Most gamers wait with bated breath for the latest, greatest shooters and real-time strategy games every fall - but not me. Sure, I love a good deathmatch as much as the next guy, but when September rolls around, the one game I want to play more than any other is hockey. I've been devoted to EA Sports' NHL Hockey series since I played the original on my old Sega Genesis. Of course, as a hard-core hockey fan I'm also one of the series' harshest critics, eternally hoping that EA will make the game more realistic and challenging. Thankfully, this year EA Sports came closer than ever to achieving the perfect balance between realistic gameplay and graphic appeal. Sure, NHL 2000 has its flaws, but most of these are overshadowed by the game's many strengths. Simply put, NHL 2000 is virtual hockey at its finest.
At first glance, NHL 2000 looks like the same game EA shipped last year, with a handful of visual enhancements. Rest assured that this is not the case: Among the many under-the-hood changes, EA Sports finally changed the way the game clock works. Now, instead of offering 5-, 10-, or 20-minute periods, the game always simulates a 20-minute period with an acceleration modifier that lets it last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes of real time. This has two significant results: First, the game now computes goalies' statistics correctly. Second, the computer-simulated league games now generate realistic scores and statistics, instead of the low-scoring tallies of previous versions. This means that your league leader boards will now include player stats from computer-controlled teams, instead of just those from your own high-scoring team.
More obvious changes to NHL 2000 include even more lifelike computer-controlled players and strategies, which are built upon NHL 99's marked AI improvements. While it may not be as true to life as Radical's PowerPlay series, the gameplay in NHL 2000 is by far the most realistic of any game in the series. This time, AI players forecheck more aggressively and get back into a good defensive position after a turnover. Additionally, players will get caught out of position when they go for an ill-timed body check or steal, opening up more breakaway and odd-man rush opportunities. The game also offers more coaching strategies, including a "crash the net" option. New training scenarios can help you figure out how to skate, shoot, and check as well as hit one-timer shots and give-and-go passes.
Speaking of one-timers, they actually work in NHL 2000. Nothing was more frustrating in NHL 99 than setting up a perfect two-on-one play, dishing the puck to a wide-open winger, and seeing him smash a one-time slap shot into the goalie's chest. This year, if your guy really is in a good position and shoots the puck cleanly, you will score. You'll find that penalty shots (which are a little less common this year) and breakaways are easier to score with as well. You may even tally a goal or two on plain old shots from the point. In fact, the only scoring method that seems to be toned down is deflections, which were way too easy and automated in NHL 99. Deflections aside, however, "super goalies" appear to be a thing of the past, which means that your scoring totals should go way up with NHL 2000. But you won't be the only one scoring.
The computer opponents in NHL 2000 are craftier, quicker, and more skilled than in previous versions. While NHL 99 and its predecessors use a basic "body check/get the puck/shoot" algorithm for AI-controlled teams, NHL 2000 uses more of a "shoot/shoot/shoot" method of challenging you. And though I occasionally got outshot by the computer in NHL 99, I found that I was almost always being outshot and out-checked by the AI in NHL 2000 - usually at a two-to-one ratio in both cases. This is the one area where NHL 2000 remains unrealistic. Shot totals are still ridiculously high, but at least now a more realistic number of those shots will actually go in the net. In fact, the computer scores a lot of goals now - occasionally in a frustrating "that damn AI is cheating" manner. Long-range blue-line shots tend to get past your goalie with alarming frequency, typically before you can even see your goalie on the screen. But this sort of thing happens all the time in real hockey, so it's actually good to see in NHL 2000.
As a result, the game is more difficult than NHL 99 but less frustrating at the same time. True hard-core players will begin to wallop the computer with regularity after 20 to 30 games, even on the hardest difficulty setting, but very few sports games have ever been able to prevent this type of mastery. Also, if you choose to play the game with a bad team (my beloved Islanders, for example), you'll find yourself sorely ill-equipped against AI-controlled powerhouses like Colorado, Dallas, and Detroit.
Of course, you can ditch the real teams altogether and use the game's new (and long overdue) fantasy draft feature. This lets you build a custom team from scratch by drafting against the computer. The draft is flawed - Adam Deadmarsh and Bryan Berard are almost always drafted before Jaromir Jagr, Paul Kariya, and Teemu Selanne - but it does let you customize the gameplay. Similarly, the career mode has been enhanced in NHL 2000 so that you can now draft rookies before each season, while aging players will retire and move on via free agency.
Another significant new feature is the Internet multiplayer support, complete with an EA-maintained lobby system. It's not the slickest online gaming system, but it is convenient for finding opponents. The gameplay can be choppy, but it does work, and the game host can choose client-server or peer-to-peer connections.
But no matter how you play it, NHL 2000 is simply beautiful. New animations for shots, checks, and goalie saves are augmented by the new face-mapping technique that makes every NHL player look exactly like his real-life counterpart. Better yet, you can even import a picture of yourself and have it mapped onto a custom player of your own creation.
The audio effects in NHL 2000 are as good as ever, with excellent lifelike sounds for every body check, shot, and arena noise imaginable. The game even includes a library of prerecorded names so that your custom players can finally get their due during play-by-play and PA announcements. And even though the play-by-play still suffers from the same out-of-sync problems of previous versions, it is considerably more accurate than it was in NHL 99. Also, EA finally brought in decent color commentary talent in the form of ESPN's Bill Clement.
If NHL 2000 deserves to be criticized for anything, it would have to be for the unusually high number of injuries that now take place during an average game. In a single period of my first season game, I lost four players for two to three weeks each, while two guys from the computer team went down. You can turn the injury feature off, but it would be better to use a slider bar for injury frequency, like the penalty and fighting frequency options already in place. The only good thing about the injuries is that they force you to manage your roster, by trading for new talent and juggling lines to bolster an injury-riddled squad.
Also, the game's computer-arbitrated trading system has a flaw that lets you upgrade your team while seriously deteriorating the talent of other squads. Basically, you can trade any player for any other player whose overall skill value is one to three points higher. Using this loophole, I was able to turn the Islanders' Eric Cairns (rated a 56) into Jaromir Jagr (rated a 100) using a sequence of 15 trades. I even spent an hour doing this for the entire Atlanta Thrasher team and created a squad where no player was rated at less than 80. Fortunately, only complete hockey dorks would waste so much time exploiting this problem.
Overall, NHL 2000 is the best hockey game EA Sports has ever produced. Despite the inflated shot totals and the not-quite-perfect draft, career, and trading features, this is as good as it gets in PC hockey games. It's definitely worth the upgrade for NHL 98 and NHL 99 users, and those new to the series will surely find it worth the investment.