NHL Hockey 2003 Review (Xbox)
NHL 2003 is a quality title, tip toeing the line of realism, versus arcade-like game play. There are some subtle improvements in the AI especially with the goalie play. It is a great looking game with great sound, that is just fun to play.
The great debate of EA versus Sega will continue, hopefully for the gamers sake for a long time. NHL2K2 popped up on the scene last year and gave hockey fans a refreshing look at what a hockey game could be. Now some immediately jumped ship and turned their backs on what had been the king of hockey games for years. I have plenty of room in my collection for two hockey games and enjoy the gameplay of NHL 2003.
First, this is not an arcade game, it is a little heavy on the big hits and hard shots but the basics of hockey are still an essential part of the game. In fact this year it is probably more realistic than it has been in the recent past. Most slapshots, even by guys with top shots do not exceed 100 MPH and there are no colorful effects to go along with them. Another key improvement is on one timers, if the player you are passing too is not in position to blast a shot, he doesn’t. He will catch the puck with his stick and then shoot and if it is a backhander, then the power of the shot is significantly lower. So the one-timer is no longer the deadly weapon that it used to be, guarantying a 110 MPH slapshot on goal, regardless of the players position.
The controls in NHL2003 are top notch. Switching from player to player on defense is smooth, speed bursting, laying a big hit on someone and blocking shots are very easy to pull off. Big hits seem to be toned down some this year, could be my imagination but it seems that you have to be closer to your guy to really pop him and they do result in quite a few cross checking or boarding penalties.
Offensively, you have excellent control over your player, my only complaint is that sometimes you will get caught in a position where the puck is right under your feet and no matter how hard you try and circle the puck you can’t pick it up. This doesn’t happen a lot and in reality there are times that players miss play a puck, but none the less it is frustrating.
Shooting the puck is more challenging this year with shot control set to manual, I am forever miss firing from short range, I have turned the shot accuracy slider down a little to make this more challenging though. The shot power is determined by the shot meter the longer you hold it down the harder the shot. If you hold it to about the middle of the meter you will get a strong wrist shot and of course hold it as long as you can, to blast a slapshot. One thing that EA has always done well is too give you the feeling that you are actually shooting the puck and this year is no different.
A major part of the controls is the ability to deke, you can take the easy way out and hit the Y button and the CPU will perform an automatic deke. If you like more control you can use the Right analog stick and perform your own deke move. Some of the deke moves look great, not very realistic but great and you will lose control over your player as he performs the deke move, it does make for some pretty goals though.
There are 3 basic offensive strategies; Overload, Crash the net and behind the net, you can also set the pressure involved to 20-100 %. I found 40% gives me a more realistic feel. You can also set the strategy to auto and let the CPU determine which strategy to use as you come down the ice. The problem with Auto is that if the CPU changes the strategy on you, you really don’t have an idea of where your players our on the ice, since the main two camera angles don’t allow you to see the whole ice.
The CPU will use a mixture of these strategies and pressure against you and it does mix them up and will turn the pressure up when it gets behind. How you choose to combat the CPU offense is up to you.
There are a few more strategies involved on defense. First you can set your strategy and your choices are: Tight Point, Staggered, Collapsing. You can also set the pressure level. Then you can choose what type of forechecking you want to use and how many people to commit to it: Those choices are WS Lock, Standard and Trap. Beware that the higher your pressure and the more people you send in to forecheck, the more likely you are going to get burned on breakaways. But the only way to learn is to try and you will notice that the strategies do have an effect on the game.
The CPU defense again is set to auto, it will mix up the defenses, you will notice times when 3 or 4 guys will collapse on you when you cross the blue line. Other times the CPU will turn the pressure up and attack you in your own zone and it can make it pretty difficult to get the puck up ice.
I have played close to 30 games with 10 minute periods on the Medium difficulty level and have yet to find a consistent way to score. It may be there, but I haven’t found it. One timers may work well one game, but then in the next you will get nothing from it. I have even had a game where defensemen scored all 3 of my goals, something I don’t recall happening in previous versions. In previous years I would come down the ice with Amonte and get in front of the net and blast a slapshot topshelf. This year it appears that you have to mix up your attack and one move is not going to net you consistent success.
Your star players will still do most of the scoring but I have had goals by some pretty average defensemen where they had an open look at the net and were able to bury the puck in the net. You will still have too many shots on goal and shots in general, but the fact that some of the lesser players have a chance of scoring is a huge improvement.
Another improvement is on the CPU offense, they will actually dump the puck. They will do this either for a line change or for a dump and chase type offense. Line changes are implemented more realistically because of this.
One major complaint, I have is with line changes they still haven’t separated the defensive lines from the forward lines, which doesn’t make sense since teams generally have 4 forward lines and 3 defensive lines. The problem is when you choose line 1 you really don’t have control over which defensive pairing will come out on the ice. One thing they add in the last couple of years is the Hero line, you can set up lines of your top players to enter the game at crucial moments in the last minutes of the 3rd period.
GRAPHICS AND ANIMATION
This is a great looking game, the players, arenas and fans are depicted quite well. The presentation is a lot of flash and dash. You will get tired of some of the various cut scenes but you will have to admit that they are amusing at times and well done at others.
They throw up a fair amount of overlays letting you know the players stats but there could be more. The game menus and in-game menus are easy to navigate and if you have played this series before you will have no problems making line changes or editing your rosters.
Depending on your taste in music you may like the sound or hate it. The problem is that the little music video like box telling you who the song is by, pops up during faceoffs and after goals. If you are impatient and try to skip all the cut scenes you will end up with the video box over a few seconds of gameplay. I personally haven’t found it that intrusive but others have and I can see that it is a kind of cheesy. The music does actually add to the game, I just could have done without the music video box.
Jim Hughson and Don Taylor are back and if you hated Don Taylor last year you probably still will. I will admit at first I couldn’t stand the guy, but after awhile I had to admit that some of the stuff he was saying was kind of funny. This year it seems better, less juvenile, but that might be simply cause I am used to the style. Hughson is his usual self, generally on top of the action and into the game. Well done.
The franchise mode allows you to play through 10 seasons, but it is not particularly deep. At the end of each season you are presented with a list of players who retired and then you can move on to the rookie draft. The rookie draft is 2 rounds and you are given the tip that it is better to choose players with high potential over players with high overall rating. All the attributes are listed for each player, but there is no scouting report or any other type of information.
The free agent signing is pretty straight forward there is no negotiation involved since there are no contracts or salaries for any of the players. When you select a player from the free agent list you see a little icon of a face, if the player is very interested you will see a happy face if he is not you will get a frown, and so forth depending on the level of interest. Once you have made some selections and hit the start button, players may choose to sign with you or another team. You go through this process until all the players are signed. Building your team this way is more a function of luck than any thing else, if you are a good team to begin with you have a better chance of signing the top players.
You can also try to build your team through trades, however I had a hard time pulling off any deals that would actually help my team. Most trades that would be even slightly to your advantage are rejected. The CPU on occasion will offer you a trade but again they are rarely to your benefit.
Simulation of the season and game is pretty well done, the only issue that I have is that the amount of goals scored is a little low. The points leaders were around a point a game, until I got a few seasons in, then some of the draft choices were breaking over 100 points. The top rookies you draft are rated higher than the top young players that already exist, which just doesn’t seem right to me.
Injuries play a major factor in your season if you simulate a season. One season with the Black Hawks I had 91 points and made it too the Stanley Cup Semi – Finals. I re – simmed the season and ended up with the worst record in the league, mostly due to a variety of injuries and I guess the luck of the draw. I think this is a good feature it shows that there is variety in the simming of each season. I do however think this is a game meant to be played and not simmed.
There is a playoff mode and a International tournament mode. A Create a player mode that is fairly detailed, with first name recognition. NHL Cards which you can purchase with points you earn from completing certain tasks, the difference between this and Madden cards is that you only earn the points from completing a task once, so it eventually makes it hard to rack up points and buy cards.
A good solid hockey game. Note the word “game” and not simulation or arcade. NHL2003 provides a fast paced, action packed hockey game. There is room for improvement in execution of strategy and AI but it looks great, sounds great and is fun to play.