NHL 2K3 Review (Xbox)

There’s a new king of the rink in the realm of console hockey, and it’s Sega Sports’ NHL2K3. Staggeringly intelligent AI, brilliant gameplay, and the most realistic goalies this side of the real thing make NHL2K3 the best hockey game ever made – and one the best games of the year.

NHL2K3’s graphics are in line with Sega Sports’ other offerings. To my mind, they’re not the most fluidly animated graphics in history, but they’re more than fluid enough during gameplay, and the variety of animations is simply unrivaled. NHL2K3’s players hop into and out of different animations immediately and seamlessly, keeping the player from ever feeling as if they must wait for an animation to finish before they can make their next move. The end result is that the graphics actually aid gameplay, as opposed to simply adding to the ambience of the title.

Special mention must be made of the goalie animations. The goalies will stack the pads, drop into the butterfly, poke and sweep at the puck, and flop all over the ice in their efforts to thwart a would-be goal. It looks utterly realistic and believable.
On the ice, shadows and reflections are very well done, as are the occasional cuts in the ice created by players making hard turns. The glass above the boards also flex and give when impacted by a big check, and wobble slightly when a player is pinned against them. It all looks great, and one can’t help but realize how much care and attention to detail has been put in by Sega Sports.
There are four camera angles to choose from, and the user can choose a zoom level on each to suit their particular tastes. NHL2K3 also benefits from the ESPN license, which it uses to great effect. The menus are clean and efficient, and the ESPN-styled presentation during a game adds to the “big-game” feel.
The arenas have been faithfully recreated, as well. Despite the fact that you’ll rarely notice the vast majority of the details in each arena, Sega has gone to great strides to ensure that the arenas are nearly indistinguishable from the real McCoy. I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting each arena in person, but I’m a frequent visitor at the Pepsi Center in Denver, and I can happily tell you that it’s an almost exact duplicate – right down to each of the championship banners (and the retired numbers of the woebegone Denver Nuggets) and the suspended Styrofoam mountain that Avalanche skate through during their intro, and then is raised to the rafters. It’s obvious that a lot of care was taken in the arena renderings, and it shows.

While the players’ builds can look a bit hulking in the neck and shoulders, and the faces rather generic, taken as a whole, the graphical package of NHL2K3 is outstanding. It looks great, and adds both to the ambience and playing experience. What else could one want?

Let me get this out of the way right now – NHL2K3 is the most realistic representation of a night on frozen pond yet available.

If you’re more familiar with EA’s “NHL” series, you must unlearn all that you have learned. This is real hockey, and if you don’t play the game like so, you’ll be in for a lot of losses. The learning curve isn’t as steep as it initially appears, but it’s there nonetheless.
Strategy must be foremost in the player’s mind in NHL2K3. The passing lanes are filled with opponents lying in wait for the interception, the defenses are ready to pin wingers to the boards, and headhunting with defensemen is definitely not advised. In the offensive zone, cycling the puck is critical, and it’s important to know when to pass, and when (and where) to shoot. In the defensive zone, players must stay in their lanes, and stick to their man. In the neutral zone, caution and aggression must be balanced to keep control of the play.
Sounds challenging? It is – but that’s what makes it feel so right…
I could go on for hours upon hours rambling about the outstanding AI of NHL2K3, both on the opponents’ side, and on the player’s, as well – but suffice it to say that this is the most intelligent and sophisticated AI programming ever seen in any hockey game – and nothing else even comes close. This is hockey, in every detail. If the player so chooses, individual line matchups can be set against the opposition to “mark” specific players. Multiple offensive and defensive sets are available to choose from. In other words, NHL2K3 offers the user complete control over their team.
Dozens of gameplay sliders and toggles are available for nearly every facet of the game, so NHL2K3 can be tailored to any hockey fan’s tastes – whether they prefer the fast and furious pace of arcade play, or demand the most realistic of simulations.
On the XBox, the experience translates to perfection over XBox Live. The game plays with no noticeable lag, and with the voice communication available over XBox Live. It’s just like playing someone sitting next to you. Adding to the experience is the fact that the host of the game can apply their slider settings to the session, as opposed to always playing with the default settings. It’s a wonderful idea, and it would be further improved if the host machine’s rosters could also be used (Sega – hint, hint?). Perhaps in NHL2K4…
Along with the standard Exhibition, Season, Playoffs and Tournament modes, NHL2K3 also boasts a full-featured Franchise mode, where one can take over the GM duties of their favorite NHL club and try to turn them into hockey’s latest dynasty. Unlike the real NHL (for now, at least) – there is a salary cap, and the player must work within the constraints of it. Trading players, signing free agents, and extending contracts of your current players all come into play – both during the season, and in the off-season. There’s an off-season draft to restock your clubs’ minor league system as well – important because young players improve with age, and older player’s skills erode. Keeping young talent in your system is critical to long-term success. The Franchise mode is a great deal of fun, and it’s not easy. The trading AI is decent, and one won’t be able to rob other teams of their top talent without a price.

Not all is ideal in Franchise mode, however. If a player is injured, be sure to adjust your roster and lines manually, as the CPU will often wreak havoc with your carefully crafted team if you let it. Players’ skills do not erode dramatically as they age, and it’s not uncommon to have a number of 40-year old superstars near the top of the scoring charts. Conversely, younger players’ skills don’t dramatically increase, in general – making the draft less valuable. The main problems, however, reside with the Free Agency functionality. I’ve simulated three different 15-year long Franchises, and not once has even an average player hit free agency – not once. That’s a big problem, and it shatters the realism of the Franchise. Hopefully, this is something that Sega Sports will address directly in it’s next iteration.

NHL2K3 boasts that it has each arena’s individual goal horn. If that doesn’t illustrate Sega’s attention to detail, nothing will. The sounds of hockey are all here: the thump of puck on blocker pad, the metallic clink off the post, the rapid tap-tap-tap of a goaltender’s stick on ice when a power play is about to expire – they’re all here. The aural experience of gameplay is so good, that NHL2K3 doesn’t even need announcers.

However, they do have them – Michael Carlucci as “Bill Peterson”, Danny Mann as “Mike Weese”, and Charles Klausmeyer on the PA system. The voice actors do yeoman’s work here, but the script is a bit uninspired, and the editing unfortunately causes the actors’ inflections to be off from time to time when announcing team or players’ names. It’s not bad – but Sega’s own NFL2K3 and NBA2K3 do the job a bit better, and it’s a bit disappointing as a result.

Overall, the audio package of NHL2K3 is excellent, and the on-ice sounds are nothing short of spectacular. Add the fact that ESPN’s “National Hockey Night” theme is playing during the menus – and I defy any true-blue hockey fan to not get fired up by that song – and you’ve got yourself a reason to crank up the volume!

I used to be a big fan of EA Sports “NHL” series, but now I’ve almost forgotten it even exists.

Sega Sports’ NHL2K3 is the most fun, most realistic version of console hockey on the market. The game is as deep and engrossing as one wants it to be, without requiring one to know all the nuances of the game to enjoy it.

It looks fantastic, sounds fantastic, and possesses unrivaled gameplay – online or off. If you have any interest at all in “the beautiful game” – then NHL2K3 is the only title to own.

NHL 2K3 Score
out of 10