Sports simulation developers strive to include both ultra realism and arcade action -- elements from opposite ends of the simulation spectrum. The perfect balance results in an accurate representation of the game that is fun to play. The longest running sports simulation series, football and hockey titles from EA SPORTS have made great strides in honing gameplay to appease fans looking for both realism and action.
Unfortunately, while football games appear to be getting closer to emulating the real game, hockey seems to be slipping into arcade fantasy. NHL 2002 is a fun game, but only if you aren't expecting a realistic sporting event. On the surface, NHL 2002 appears to reach for true hockey experience by licensing not only the complete official NHL lineup of teams, but also teams from hockey around the world. Player models continue to improve, especially facially, and they're more easily identifiable than ever before.
Controls are also becoming more sophisticated. The four basic buttons can be used in combinations for a variety of shots, passes, and checks. This simplicity helps you focus on the action at hand. New dekes and a saucer pass option have been included as well.
Gameplay is where realism breaks down. Breakaways result in the camera switching to a close up, slow motion angle where the only sound is a loud heartbeat. It's nearly the same as the "bullet time" effect from Max Payne and somewhat disorienting. After a shot is fired, the angle swings back to the normal overhead view of the ice, often causing you to lose track of the location of the deflected puck.
The same is true when a goalie makes a great save. The save is shown from a close up perspective and repeated from three different angles in slow motion. Usually, the puck rebounds to another opponent, who pokes it in while you are mentally switching from the close up to the normal view. Big hits are also shown in a similar fashion. Obviously, the new angles are an attempt to spice up the action, but the gimmick wears off quickly, causing frustration, annoyance, and errant pucks.
Besides the unusual camera angles, the majority of the game play is solid. While the beginner and easy levels provide far too many shots, gamers will find the medium and difficult levels up to snuff. Slider bars in the options menu helps balance the passing and goaltending skill levels, a sore spot for fans of previous games.
New additions also include an "Emotion Meter," where momentum can be generated by making a succession of great plays, but often unbalances the game because it activates too often on mundane shots or checks. A new card system offers Upper Deck NHL cards that feature well-known players; the cards are acquired by earning points within the game by performing special tasks, such as scoring a shorthanded goal. The points can be redeemed to buy virtual packs of cards, which boost player skills, provide cheats for a limited time, or unlock secrets including special celebrations or Easter eggs. The computer doesn't appear to use the cards, ultimately giving the edge to the gamer. Some of the effects, though, border on silliness, sullying the groundwork laid for a true hockey simulation.
Sounds have always been a strong part of the series and NHL 2002 doesn't disappoint. Hard hits sound excruciatingly painful, and slap shots have a solid smack to them. The arena noise sounds realistic, which helps set the atmosphere. Menu music includes a previously unreleased Bare Naked Ladies song, as well as music from Sum 41 and others.
The one aspect that could kill the joy of NHL 2002 is the inclusion of Don Taylor as color commentator. In previous games in the series, the action was called by Jim Hughson and Bill Clement who provided decent, if somewhat repetitive, asides and remarks with some kind of seriousness. Taylor is only occasionally funny and often sounds more like the wiseacre in the back of a freshman English class. He tends to lower the usually superb Hughson to a junior high school mentality.
Despite the unwise decision to hire Don Taylor, NHL 2002 will appeal more to the arcade action camp than the purist. While most of the new additions don't work as well as planned, it is encouraging to see fresh ideas implemented. NHL 2002 is fun to play, but isn't particularly true to the sport, which may disturb true hockey fans with its slip away from realism.
Graphics: Fine player models and animations. Importing gamer faces still needs work.
Sound: Big checks and hard slap shots sound really fine, but Don Taylor nearly wrecks the game with commentary that misses more than it hits. On the upside is a new Bare Naked Ladies song.
Enjoyment: New additions of action angles and a NHL card system enhances the arcade feel. It's fun, but could draw scorn from hockey purists.
Replay Value: There are plenty of NHL and world teams from which to choose. Five gameplay modes provide many styles. Online leagues should extend hockey season for years to come.
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