Last year EA Sports surprised a lot of people with NHL 2001. After years of taking an arcade approach to ice hockey, EA Sports finally took a step towards making their hockey series a realistic simulation. Unfortunately, instead of further intensifying the realism of the NHL series, EA Sports seemed to have rested on their laurels with NHL 2002, with the vast majority of the improvements from last year's incarnation being in the presentation department rather than in the gameplay department. The result is an enjoyable hockey title, though one that isn't significantly different than last year's version.
PC Screens (32)
PC Screens (32)
Presentation/Graphics : 85
Last year I gave NHL 2001 a very high score of 97/100 for its graphics, and for good reason, because it was quite simply stunning. By and large, NHL 2002's graphics are very similar to last year's version but with a few enhancements here and there. However, as always with PC gaming, graphical benchmarks are surpassed within a matter of months, and while NHL 2002 is still a very good looking game it's not nearly as stunning as the recently released Madden 2002. The major graphical changes in NHL 2002 come in the form of some newer player and goalie animations, greatly improved crowd animations, and some new miscellaneous graphical features such as the 'Breakaway Cam.'
The player models are practically the same as last year (complete with the ridiculously shiny helmets); however, a few new animations have been added, mostly for the checking and the pass receptions. The goalies also have a few new save animations, but there are still far too many occasions where the puck just gravitates into the goalie's body when he should be catching or going down to smother it. The swift framerate, and the good particle and lighting effects are the same as last year's game. The arenas are also practically the same as last year's version, however EA Sports have done a lot of work on the crowds and after goals and during stoppages of play the camera cuts to close up shots of the crowd to show the new 3D crowd models. In these close-ups the fans have a variety of reactions to the on-ice action from simply getting off their seats and celebrating after a goal is scored, to jeering and leering in disgust, to a fan gleefully showing the puck he caught to the camera after it sailed over the boards.
The only other noticeable graphical 'improvements' from last year have to do with the TV-style presentation. Prior to the opening face-off, you're treated to an enhanced version of last year's pre-game visuals, with more dramatic shots of the players before they step onto the ice and as they take their pre-game warm-up. Adding to the TV-style presentation is the 'Game Story' which shows up during a few stoppages of play each game - basically you're shown replays of spectacular and/or game-breaking plays from earlier in the same game. Sometimes it works well; for example I came back from a 3-goal deficit to tie, and while the commentators talked about the comeback, another replay of the tying goal was shown but from a different angle. However, there are other times where it doesn't work so well; I was beating the Panthers 5-0 with the Senators in the second period, but the 'Game Story' was Roberto Luongo's 'Tremendous Saves' and they showed a replay of one of his stops! While the Game Story is a nice idea, it would have been much more impressive if highlights from games earlier in the season were brought up by the commentators and replays were shown. Likewise, it would be cool to see highlights of other games in the NHL during the intermissions of games to make you feel like you were in a dynamic league.
NHL 2002 also features instant replays of big checks and saves....DURING the action! That's right, you'll be skating along, get pummeled spectacularly and suddenly the game will cut to letterbox format and show you a slow-mo instant replay (or two) of the check and then return to the action. The same thing happens when the goalie makes an impressive save. Needless to say this is very annoying, but thankfully these replays can be turned off (there is, in fact a slider bar, but why anyone would want live gameplay interrupted by replays is beyond me).
Perhaps the most vaunted new graphical feature in NHL 2002 is the new 'Breakaway Cam.' When you get a breakaway, the camera zooms right in behind the player on the break, goes to letterbox/wide-screen format, the crowd sounds fade out and you only hear the player's heart beating faster as he approaches the net. It may sound impressive, but in all honesty this gimmick wore out right after the first time I saw it in action. Like the replays it stops the flow of the game when you have a change of camera angle. It also actually makes breakaways HARDER than they should be since you can't see much of the goal because a large portion of your view of it is taken up by your controlled player's behind! Thankfully, like the other replays during the action, the 'Breakaway Cam' can be turned off.
Presentation/Audio : 85
One area of NHL 2002 that has significantly changed from NHL 2001 is the commentary. Jim Hughson returns as the play-by-play man, however, Bill Clement has been replaced by Don Taylor though I hesitate to call Taylor a color-commentator when he's more like a stand-up comedian! Throughout the entire course of a game Taylor is constantly cracking jokes and making sarcastic comments...even Hughson joins in the banter on occasion. The oddest exchange I heard had to be when Taylor started making funny noises, and Hughson then called a mental institution to get help, all this while you're trying to play a game of hockey - I kid you not. Now both Taylor and Hughson make a very funny and entertaining pair to listen to, but I have absolutely no idea why on earth EA Sports decided to go this route with the commentary.
Even the rink announcer is constantly making jokes; "If you make between $60 - 70,000 a year, I'm very available" and "Those weren't just hotdogs you ate." Again, I must stress that the comedic approach is entertaining and many times I've found myself laughing out loud at the commentators' antics, but much like the 'Breakaway Cam' I really don't see how this style of commentary fits in with a game that's clearly trying to be a simulation.
The crowds in NHL 2002 are lot louder than last year, reacting to almost everything on the ice from hits, to dekes, to spectacular saves. They also start to get quiet, and a few jeers and whistles can be heard when the home team is losing. When momentum changes occur and the home team is down you often hear a few crowd chants too. The on-ice sounds are the same as last year; pretty good for the most part, however the body checks still sound like booming explosions.
Interface/Options : 83
Much like the graphics, the options available in NHL 2002 are almost identical to those available in last year's version. The main modes of play are exactly the same as in last year's game; Play Now (or 'Quick Game' in NHL 2001), Season, Tournament, Shootout, Playoff series and Internet play. As expected all 30 NHL teams are present along with several International teams and four All-Star teams. The extensive gameplay sliders thankfully make a return so that you can customize the gameplay to your liking and there are new sliders for 'Emotion Effect,' 'Fatigue Recovery,' and 'Puck Control.' The import-a-face option has the same problems as last year and it's still not easy to get your face looking as realistic as the ones EA Sports have done. The game also features NHL Cards (similar to the Madden Cards in Madden 2001 & 2002 system but with NHL players) and the obligatory options for the in-game rules as well as sound, display and control settings.
While the plethora of options present in NHL 2002 isn't shabby, it's still very disappointing that the primary gameplay mode, the Season/franchise mode, is a carbon copy of last year's version. Player negotiations and trades are all the exact same as before, as are drafts which still only last two rounds. I think at the very least the player transactions should have been improved to include specific contract figures. EA Sports disappointed in this aspect of the game, there were so many improvements that could have been made and nothing was changed at all. Even the cluttered and ugly interface for the Season mode is the same as in NHL 2001, and you just don't feel as immersed in the Season mode as you do in Madden 2002. I'm not expecting the in-depth management options you'd see in Eastside Hockey Manager, but at the very least there should have been some improvements over last year's version.
The rosters aren't up to date, with Lindros still playing for the Flyers
(chuckle), Peter Forsberg active with the Avalanche, and, unfortunately,
of the top rookies in this year's NHL are present, either. So, if you were
expecting to see Kovalchuk, Piros and even older rookies like Dopita, you'll
have to wait for a roster update. There are also a few issues with the
player ratings; for example, Norris trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom is rated
an 84 but the Ottawa Senators' Wade Redden is an 85! Likewise, Alex Tanguay
is an 81, while playoff disappearing act Daniel Alfredsson is an 83.
Gameplay : 85
Much like the graphics and the options, the gameplay in NHL 2002 is, yes you've guessed it, very much like the gameplay in NHL 2001. After years of unrealistic arcade-style hockey, NHL 2001 was a step in the right direction towards achieving an accurate hockey simulation, but unfortunately NHL 2002's gameplay doesn't really make any further strides towards making EA Sports' NHL series a bona fide hockey simulation; it more or less can be considered a tweaking of the NHL 2001 game engine. There are five areas in which NHL 2002 has improved from its predecessor: manual dekes, saucer passes, puck control, more fluid skating, and more realistic blue line scoring.
The first of the new gameplay features is the manual deke; when skating with the puck if you hold down the deke button you can then use the D-pad to stick-handle the puck from side to side. This is a pretty nifty feature especially when one on one with the goalie and I like the fact that the individual puck control attributes of the players factors into the manual dekes. For example, if you try to manual deke with Pavel Bure the puck will be practically glued to his stick as you move it from side to side, but if you try to manual deke with Lance Pitlick he'll more than likely end up losing possession of the puck.
Another new gameplay feature is the saucer pass; if you hold down the pass button a second or two instead you can put some air under the pass instead of it sliding along the ice. This is pretty useful when you're trying to pass across a defenseman and want to lift the puck over his stick so that he doesn't intercept it.
Puck control has been slightly improved; along with the puck control attributes being factored into the manual deke (as previously mentioned), if you turn down the Puck Control slider the puck can be jarred lose from only minor collisions and this makes the game more realistic as you can't go bumping into defensemen when stickhandling and still expect to have control of the puck. Unfortunately, the downside is that it makes the poke check far too potent a weapon--against the CPU you can pretty much poke check the puck away every time an opposing forward comes close to you, and unfortunately the CPU players never seem to learn their lesson and will continue to try to carry the puck into the zone instead of dumping it in. Furthermore, while puck control is realistic with the manual deke and after collisions, it's still glued to your stick at all other times so you can do 360 spins with Tie Domi all day and not lose the puck. Controlling passes is also pretty much flawless for all players.
The skating in NHL 2002 seems a lot smoother and more fluid than in NHL 2001. In last year's game when you turned down the speed to a realistic level it felt as if your players were skating in cold molasses; now, you can turn down the speed to a life-like gait but the skating still has a realistic fluidity to it much like the skating model in Sega Sports' NHL2K on the Dreamcast.
Finally, while goal-scoring in general is about the same as in NHL 2001 (still a large percentage of rebound goals on the hardest difficulty setting), you're now able to score a reasonable number of goals on powerful slap shots from just inside the blue-line. The main consequence of this is that big defensemen like Chris Pronger and Rob Blake become more potent offensive weapons. In NHL 2001 only speedy offensive-defensemen like Ozolinsh and Niedermayer would get in on the goals because you could rush up the ice with them. Now you can pass the puck back to Pronger or MacInnis and blast a shot on net with a realistic chance of it going in.
Unfortunately, despite these few tweaks and new features, fundamentally NHL 2002 plays the exact same way as NHL 2001 and shares many of its flaws that became apparent after months of play. The AI appears to be the same with far too many breakdowns in the neutral zone, poor line changes and poor positional awareness by defensemen which leads to a ton of breakaways. Of course, to compensate for the numerous breakaways, goalies still consistently come up with extraordinary saves and the same goalies that are vulnerable to hard slap shots from just inside the blue line have no problem stoning you on two on ones and even two on zero rushes. The goalies also still stay too deep in their nets on breakaways and hardly ever venture even to the top of their crease. On the easier difficulty levels a variety of goals can be scored, but when you want a challenge and put it on the hardest difficulty, getting rebound goals becomes the order of the day. You still out shoot the CPU by 20 or more shots per game, while face-offs are still ridiculously easy to win. You also out-hit your opponents in every game, and you can go around pummeling opposing players with Steve Sullivan and Daniel Briere without any problems. The puck physics are still dodgy with pucks still mysteriously gravitating towards goalies and 90mph slap shots that hit defensemen and goalies and in an instant are controlled perfectly. The Momentum Meter has been replaced by the Emotion Meter (same thing, different name) and while it's generally a good idea, the fact that fights play a large part in which way the meter swings means that you have to actually take those silly 'Rock'em-Sock'em' antics seriously. Most importantly of all, it's still just another variation on the tried, tested, and tired 'breakaway-relay' representation of hockey. Sure, you do on the odd occasion have to play dump and chase, but that's only with your team's slowest line and you never have players pinned against the boards or have cycle the puck down low in order to create scoring chances and therefore speed is still the key attribute for players in the game.
Yet, despite all these problems with the game's realism it's still, by and large, the most realistic representation of hockey available, and most importantly it's still fun to play. Even though possession and scoring chances are lop-sided, games are close (thanks to the super-hero goalies) and exciting. Yet, fundamentally the gameplay is nothing you haven't already experienced in NHL 2001. NHL 2002's gameplay gets the same score as NHL 2001 because it's still fun, and I haven't yet played a better hockey game, but bear in mind that I have played one that's just like it--NHL 2001. For that reason, if you hated NHL 2001, it's highly unlikely you'll find the gameplay in this year's version to be to your liking either, and if you've played NHL 2001 to death you're not going to find anything really new in NHL 2002 that makes it a radically new gameplay experience.
Replay Value : 60
Like the gameplay score, the replay value score is pretty subjective too. If you've never played NHL 2001 then this game has a ton of replay value with custom tournaments, international teams, a fairly decent season/franchise mode and online play. However, if you have played NHL 2001 then I don't see too much here that will keep you playing if you're already bored of NHL 2001.
Overall (if you've never played NHL 2001): 85
Overall (if you have played NHL 2001): 75
If you're a hockey fan who's never played NHL 2001 ignore the replay value
score and go out and buy NHL 2002--while it's not a completely accurate
simulation of the sport of ice hockey, it's the most accurate interpretation
around and it's a blast to play. However, if you have played NHL 2001 then
you might want to pass. NHL 2002's gameplay is fundamentally the same as NHL
2001, ditto for the graphics and the options available and I'm not sure if
it's worth shelling out another $40 just for funny commentary and few