal. Essentially, this functions as a nice shortcut for NHL gamers accustomed to manually editing their lines for the best shot a tying things up in the waning minutes.

Certain simulation aspects of the game seem to have been tightened up. The new goalie AI, which is said to be "adaptive," appears to make a difference in how the keepers actually perform. You have to vary your attacking style and approach to score consistently in any given game, or your first goal will be your last. Simply moving across the opposition's blue line in the same manner, time and again, will get you shut out, because the goalies seem to learn what to expect. More than 30 games played revealed no gimmie moves and the complete absence of any exploitable flaws. And those red-line floaters that marred NHL 2001 appear to have been fully excised.

Although there is definitely more to NHL 2002 than there is to its predecessor, it remains questionable whether the hardcore fans of last year's game will be interested in this year's additions. After all, NHL 2001 received commercial and critical accolades for embracing real hockey. However, since the changes to this year's version move things in the opposite direction, it's safe to say that EA Sports is aiming to broaden the appeal of its NHL franchise. NHL 2002 is set to release on September 21, and we'll have a full review of the game then.

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