The NHL FaceOff series by 989 Studios has a tradition of being lackluster. Poor AI issues mixed in with a dash of mediocre graphics have left the games leagues behind EA's NHL games. With that said, it's rather disappointing to see that nothing has changed in this year's rendition. The sparse good features in the game are vastly outweighed by the generally poor execution of most other elements. So it's advisable for both general enthusiasts and die-hard hockey fans to avoid this game for fear of losing interest in the sport.
NHL FaceOff 2003 offers a good variety of game modes. You can take all the NHL teams, the all-star teams, and a handful of world teams in standard exhibition, playoff, and season modes. There are also shoot-out and practice modes. The latter is quite nice in theory because you can set the number of skaters on the ice and test power-play and penalty-killing strategies. In reality, you probably won't use this mode because you shouldn't be playing this game. There is also a decent franchise mode where you can manage your team's roster between seasons by drafting rookies and signing free agents. While you can set the number of games in the playoffs to 1, 3, 5, or 7 games, you can't shorten the regular season for some reason. Fortunately you can simulate the regular season games, and the outcomes are roughly what you'd expect based on the team's skill level. The game does a good job of keeping statistics as well.
With so many gameplay modes, you'd think that FaceOff would keep you occupied for a while. But that is only true until you recognize the numerous shortcomings in the game. First, the difficulty ratings aren't scaled very well. The rookie setting is true to its name, and the computer players don't put up much of a fight. In fact, you can score a handful of goals in the first couple of minutes, leave the game running, and then come back to find you've still won the match. That's because somehow you still win a large percentage of face-offs without even holding the controller, and the AI skaters will just skate in circles around your player with the puck. The players are much more aggressive in the veteran difficulty and will constantly check and steal the puck from you. It's a big gap in skill level that requires much more practice time than you'll probably be willing to spend on this game.
Despite these challenges, you'll find it easy to score goals. The goalie AI is still bad, and it won't take too much effort to get the puck in the net. Just shooting as much as you can is a viable strategy to win a game. It's almost as if the goalie wasn't told that he wants the fewest number of goals against him in a game. On multiple occasions, we even managed to score against ourselves after a face-off in center ice. You'll have it happen, too: Your center will knock the puck directly behind him, and your goalie will skate off the side of the rink for reasons unknown. It's doubly sad when this happens at the first face-off in a playoff game.
You won't find better AI in the other skaters either. They don't make an effort to scoop up a puck that floats by them, nor do they make a concerted effort to backtrack and get a loose puck. One guy will skate in concentric circles until he runs into the puck, while the other four teammates will just stand there. Your team has no concept of tactics and will often leave the user-controlled player in the offensive zone by himself. Fortunately the puck rebounds off the goalie much more frequently than in a real hockey game, so you can be an effective one-man attacking line.
The controls are simple to grasp and work well enough. Along with standard controls like pass, shoot, and check, you can also perform spin maneuvers. One-timers are easy to set up with just a pass-shoot combo. The players skate unnaturally fast with the speed button, but it does serve to quicken the game's pacing for those not looking for a pure simulation.
There are a couple of additional features that don't redeem the game but that are still notable. You are given the option to change lines after every whistle, so you can manually manage the team's fatigue with ease. When skating with the puck, you can drop it and continue skating for a quick pass to someone behind you. While it doesn't fool the opposing AI players, and your teammates are too dumb for that level of strategy, it is a nice feature, and it can be used in multiplayer games.
The graphics weren't improved in the 2003 edition. The game doesn't look bad, but it doesn't look great either. Player faces don't look too much like their real-life counterparts, and it only gets worse when you see them move. The animations are just terrible compared to those in EA's hockey title. This is only more evident with the in-engine cinematics, where you'll get to see clipping and jarred movement up close. The audio department could have used some hard work as well. The commentators sometimes say something twice about the same play and will often call the wrong plays. They can't even pronounce a few names correctly. The rest of the commentary is fair and doesn't get repetitive.
Overall, NHL FaceOff 2003 is a substandard hockey game. Once again it didn't seem convenient for the developers to address problems that have carried over every year. Everything this game tries to do is done better in other hockey games like EA's NHL series. While NHL 2003 didn't have too many innovations this year, it is still light years ahead of FaceOff in every category. So do yourself a favor and avoid this game.