The time has come to officially close out the Sega Dreamcast. I was an early adopter of the hardware, having purchased an import unit well before the US release as well as the domestic unit on the day of launch. What a magnificent run it has been. It's just too bad the hardware was never accepted by the mass market. A long run of great games on the Dreamcast ends with a real gem - NHL 2K2.
Dreamcast hockey fans no doubt know that the only other hockey title available is the two year old NHL 2K. That title left positive impressions, and many considered the title a rather good simulation of hockey. With big shoes to fill, 2K2 comes to us with a revamped game engine and updated graphics.
Presentation/Graphics : 95
When you look at this Dreamcast title, you wonder why more people didn't buy a Dreamcast. Sadly, graphics sells a gaming system. You could have the best games ever made, but if the graphics aren't as good as the competition, you won't make it. For the Dreamcast, the promise of the PS2 just around the corner spelled doom for the little white box. But if you take a look at the graphics you realize this game is on par with the latest hockey games on the market for other consoles. While not the best the Dreamcast has to offer, the graphics are near the top.
Player models are smooth thanks to the anti-aliasing and texture qualities of the Dreamcast. They look better than any PS2 hockey title and approach the quality of the Xbox hockey games. Depending on the view, the detail quality is superb. The action can be viewed from a variety of cameras including up and down, overhead, action, and side to side. Unfortunately you can't customize the camera height or zoom. This can be an issue at times if you want to view all the action from the blue line to the goal.
Player animations are diverse and utilize several frames of motion. You won't find over-the-top spin moves or dekes as the game emphasizes more realistic play. Players struggle to start up ice from a stop, momentum-based hits are natural, and there is enough detail to view hooks, elbows, and crosschecks as they are applied. Goalies spread their legs or reach across the goal if they are out of position.
Finally, the stadiums are second to none. Realistic ice effects are coupled with skate marks on the surface. With time, the blade marks disappear into the ice. Around the boards, name brand advertising is easily recognized. The glass effects are good, but in all the games I've played I have yet to see the glass break. The stadium crowd is animated and fairly detailed.
Presentation/Audio : 75
One area where NHL 2K2 is deficient is with the sound. Simply put, there's just no atmosphere in the game. I can throw in EA's NHL 2002 and instantly my interest in the game is increased with the funny commentary, decent play-by-play, and crowd noise. By contrast, 2K2 has a flat soundstage. The crowd rarely gets into the action, which leaves the sounds of hockey and the voices of the two man booth. The play-by-play is on top of the action, though at times it doesn't give you enough information. Often on face-offs you'll hear “he won the face-off” but don't know if “he” is your player or the opposing team's player. The color commentary is repetitive even within the same game and I quickly tired of it.
Interface/Options : 80
While many aspects of this game stand out, the interface isn't one of them. There is no multi-season franchise mode in the game. Rather, you get the reduced set of single game, season, playoff, and tournament play. Even in season play the management decisions are basic. You can adjust the rosters or make trades, but trades have no logic built in. You can trade a scrub for the best player in the league. Also, there are few options to customize the gameplay. You can adjust the rules of the game, but things like puck elasticity, player strength, and the like are preset. The stat tracking is a mixed bag. While you can compile a list of individual stats, I have yet to find a way to view the scores of the other games in the league. If you head to the schedule screen you can only view your team's results. Likewise, there's no way to see what players in the league are injured on a daily basis. Injuries, for that matter, are broken. Playing as the Red Wings, I lost Chris Chelios for a couple of weeks. He shows up in my lineup as injured, yet he makes it into every game.
However, the game controls are exceptional. There are two control schemes available - basic and advanced. The basic controls play much like every other hockey game on the planet. But if you switch to the advanced controls you'll experience a richer game. The advanced controls utilize the analog triggers in combination with the face buttons. Using various combinations of the buttons and triggers, you can change the shot type, type of evasive move, type of hit, and more.
Gameplay : 85
To be honest, the first few games of NHL 2K2 were not fun. At first I thought the game, while fun, just didn't have it for the long haul. I even played a few games of NHL 2002 on the Xbox and realized just how much I like the mix of arcade and sim action in that title. But I pressed on and gave the game another serious go. I'm glad I did as the game is rewarding. Once you get the handle of the advanced controls, the game offers a deep hockey experience, though there are still a few flaws.
NHL 2K2 differs from games like Hitz or NHL 2002 in that it tries to be a true simulation game. As such, you won't be able to skate up and down the ice trying to score with one-timers. This game is too smart for that. You have to put on your ice hockey hat and think like a real player. This means scoring attempts from the point, off deflections, off screens, and wraparound goals. Success is determined by your ability to be diverse in shot selection. The goalies in the game are too good to be beaten on one timers all day.
Scoring chances are reduced in the game due to the aggressive defensive AI for both your team and the AI team. Both teams hit hard, even in the neutral zone. At first, the amount of hitting can be frustrating. You'll have a hard time keeping your stick on the puck and opt for the slash and dash hockey titles instead. Players body and poke check effectively which results in many turnovers. Unfortunately, the poke checks can be too effective. My opponents' shot totals are dismally low. Using 10 minute periods I easily restrict my opponents to under 20 shots a game whereas I'm usually double that.
One area that should be addressed if the franchise continues on the next generation consoles is passing. First, goalies dump the puck pathetically. You can point the stick at a player and hit the pass button, but many times the puck slowly cruises in an errant direction across the ice. Player-to-player passes are difficult at times as well. Many times I'll position a player in the corner and want to pass into the crease. But somehow my pass ends up at the point several times a game.
Another area which can drive you nuts is player awareness. Loose pucks often sit on the ice for several seconds as your players skate circles around the puck. Plus, on shots far from the goal, they don't converge on the net fast enough to grab the rebounding puck. And when heading up ice, your players stay on their heels until you start skating. Players don't anticipate the motion of the game. Lastly, player fatigue seems forgiving. NHL 2K was too drastic in this respect, but in 2K2, I feel some players can skate all day without being fatigued. Line changes during play are restricted, and most changes are made during face-offs.
Still, NHL 2K2 has a particular draw to it. The game is attempting to be a simulation. The game's pace and attention to defense are two strong points. The strong goalies and defense keeps scores to a minimum. Gone are the high scoring days of the 80s and 90s. The game mimics today's game much better than the competition.
Replay Value : 85
NHL 2K2 is not a game that will appeal to everyone. I view the game as the Madden 2002 equivalent for hockey. Madden 2002 is the best football simulation in recent memory and takes time to be good at. 2K2 is the same way. You won't get the instant gratification from the game that you do from other hockey titles, but if you hold out for the long term, you'll be rewarded with deeper gameplay than the competition. Just don't expect pinpoint control and fast action.
Overall : 92
The final Dreamcast game is certainly a winner. While I wouldn't say Sega saved the best for last, NHL 2K2 is a darn good hockey title. The sim-like qualities of the game offer deep gameplay, though the game does have a few nagging issues. If you can get past some of the sloppy control and strong defensive qualities of the game (including a too-effective poke check), you'll find a game completely opposite all other arcade based titles on the market. But if you are looking for instant gratification in a hockey title, it's time to look elsewhere.