With the NHL season in full swing, it's a good time for EA Sports to bring its seminal hockey series to the Xbox. Midway has already released its arcade-influenced take on the sport with NHL Hitz 2002, and while it provides an exhilarating experience, it leaves a lot to be desired from the viewpoint of the hockey fundamentalist. EA's NHL series has always represented the pinnacle of hockey simulations, and after a somewhat disappointing next-generation debut on the PlayStation 2 last year, NHL 2002 now features many fixes that will make it appeal to the hard-core hockey set. But if you're looking for vast improvements over the PlayStation 2 iteration of the game, you're bound to be disappointed. Like EA Sports' other games for the Xbox, NHL 2002 is a slightly prettier version of the game that plays just as well as the other versions of the game.
If you like a lot of meat to your hockey games, the NHL series has always been the filet mignon of digitized pucks. However, the NHL series' first iteration for the PlayStation 2 was the exception. With no franchise mode and few frills in general, it succeeded in becoming a solid multiplayer experience, but those looking for depth from single-player modes were forced to retreat back to the PlayStation version of the game. NHL 2002 has an incredibly deep franchise mode that can be played for 10 consecutive seasons. Player statistics are tracked in 18 and 21 different player and team categories, respectively. Career statistics accumulate over 10 years, but many are lost once a player retires. In the season mode, you may draft, surf the free-agent wire, manage a budget, and attempt to compensate for veteran players who retire. Trading players with the computer can be a mundane experience because it will only accept trades that involve players of an equal rating. Even if the team you're attempting to trade with has an abundance of fighters and needs a scorer, it's not smart enough to make this deduction and allow an uneven trade. In addition to the deep season mode, there's exhibition play for up to four players, a tournament mode for up to 16 teams, and a shootout mode to help you hone your breakaway skills. Another new addition to the series this year is an extensive card system similar to the one used in the recent Madden football games. You are awarded points for performing specific tasks while playing, like scoring a hat trick or winning all your team's road playoff games. The points can then be used to purchase the game's 189 cards, some of which can unlock new features within the game. NHL 2002 also includes the ability to create players and then sign them to a team or track in-game developments via the EA game story. While the computer AI used for the franchise mode could use some tweaking, on the whole, NHL 2002 provides more than enough gameplay modes to keep the most die-hard hockey fan content.
Like the gameplay modes in NHL 2002, the amount of control you have over your players has also been greatly improved. You may now perform saucer passes to lift the biscuit over a defender's stick, and the deke controls have been improved so that a player may now compose himself before taking a shot and shift the puck from the forehand to the backhand in an attempt at fooling the goalie. A new variable puck control feature has also been added that ties directly into your player's ability to stay with the puck despite being checked. Players also are designated as snipers, heroes, big hitters, and big shooters. When you use a player at the end of the game and he's rated as a hero, this can often make the difference between mounting a comeback and getting spanked. You may even map different animations to any of the buttons on the Xbox controller for customized after-goal celebrations.
Last year's game had some serious AI issues that made games against the computer a cakewalk. For this year's game, EA has gone in the complete opposite direction where AI is concerned. There are four different difficulty settings, and winning games on anything but the beginner and easy settings is nearly impossible. You can build a three-goal lead going into the third period, only to have it wiped away by three seemingly harmless slap shots by the computer. This is made more confounding by the emotion meter. Once a team has achieved full emotion, almost every shot it takes ends up stretching the twine. It's especially frustrating to be dominating play and not gain any team emotion. Goalies will often misjudge soft, fluttering shots--allowing them to slip over a shoulder into the net. Yet all but the best breakaway shots are stopped without a rebound. This results in games turning into a barrage of slap shots and depletes NHL 2002 of a great deal of the one-on-one elements that have made past installments in the franchise so much fun to play. Fighting has again returned, but the button-mashing skirmishes end so quickly that it's almost laughable. NHL 2002's saving grace is that most of the problems associated with the game in its default state may be remedied by adjusting 10 different gameplay sliders.
NHL 2002 looks good on the PlayStation 2, but it features the fewest visual enhancements of all EA Sports' games for the Xbox. With that said, it's still a visually impressive game of hockey. What brings NHL 2002 to life, or any sports game for that matter, is the animation. Players will kick errant passes to their sticks or readjust their bodies to accept less-than-perfect passes. Player models feature flowing curves, and their faces are animated to make a variety of expressions, but the awkwardly jittery jerseys found in the PlayStation 2 version are present in the Xbox version as well. There are 700 faces included in the game, and while some of the muckers and grinders of the league look eerily similar to their real-world counterparts, some of the more-popular players, like Mario Lemieux, are hard to single out. Like last year's game, NHL 2002 includes all the visual niceties that immerse you into the game. Clipboard-toting coaches bark instructions from the bench, the first few rows of fans are constructed of polygons, and players will talk trash to one another while waiting for the face-off.
This year, a breakaway camera has been instituted--it switches the screen into letterboxed mode when you break in alone on the goalie. The transition from full screen to letterbox takes some adjusting to, but it's easy to get a handle on the mechanic after practicing in the shootout mode. Once the breakaway camera has been mastered, it adds a great deal of drama to the game. The sound becomes muted so that the only audible effects are the players' heartbeats and the sound of their skates cutting into the ice. Similar to the breakaway camera, big save and big hit cameras have also been instituted. But unlike the breakaway camera, these cameras are almost impossible to come to grips with. They both freeze the action to show goalies performing kick saves or players being checked to the ice from a variety of angles. However, it's difficult to judge when the game will return to live play, resulting in many awkward moments. As with the gameplay modes, you can turn off most of the graphical features that interfere with your enjoyment of NHL 2002. The Xbox version of NHL 2002 features a silky frame rate that never falters. Last year's game would regularly slow down when more than 10 players were onscreen at once, but this isn't the case with NHL 2002. It plays with a nice fluidity no matter how much action is taking place onscreen--creating an increased sensation of speed. With the exception of a prettier ice surface and shinier helmets, it's difficult to tell the difference between the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of NHL 2002.
Even in the 16-bit days, the NHL series was no slouch where audio was concerned, and NHL 2002 falls directly in line with this tradition. The overly dramatic Jim Hughson has returned to deliver the play-by-play commentary, and EA Sports has brought in the popular Canadian announcer Don Taylor to handle the color commentary. Taylor constantly cracks jokes, making fun of the players, or even makes comments regarding the game itself, like "Look at those animation routines." Even the public address announcer attempts to be humorous between periods. Repetitive statements from both announcers have been greatly toned down in this year's game, but after a week, most players will be ready to turn off the commentary altogether. The sound effects are a bit exaggerated for a hockey simulation. When a player is checked especially hard, you will hear an explosion, and when firing lethal slap shots, it sounds like a rocket blasting off. Team-specific chants have again returned, and you can hear open players in the slot whistling for the puck. One issue with the sound is that the in-arena organ seems strangely absent at times. If you've ever attended a real NHL game, then you know the role the organ plays in getting the crowd into the game. Hockey purists will likely be annoyed by NHL 2002's humorous color commentary and over-the-top sound effects, but as with most other features in the game, you can turn them off. Without commentary, the sound in NHL 2002 does a great job of making you believe you're at a real NHL game, but there are still some slight improvements to be made.
NHL 2002 is the deepest, most realistic 3D NHL game on the market. Even though its graphics fail to take advantage of the Xbox hardware, its depth of modes is staggering, and the gameplay is predominantly tight. Aside from quirky goalie AI and some default settings that must be adjusted, it will be difficult to find a more realistic game of hockey on any system for the next year. NHL 2002 is the best professional pucks game on the Xbox, and fans of the sport should buy it with confidence. The casual hockey fan would do well to rent both NHL 2002 and NHL Hitz 2002 and see which style of game is more appealing.