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NHL 2002 (PS2) Review

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: September 2001

Background Info
NHL 2002
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PS2 Screens (2)

A lot like NBA Live 2001 for the PS2, EA Sports' NHL 2001 was somewhat of a disappointment. With major problems in the framerate, the AI and a lack of a franchise mode, the game really paled in comparison to EA Sports' major PS2 success that year, Madden 2001. Fortunately, EA Sports rectified these problems and the result is a solid arcade game of hockey that most PS2 hockey fans will want to own.

Presentation/Graphics : 85
When the puck drops, the very first thing you realize about the graphics is that the annoying slowdown that plagued last year's version is completely gone--NHL 2002's framerate is as smooth as silk, regardless of what speed setting you have the game on. This doesn't just have aesthetic ramifications: a game's framerate is one area where graphics do directly affect the gameplay, and NHL 2002's smooth visuals mean that the game flows sweetly from end to end, as opposed to last year's version where it would stutter once you approached center ice.

The player models appear to have had a few more polygons added, but they're still not as detailed as the players in Madden 2002. Work has also been done on the player faces to make them look more lifelike - though you can only really see the faces during replays and the in-game cut-scenes. A few new animations have been added, mostly for the checking and the pass receptions. The goalies also have some new save animations, but there are still far too many instances where you see the puck 'magically' stick to the goalie or gravitate towards him when he should have to bend down and trap it. The arenas are the same as in NHL 2001; however, EA Sports have greatly improved the crowd graphics and during stoppages of play you often see close-ups up of the new 3D crowd models which adds a lot to the atmosphere.

The other major area of graphical enhancement from NHL 2001, aside from the improved framerate, comes in the form of the TV-style presentation. Prior to the first puck-drop there's an enhanced version of last year's pre-game cut-scenes, which follows the players as they step out onto the ice and while they're warming up. During the game, another new feature, the EA Sports 'Game Story' comes into play. The 'Game Story' pops up every once in a while during stoppages of play, and basically shows replays of important and/or spectacular plays from earlier in the same game. It's a good idea, and while it's nice to see Bondra's game-tying goal at the beginning of overtime, there are some instances were it doesn't work as well and you end up seeing the opposition's lone goal during a 5-1 thrashing.

Another part of the TV-style presentation that doesn't work well at all is the instant replays of crushing checks and great saves during the action! It really interrupts the flow of the game when you have a shot on net, and suddenly you're treated to a cut-scene showing multiple replays of the goalie's save, and just as suddenly you're whisked right back to the action. Even when you watch a game on TV and a great save is made you see the replay during the next stoppage of play, not immediately afterwards. Equally annoying is the much-hyped 'Breakaway Cam'--basically when you're in on a breakaway, the camera zooms in right behind the player, goes to letterbox format, the crowd sounds fade out and you hear your player's heartbeat speeding up as you approach the net. It may sound cool, but gameplay-wise it's absolutely useless. Not only does the close-up view make breakaways harder since your player covers most of the view of the net, when you have a breakaway down-screen the breakaway cam sets up behind the net so you can't see anything. Can you say useless gimmick? Thankfully, the Breakaway Cam and the in-game instant replays can be turned off completely.

Presentation/Audio : 85
If you've read our review of the PC version of NHL 2002, you'll know that one of the strangest changes to EA Sports' hockey title is the addition of Don Taylor's comedic antics in the broadcast booth. While Jim Hughson returns as the play-by-play commentator, Taylor is simply there for comic relief, cracking jokes throughout the entire game and often even Hughson joins in on the action. While I found the pair to make a very funny duo (even after a month of listening to them in the PC and PS2 versions they haven't got annoying), I still don't understand exactly why EA Sports chose to go this route with the commentary in a game that's obviously trying to be a simulation.

The crowds in NHL 2002 seem to be a lot more into the game than last year, and they respond to the actions on the ice appropriately, jeering at home when you let in a goal at the end of the period and really pumping up the volume when you're on the offensive. The in-game sound effects are generally fine; however, the body checks still sound like sonic booms, and it's interesting to note that there's only one sample of the sound of the puck clanging off the post! So regardless of whether the puck gently slides at 2mph and nicks the bottom of the post, or it flashes off the iron at 100mph, the clang still sounds the same. Not a major problem, but weird nonetheless. The game also features music by the Bare Naked Ladies, Sum 41, Treble Charger and several other bands.

Interface/Options : 82
The main modes of play in NHL 2002 are: Play Now (exhibition), Season, Tournament, Shootout and Playoff. The biggest news has to be that the Season mode isn't just a single season, but a franchise mode where you can play 10 consecutive seasons. The Season mode is practically identical to the one in the PC version, and while it does add a lot more replay value, it's also subject to the same shortcomings.

Firstly, player negotiations when signing free-agents are far too simplistic; you simply prioritize your choices of free-agents, and each free-agent has a smiley (or not-so-smiley) face indicator showing whether or not they want to go to your team. I realize that there's no salary cap in the NHL, but surely player wages and the length of contracts should be included. For example, after my first season I was able to sign both Sergei Fedorov and Joe Niewendyk for the Ottawa Senators. In real life there's no way a small market team like the Sens would be able to afford Fedorov's salary. One way of getting around this would be to assign starting budgets for each team based on their real-life payrolls (so the New York Rangers would be loaded, and the Calgary Flames would be practically broke….though still have enough to spend their Alberta lottery fund on Bob Boughner), and the payroll increases depending upon how you do in the regular season and the playoffs. So if I finished 4th in the Eastern Conference and got to the second round of the playoffs, the Sens' available payroll would increase, while if I instead finished 10th and missed the post season the available payroll would shrink and I might have to trade away a player with a big contract.

Another problem with the Season mode is the wacky off-season antics, specifically with player retirements and free-agency. Again, after my first season several players retired, most notably Robert Reichel and Brett Hull (despite both signing mutli-year deals prior to this season) and also 23-year-old Chris Phillips! Also entering free-agency after the 2001/2002 season was Michael Renberg (who again signed a mutli-year contract this year), and the problems with NHL 2002's season mode can be summed up by the fact that Mario Lemieux became a free-agent and signed with the Montreal Canadiens…… I'm not expecting East Side Hockey Manager type options, but at least as much depth as the Season/Franchise mode in Madden 2002. I also found that you couldn't include draft picks as leverage in trades like you can in the PC version.

The menus are much more polished than those in the PC incarnation, and the extensive gameplay sliders allow you to tweak the game to your liking. There are also three default difficulty settings and goalie and player boost sliders. Also new to NHL 2002 are NHL Cards which work just like Madden Cards whereby you earn points for completing different in-game challenges (e.g. scoring an overtime goal) and you then use those points to buy cards. However, most of the 130 or so cards I've bought so far (there are 189 in total) have been player or cheat cards rather than cars which unlock classic teams or retired greats, and I don't think any classic teams/players are available.

The rosters aren't very up to date with Lindros still with the Flyers, Andreychuk still with Buffalo, Brett Hull lining up for the Stars, and there are also hardly any rookies present (no Kovalchuk, Dopita, Heatley etc.). The team ratings are also a little odd with Pittsburgh rated 78/100, while Nashville and Anaheim are both rated 81/100!

Gameplay : 85
I could just cut and paste the gameplay section from the PC review of NHL 2002 because the game plays exactly the same; however, while NHL 2002 was a minor upgrade from NHL 2001 for PC gamers, for PS2 owners the NHL 2002 is significant improvement from last year's mediocre title. As I mentioned before, the most noticeable improvement is the smooth framerate which means you don't have to take Dramamine every time you play the game like you did with last year's version. Another improvement along those lines is the much smoother skating model, and when you turn down the speed to a realistic level it doesn't feel like you're skating in cold molasses.

The control has been improved with the manual deke (hold down the deke button and you can stickhandle the puck from side to side – allows you to do some sweet moves when one on one with the goalie), saucer passes (hold down the pass button to put a bit of air under the pass), and improved puck control - all these are the same as in the PC version. Another improvement is the ability to score more goals from just inside the blue-line and this means that defensemen with big shots like MacInnis, Blake or Pronger are much bigger scoring threats (especially on the power play) than they were before. The defensive AI has also been improved over last year's version (PS2) and you can't slaughter the CPU 10-1 like you could last year.

Make no mistake though, despite the improvements and no matter how you tweak the sliders, NHL 2002 is still fundamentally an arcade-style hockey game. It's still end to end, you still out-shoot, out-hit and out-chance the CPU, even on the hardest difficulty setting. The goalies still manage to stop nine out of ten 2 on 1 chances, but will let in slappers from the blue line. They also still stay far too deep in their nets on breakaways and hardly move to the top of their crease. There are many other unrealistic aspects to the gameplay, and if you were expecting NHL 2002 to meet your hockey sim needs you'll be disappointed. That said, however, NHL 2002 is still easily the most realistic representation of hockey available on the PS2, and most importantly it's still a lot of fun to play. The action is fast and furious, the manual deke makes breakaways more exciting, and improved scoring from the blue-line means that there's a greater variety of goals that can be scored.

Replay Value : 83
Despite the lack of depth in the Season/Franchise mode compared to Madden, there's still enough in NHL 2002 to keep you playing for quite a while. Starting off with a really poor team on the Hard difficulty setting and trying to improve by building through the draft (as the player stats improve year after year) can be quite a challenge. Despite the fact that it's not a true simulation of the sport the gameplay is addictive and fun, and despite playing several seasons on both the PC and PS2 I still find the game very enjoyable, and of course, playing against a friend is a blast.

Overall : 85
All in all, NHL 2002 is really a must buy for most PS2 hockey fans. It's not the answer to your hockey simulation prayers, but it's a solid arcade game that's fun, addictive, and a major improvement over last year's version in terms of both the gameplay and the in-game features.

By: Lavan Chandran 10/26/01

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