NHL 2002 looks spectacular. The players look incredible both during play and cut scenes. Depending on the camera, the amount of detail changes. From the default camera the players' uniforms can be discerned with ease. Logos and numbers are both legible, and skates and helmet visors are detailed enough to provide for a realistic experience. Likewise, the animations are all well done, particularly the goalie animations. Goalies split their legs and lift their gloves high to make incredible saves and effectively use their stick. On defense, hits laid against an opponent vary with the amount of speed your player is carrying. Big body checks are animated well with an offensive player getting flattened on the ice. A particularly good animation is the poke check sequence with its use of outstretched sticks.
The stadiums are likewise well done. The logos on the ice are smooth, and the ice reflects the players exactly. If there's a fault it's the lack of impressions left on the ice from skates. After a period is over it doesn't even look like the ice surface has been skated on. To date, NHL2K on the Dreamcast has had the best looking ice effects on a console. When the action breaks away from the game for a crowd scene, an enthusiastic crowd with plenty of detail cheers on.
The only significant graphical problem with the game is the lack of a decent camera. I like the default camera for its graphical presence. The problem is that it provides too narrow a field of view. When skating down the ice you can only see about a quarter or third of the width of the ice. This makes for loads of blind passes to your players. The game has a few wider perspectives, but those views are either too distant or at too great an angle. Even the pressbox view, which shows the action left to right, is too far to fully enjoy the game. The game could seriously use a custom camera that allows you to set angle, height, and zoom.
Another feature that can be an annoyance is the zoom camera for big hits and saves. If the zoom level is set to the maximum and your goalie makes a tremendous save, the camera may show a slow motion animation of the play. Immediately after the save or deflection is made, the camera zooms out to its original state and the action continues. The rapid change can be disorienting, and more times than not I've lost track of the puck due to this feature. Fortunately it can be turned off. Another item that I like more is the breakaway camera. When on a chance breakaway, the camera changes tint, the action slows a bit, and you follow your player from ice level as we makes his way to the net. After a shot on goal the camera zooms back out. All the while you can hear the thump thump thump of your player's heart which adds to the environment.
Presentation/Audio : 90
An area I particularly like about NHL 2002 is the audio. The game divorces itself from the serious nature of hockey and instead goes for a more comedic approach to the game, similar to last year's version on various platforms or EA's former Rock the Rink game. Jim Hughson does the play-by-play and Don Taylor adds color commentary. Both are on top of their game, as the play-by-play is always on top of the action, and the color commentary is diverse. Rarely do you hear the same goofy comments made in the same game.
Away from the presentation, the less audible hockey sounds are well done though not as unique. The sound of the puck hitting the pipes is perfect as is the sound of players hitting the boards (though there's not enough of this). The aforementioned breakaway action is great with the thumping heart that adds to the drama of the breakaway. The hockey sounds do get muted against the aggressive commentary. However, during breaks in the play, the stadium music hits it hard. This adds to the atmosphere and makes the hockey experience more lifelike.
Interface/Options : 87
The back of the box and instructions for NHL 2002 suggest the inclusion of a career mode. This mode allows up to 10 seasons. I almost missed this feature in the game due to a poorly implemented menu system. The season I selected (season lengths are 29, 58, or 82 games) was too long and I was looking for a way to simulate games. The method of simulating a game is cumbersome at best. Finally after much effort I was able to get to the end of the season. Once there, the front office moves were as limited as they are during season play (player trades or creating a new player). After a season a list of retiring players was given before the short draft. After that, you could sign free agents. However, without a team budget to work with, it seemed like a hit or miss proposition. During the season, stat tracking is implemented. Stats, which are realistic when using 10-minute periods, are collected on a player and team-wise basis. If you don't want to play an entire season, the playoff and tournament modes offer shortened season-type play, and the quick game option gets you to the ice fast. There's also a shootout mode for penalty shot fans.
Fortunately the rest of the game is full of options, most of them centered around the game physics. The game settings include things like clock speed (5-, 10-, 15-, or 20-minute periods), difficulty level, penalty-calling frequency, fighting frequency, and various rules (icing, two-line passes, and offsides), and injuries. Injuries don't occur with the frequency I'd like, but by setting periods to 10 minutes in length you usually get accurate hockey stats. There are also no fewer than a couple dozen coaching strategies that can be applied to your team. Once you get to the rink, you can set various parameters governing the puck. The elasticity and rebound of the puck can be set along with the speed with which the puck moves across the ice. You can even set player attributes such as fatigue and recovery. In reality, you can tune the game to your exact specifications with the wide assortment of options. The default values actually make for a fun hockey game.
Like Madden, NHL 2002 implements a trading card system. Called NHL Cards, you earn points for various tasks completed during your games. However, unlike Madden, once you complete a task it's off the table as far as earning additional points. This makes collecting all the player cards a more difficult task. And actually this hurts this area of the game. I've pretty much forgotten about collecting the cards since the more difficult objectives are rarely met by my team.
Gameplay : 95
NHL 2002 is a game that will play the way you want it to. While much of the action is up and down the ice, you can force the tempo when in your opponent's zone. If you want to play up and down with nothing but one-timers, it's easy to do. However, you can slow the game down and make passes deep in your opponent's zone if you're patient. When you find an open man to pass to, the AI defense plays a somewhat passive defense (leaning more towards a penalty killing line than an aggressive defense). And during penalty killing situations, the AI defense plays a great hunker-down defense. Of course, the constant transitions to either team's zone means there is little in the way of neutral zone play.
One area where the game excels is with the poke check game. There are various types of poke checks in the game, and the success of the check depends on your position relative to your opponent. The sequence of skating backwards in front of your opponent is done remarkably well. When behind a player, many times the poke check is ineffective as you simply can't get your stick to the puck. The game also utilizes momentum to determine the severity of a body check. You won't be able to skate at the same speed and direction of your opponent and bump him off the puck. But if you meet him at the line you can throw a wicked hit on him and watch the puck slide away.
Your team's play is a mixed bag. On offense your teammates find the open slots and make smart moves down the ice. However, at times you may make a pass to an open man that isn't completed since he's making a line change. On defense, your player's awareness takes a dip. I've seen my players standing around until the puck is already past them. This leads to more than expected breakaway opportunities for the CPU team.
During a game the scores are kept to realistic values as are the frequency with which penalties are called. A typical game will have a mix of minor and major penalties. The most troublesome area continues to be fighting. Fighting is poorly implemented due to the fast action hits either player inflicts. The players attack each other as if they've had a sugar overload. The fighting pace is completely unrealistic, and I've gotten to the point where I don't care one bit about the fights. Still, the game is a blast to play. There are certain aspects of an arcade title in the game as well as sim influences. The result is a game that is enjoyable to play.
Replay Value : 95
The only other hockey title out on the Xbox currently is NHL Hitz. While a decent game, it lacks the depth of NHL 2002, and NHL 2002 can be played as an arcade title just like Hitz. Yet NHL 2002 also can be approached from a sim viewpoint. This dual-use mode makes NHL 2002 a fun play, and I've enjoyed every game I've played (though my fingers haven't been too happy with the Xbox controller). The game is pleasing to the eye, and the atmosphere set up by the sound is great. Throw in a pretty solid AI and you've got a nice hockey title.
Overall : 92
The NHL series has been a roller coaster franchise. The past few years have been a downer for the series. But NHL 2002 returns the title to its former glory. The graphics (though EA definitely needs to work on better camera angles in future releases) and sound provide a nice hockey atmosphere, but the key to the game is the balance of arcade and sim elements of the gameplay. The game is flat out fun to play, which is what counts the most.