Full Review: Toothless guys beating the crap out of one another? cool!
Over the past 10 years or so, EA Sports' most consistent series of games has been their NHL series. While Madden, Live, and Triple Play (their major franchises) have been streaky, NHL Hockey has always been good, year in and year out. Personally I still haven't found a sports game as good as NHL '96 on Sega Genesis ? truly the pinnacle of video game hockey. This tradition continues with NHL 2002, the much-improved PlayStation 2 follow up to the great but somewhat sloppy NHL 2001. While it doesn't touch NHL '96, it comes pretty close and is the best version of EA hockey since that classic game. However, it's far from perfect.
As usual for EA Sports, NHL 2002 is loaded with features and things to do. The usual prerequisites are in; exhibition, season, and career mode has been brought in finally on PS2. The most important addition is the NHL Cards, similar to Madden Cards and Campus Challenge (from NCAA 2002). The NHL Cards are handed out by buying a pack of them, similar to buying hockey trading cards (without the really high prices of course). The cards have particular major stars and all sorts of cool unlockable tricks and cheats. When you get player cards, you can use one in the course of a game and that player will be made a Hero for either a period, 2 periods, or the whole game, depending on the color of your card (bronze, silver, and gold). There are also some cheats to be had, like NHL Cards that make any game sudden death and the next goal wins, to cheats to allow certain rules to be thrown to the wayside. Also you may open up crazy codes like big head mode (most games have this, you know) and special celebration cards to show off after you score.
Of course, these aren't free; you have to earn them. And you earn them through playing the game with your user profile, completing all 5 levels of challenge that will take you some time to complete, especially since they can all be completed on each of the four difficulty levels. This NHL Card business may seem gimmicky, but it really does increase replay value and gives you reasons to play through the multiple seasons of 82 games of hockey.
The career mode of NHL 2002 is kind of hidden inside the game; it automatically presents itself after the completion of a season. Players retire, you have a draft, and?well the season starts all over again. It's not anywhere close to being as deep as Madden or NCAA 2002. In some respects it feels rushed, but I guess it's better than nothing. Here's hoping NHL 2003 has a much stronger Franchise/Career mode.
Despite all that it's the gameplay that counts, and NHL 2002 does a great job in that department. First off, the game is FAST. There's nothing sluggish about this game at all, and it feels just as fast and responsive as the old 16-bit games. If it's too fast, you can readjust the sliders to slow it down as well.
Actually most of this game is about the sliders ? which is the ultimate way of increasing the amount of difficulty options. You can customize both players and goalies; if you're having trouble scoring, but you are great defensively and don't give up much scoring either, you can adjust the slider to decrease the skill of the opposing goalie. Or vice versa. It's a truly customizable difficulty option that lets you tweak the game to your liking.
No matter what though, the game is pretty tough and smart on the high 2 difficulty levels (Beginner is so incredibly simple, and Easy is pretty close to that); you won't win any major blowouts and the computer is very tough to knock around. A lot of my old tricks used won't work in this game, forcing you to learn all new strategy to score more frequently. My only small complaint is the defense is a little sluggish getting back forcing me to rely on my forwards to do most of the checking and hitting to stay out of trouble.
The name of the game however is strategy (yes, I know the real name of the game is NHL 2002; it's a figure of speech. Sheesh!). Planning out your game strategy is vitally important to victory; you have to pay attention to your hot and cold streaks, as well as your opponents. Since goalies will tire after playing too many games, you have to learn to substitute and put in your backup. This is where watching your opponent comes into play so you can take out your starter for games against the low level NHL teams like Atlanta and such. This adds in lots of realism and adds a strategy element that makes a sports game a simulation.
However, the actual game does feel much more arcadey than realistic; due to the game speed and a lot of silly things like the breakaway camera (which looks cool but isn't necessary), and the occasionally flaky control. Don't get me wrong, the control is tight and responsive, but sometimes it seems awfully unrealistic. However, NHL 2002 is very fun and that's the important thing. Sometimes the game can get boring because it's always the same guys scoring every single time (not great player balances from what I can see), but it is still a great hockey game.
Oh yeah, there is fighting as usual, but it goes by so fast you hardly notice it. The quick mano a mano squabbles are almost afterthoughts. What it needs is an engine that has special attributes for the major goons in the NHL. C'mon, I wanna see Bob Probert and Tie Domi kill each other out there!
Also, there is an Emotion Meter ? the better you play, the higher it goes, and the better chance you have of making something happening. Just like real hockey. Cool!
On the whole though the gameplay is fast, tight, and challenging, with just the right mix of arcadey control and feeling with some strong simulation aspects that really adds to the challenge and strategy.
Visually, NHL 2002 is a marked improvement over last year's game. The sluggish and slippery frame rate has been beefed up to a full and complete 60 frames per second without a single trace of slowdown. Just this alone is enough to say it's improved over 2001, but there's much more to it. The player animations have been improved, and the overall presentation is astounding. There is so much going on in the game in-between clock stoppage, like fans dancing in their seats, players trash talking each other, and loads of replays from major events like great saves or spectacular goals. One of the best things, and a staple of hockey games, is how the ice gets cut up and messed up during a period, but when you come back out after intermission, it's all nice and shiny again. Very cool.
The only funny thing I find wrong really with the graphics is the rather silly looking blob like look to the players up close. They way their torso's are moving, you'd almost expect a reenactment of the classic Alien birth scene. Or the end of Spaceballs. Either way. Very creepy and kinda stupid looking. Besides that, NHL 2002 is top-shelf stuff and nice to look at in every single way.
However, the brightest point to NHL 2002 is the sounds. I have never been more impressed with an overall audio presentation like I have with this game. For one, the selection of music is exceptionally fitting, with rockin' punk tunes and cool original music. While I don't know all the songs (and the manual doesn't even tell what they are, nor options... maybe I should look at the credits, eh?), I know Sum 41, Treble Charger, and many more are included to mix things up.
Then, there is the great commentary. It's handled by Jim Hughson and Don Taylor, and handled very well. Taylor is, quite frankly, hilarious. His extremely goofy and stupid-funny remarks cracked me up and lightened the mood completely. Hughson is okay and can chime in with some funny stuff on his own, but Taylor takes the cake as best color man I've ever heard in a sports game. Best part is, there is minimal repetition ? occasionally it does, but you'd be amazed to hear new stuff halfway through a season.
The rest of the effects like the cheering crowd and sirens after scoring and the noises made on the ice are also exceptional and rounds off a great presentation between the visuals and audio. Hands-down, NHL 2002 is one of the most immersive sports games ever put together.