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NHL 2001 (PC) Review

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: September 2000

Background Info

PC Screens (12)

Like clockwork, every year EA Sports churns out sequels to their most popular franchises, Fifa, Madden, NBA Live and NHL. While I'm primarily a soccer and racing gamer, the NHL series has always had a place in my heart since the very first games on the Genesis and SNES. Well, almost 10 years have passed and the NHL series is still going strong, but in most recent times many hardcore fans have been disenchanted with the tendency toward arcade style play. Does NHL 2001 buck the trend and move towards a more realistic simulation experience? You'll have to read on to find out!

Presentation/Graphics : 97
As per the norm, EA have once again raised the bar on graphics with this newest installment of the NHL series. The first time you start a game brace yourself; the camera starts focused on the home team players standing in the tunnel waiting to get onto the ice, suddenly the camera swings around as they rush onto the ice, the camera shifts to a low angle, the crowd roars, techno music blares along with laser lights and pyrotechnics! This is one of the most spectacular pre-game sequences I've ever seen. EA Sports' NHL team are now close to an almost perfect TV-like visual experience. The score and player information overlays are excellent, and for the first time in the series the cameras follow the players into the tunnels and towards the dressing rooms at the end of periods. During stoppages of play the camera swings across the crowd, and also focuses on players adjusting equipment and off-the-puck little scuffles between opposing players. All in all, the TV style presentation is awesome, and is one of the many features that sets NHL 2001 apart from most other PC sports games.

As mentioned before, one of the most impressive sequences is the entrance of the players onto the ice. It's here that you first get to see the improvements EA have made to the player models. If you thought the players in last year's version looked good, be prepared to be blown away. The skaters and goalies look incredibly realistic, and you can easily distinguish different body builds. The models are also crisper and cleaner, and EA have worked on the face mapping; the resemblance, for most players, is uncanny.

The animation is also top notch, and EA have done a great job with the motion capture. The only problems are when you miss a big hip-check and the player sticks his butt out, looking like a moron as the forward skates by! The wrist shot is now more pronounced as the shooter often drags the puck back before letting it fly. EA have also added left and right Denis Savard-esque spin moves and these look great. The players also have little icons designating them as either hard hitters or sharpshooters. The goalies also have new animations, the most impressive of which is a Hasek-style dive across the crease.

As in NHL 2000, the arenas look fantastic and feature the requisite banners and jumbotron decals, side board ads and center ice logos. The crowd animations are, in my opinion, the best in the series to date. Although they're simple 2-D animated sprites, they're very effective, especially when you score a goal and you see the animated crowd cheering in the background.

Lighting and particulate effects are brilliant, although a little over the top. The main problem are the players' helmets – they are far too shiny, and look like they're made of polished glass rather than plastic. However, apart from that everything is excellent; ice reflections dull as the periods wear on and the ice becomes more grainy.

Of course, with every great looking PC game come some great system requirements. On my modest P3 450, 128MB Ram, and 32 meg TNT2 card, I had to turn down the details to two thirds of the max, and play at 800x600 to maintain a steady frame-rate.

On the whole, NHL 2001 is another solid effort and continues the series' tradition of graphical excellence.

Presentation/Audio : 85
For commentary EA have decided to stick with Jim Hughson and Bill Clement. Whether that's a good thing or not depends on your personal preference. Personally, I think Jim Hughson is annoying and Bill Clement doesn't say much. I much rather preferred the CBC commentating team of Bob Cole and Harry Neale that were in Sega Sports' NHL 2K for the Dreamcast. Regardless, Jim and Bill do a decent job and their comments generally reflect what's going on during the game.

Crowd effects are the standard fare, nothing too spectacular, but at the same time not too shabby. They cheer goals, boo bad calls and they'll also chime in with the odd chant. The sound effects are pretty good, shots ringing off the post and the sound of skates scraping along the ice are two of my favorites. However, the open-ice hits still have too much “boom,” and if a hit sounded like that in real life I'd expect both the recipient and the donor to have massive internal injuries!

The menu music is much improved, and features a track by Collective Soul. However, the best part of the music is the Ditty Importer that can be downloaded from EA's website. Using this, you can import your favorite mp3's so that they can be used in the game. Best of all, you can specify which tracks you want to be used for the menu screens, stoppages in play, home goals, fights, away penalties, etc.

Interface/Options : 95
First off, before I say anything else, the most incredibly impressive aspect of NHL2K's options are the numerous Gameplay AI options. These consist of adjustable slider bars that let you customize Game Speed, Speed Burst Length, Speed Burst %, Fighting, Penalties, Fatigue, Aggression, Injuries, Hitting Power, Fall Recovery, Shot Blocking, Pass Interceptions, Pass Accuracy, Pass Speed, Shot Accuracy, Puck Elasticity, Puck Friction, Retain Puck, Player Boost, Goalie Boost and Goalie Rebounds. Most of these sliders go from 0-7, and consequently you can completely adjust most aspects of the gameplay to your liking, and I'll talk more about this a bit later.

The main modes of play are Quick Game, Tournament, Playoff Series, Shoot Out, Season, and Internet Play. Quick Game is an exhibition game where you can select from all the 30 NHL Teams (including Minnesota and Columbus), 20 International Teams, World, Eastern, Western and North American All-Stars. The game also features selectable classic jerseys for most of the teams, so you can choose the old Nordiques jersey for the Avalanche! Tournament mode allows you to create your own custom competition with up to 16 teams, while Playoff Series allows you to bypass the regular season and jump right into the playoffs and Shoot Out is a best-of-five international style shootout.

The main feature of the game for most players will be the Season/Franchise mode that allows you to play 15 consecutive seasons with more in-depth features such as dynamic trades, rookie drafts at the beginning of each season, free agent signings and player retirements. The rosters aren't completely up to date, for example Tom Barasso is still in Ottawa, however EA plans to release monthly roster updates on their website. NHL 2001 also features online gaming and EA Sports' site works much in the same way as Microsoft's Gaming Zone.

There are, of course, the obligatory general options for in-game rules as well as display, sound, and control settings. The import a face option has been slightly improved, but it's still too hard to get your face looking as realistic as the ones EA have done. The customizable team and jersey feature is incredibly cool, and you can even import .bmp and .jpg files to use as logos.

Gameplay : 85
Despite the high sales figures and the high scores from more mainstream sites, EA Sports' NHL series has, for most hardcore hockey fans, been in a state of limbo for the past few years. NHL 98 was unrealistically fast, NHL 99 was too slow and had super goalies and NHL 2000 was in the middle. So is NHL 2001 “just right”? In a word, no. It's close, there's still some work to be done, but overall NHL 2001 is the most realistic videogame representation of hockey available.

The programmers deserve major kudos for the various slider bars, it's here where you can make NHL 2001 whatever you want. If you want an NHL 98-like arcade experience then turn up the various speed and checking settings and head out onto the ice. But if you're like me and have been yearning for some real NHL hockey, then do the opposite of the aforementioned settings, as well as turn off pass accuracy and interceptions, fatigue, and decrease shot accuracy. It's when you do all of the above that the game really starts to resemble real hockey. With speed burst length and percentage down you don't fly from one end to another, and the speed difference between players isn't as exaggerated as it has been in recent years. Increasing pass interceptions and turning off pass accuracy makes interceptions and icings occur at a realistic rate. Turning up injures and turning down hitting power and fall recovery means that you can't skate around like a one man wrecking crew and it also makes your decision to body check more important, as sometimes a big hit can leave your defense exposed.

Goal scoring has been changed, and you can now score many more goals from the point with traffic in front of the net. On the Pro setting, tipped and deflected point shots go in at a reasonable rate. You can also score more goals by using the defenseman as a screen.

The biggest difference you'll notice between other incarnations of the series is not the scoring or the pace of the game, it's the computer AI. Gone are the days when you could freely waltz around the offensive zone. Now if you venture past the opposition's blue line with your head down you're likely to be picking up your teeth from the floor! The computer defensive forechecking is great and the defensive coverage doesn't just apply to the man with the puck. Now anyone moving to the net in an even rush situation is going to be smothered. Offensive AI is equally impressive--teams set up screens in front of the goalie on the powerplay, crash the net, and play the odd man rushes to perfection. Overall you have to play a pretty realistic game of hockey to succeed: that means dumping the puck, taking advantage of odd man rushes, and not rushing up with defensemen too often.

Statistics are also very realistic and with realistic settings all games had realistic shot totals, and the computer simulated stats in the season are very realistic. The Season mode is very engaging, and you'll be juggling your lines as your players go down with injuries, and the rookie draft is great. The menu options are all very friendly, giving you quick and easy access to the latest goings on in the NHL from trades to stats to injury reports. Coaching strategies are varied and allow you to select different styles and degrees of pressure for offense and defense.

My online experiences have been mixed. I found locating opponents and connecting was no problem, but lag definitely was. I've had several games where I've been lagged to unplayability. However, when you do get a good connection online play is great. Hopefully, EA will come out with some patches to optimize the netcode in the coming months.

Well that was the good, what's the bad then? Well first off while the speed setting affects all skaters it doesn't affect goalies as much, so trying to fake out the goalie while he can move twice as fast as you is quite frustrating. It also doesn't help that, despite the improved AI and scoring, the goalies are still too darn good. They stop far too many slap shots from the slot. Take ten 100+ mph shots from 10 feet out, they'll save 9! Then, just to tick you off, the goalies will let in floaters! Another problem with breakaways is that the goalies never come out of their nets, so you can never really deke around a goalie. The goalies are all the “stay at home” type, and when you have a breakaway against Hasek and he stays in his net, you know something's wrong.

There are also still too many breakaways and odd-man rushes. Of course, even on the odd-man rush the goalie will often save the shot even though he's out of position. The real heart of the problem is in the computer's AI. Now I know I said that the AI is the best in the series, and it is, it's very impressive – but only when you enter the defensive zone or when the computer is on offense. In the neutral zone, where most turnovers and odd-man rushes originate, they're morons. So to compensate for the defensive lapses, the programmers made the goalies supermen. Also, while the deke move doesn't work that often, the 'Savardian' spin moves work about 60% of the time, and it looks ridiculous when you have Marty McSorley skating into the offensive zone and doing 360 spins!

Another problem is the new Momentum Meter. This meter responds to actions such as hits, saves and goals, and when a particular team has the momentum meter swing to maximum in its favor its players have boosted attributes. I'm not sold. I really don't like the way the meter allocates points, as it seems to rate hits, saves and fights as more momentum swinging than goals or shots. Speaking of fights, NHL 2001 features [b]the worst[/b] fights in the series; they are so bad they'll make you laugh out loud.

There are also problems with the Season mode, too. While the stats are spot on, some of the player movements are downright nutty! For example, at the end of the 2000/2001 season in my game, Theo Fleury retired, as did Shayne Corson. Even more crazy was that Dallas decided not to resign Mike Modano and he went to Nashville!

Now I know I've dogged the game for the last few paragraphs, but I think these things need to be said. NHL 2001 is by no means the perfect product, and hockey fans are still waiting for their NFL 2K1 or their ISS Pro Evolution – a videogame that accurately reflects their sport. Regardless, NHL 2001 is still a very good game and it's the best hockey game I've every played, but it still needs some work to be truly great. It's not incredibly realistic, but it's still incredibly fun, and I guess that's the bottom line.

Replay Value : 90
The season mode will occupy most gamers for a long period of time, despite the quirky roster movements. The seasons are engrossing as are the trades, rookie drafts and free agent signings. I also think once EA optimize their netcode and fix the occasional crashes, most gamers will be spending a lot of time online. All in all, NHL 2001 is great value for money and is packed with replay value.

Overall : 87
Due to some logistics problems, which were no one's fault in particular, we encountered several unusual difficulties in getting a copy of the game ready for review. Finally, after hours and days of frustration, we got our hands on the commercial release and it worked like a charm. Was all the hassle worth it worth it? I'd like to think so. I enjoyed (and am still enjoying) NHL 2001. I think it's the best NHL game in the series, and definitely the most realistic. It's not yet great, but I think more of a stepping stone toward greatness, and the NHL series seems to be finally moving in the right direction. I'm eagerly awaiting NHL 2002, but that's another year away, so in the meantime I'll see you online at the NHL 2001 lobby!

By: Lavan Chandran 10/11/00

Related Link: NHL 2001 PSX Review

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