NHL 2003 continues EA SPORTS' ten-year hockey franchise with a variety of enhancements designed to improve key areas of gameplay. New players can jump right into the action by setting the skill level to beginner and then listening as a series of audio cues teach them how to shoot, pass, and check. Up to eight different dekes can be initiated by a press of a button, and multiple slider options let players of varying abilities customize the game to their liking. Four different game modes include Franchise, Playoffs, International Tournament, and Play Now.
The Game Breaker feature incorporates a meter that increases with every successful deke, one-timer, or other offensive move. Once completely filled, players will become "in the zone" as their surrounding elements slow down to create an advantage. "On the Ice" sound is designed to re-create the bench chatter, taunts, and atmosphere at a real hockey game, while "EA GameStory 2" documents individual achievements throughout the course of a season with special in-game overlays and highlights. Rounding out the list of features are improved goalie AI, a new graphics engine, and additional animation.
What do you want out of a hockey game? If you're looking for a moderately realistic sports simulation, a la Madden NFL 2003, odds are you'll be disappointed in NHL 2003. On the other hand, if you simply want to run-and-gun up and down the ice, focusing mainly on big hits, 100 MPH slapshots, loose defense, and one-on-one confrontations with the goalie, then NHL 2003 is the gold standard. But even so, a few AI problems keep it from reaching expectations.
As with most EA Sports releases, NHL 2003 has received its share of tweaks and adjustments from previous versions. The new manual deke ability is a neat way to get past a defender or force the goalie to commit. It's actually very easy to use; you simply press and hold the deke button on your gamepad and move the player as normal. Good puck handlers (Jagr, Federov, etc.) are much better at this than lumbering enforcer on your checking line (think: Tie Domi), and it makes scoring on a breakaway a little bit easier than before. The problem: there are a lot of breakaways.
Defensive positioning continues to be a problem, and coupled with the pinpoint passing accuracy of nearly every player (including the goalie), it leads to a lot of two-on-one and lone breakaway chances every game. Breakaways are exciting -- there's no question about that -- but you lessen the thrill of the play when you see it seven or eight times a game.
By far the best new "feature" in NHL 2003 is the way goals are scored. No longer are you required to rifle off a perfectly timed one-timer. You can score in a myriad of ways from wrap-arounds and rebounds to blue line slapshots to goals that bounce in off a goalie's pad. The best part of all of this is that the goalies can just flat out miss the puck from time to time -- something that almost never happened in previous versions.
The AI is hit and miss. If you judge the AI on how well it replicates real hockey, it fails miserably. Thankfully, some of the basic AI holes from previous editions are fixed up so that it's not super easy to just race down the wing and rifle off an uncontested slapshot. The AI does a good job of trying to center the puck when given the opportunity -- it will even dump the puck from time to time. Unfortunately, those opportunities are few-and-far between. The offensive AI just flat out has no idea what it's doing. It has no idea if it's up a goal in the 3rd period or if it's down two goals with a few minutes to play -- it plays the exact same game regardless of the situation or the personnel involved. The basic tactic is the same: fast break hockey. The CPU will push the puck regardless of the circumstance and it doesn't care if it has the advantage or not. The only time the CPU will change offensive tactics is when playing short-handed. Each team has a set strategy (such as "Behind the Net"), but you'll be hard-pressed to notice a difference in how a defensive team such as Carolina plays compared to an offensive-minded team such as the Red Wings. Each team behaves the same way ... and that just isn't hockey, no matter how you slice it.
Finally, the way face-offs are handled needs to be reworked. It's still far too easy to win a face-off regardless of the skill levels of the players. When you win 33 of 37 face-offs, you know there is a problem.
The AI sliders are back and play a prominent role in getting the game to play a better brand of hockey. You can tweak everything from game speed to hitting power. The problem with the sliders is that a few settings are impossible to tweak accurately. The passing slider, for example, is on a 0-6 point scale, but setting the scale to anything greater than zero means you can expect to complete about 90% of your passes, regardless of the team you use. However, when you set the slider to zero, passing becomes incredibly frustrating. There's simply no good middle ground. (One important note: if you set the injury slider higher than "1" you can expect at least one injury per game, and usually a serious one. You have been warned.)
Perhaps the biggest slider boo-boo concerns the all important Player and Goalie Boosts. These sliders help you set the level of difficulty precisely how you want it. You can make the AI goalies a little easier to score on or make your players, or the CPUs, a bit faster or slower. In exhibition mode these sliders are available, but inexplicably in franchise mode they're not there.
Apart from better trading AI, NHL 2003's franchise mode is practically the same as it was two years ago. You're still limited to a measly 10 seasons (how Madden and NBA Live can offer over 25 seasons of play and NHL just 10 remains a mystery), but the way it handles free agency (you get three choices per round and can see if the player is receptive to your team or not) remains ideal for a game such as this. There's no money involved, but that's really not EA's fault, as the NHL and the NHLPA tie the company's hands in this regard.
What is EA's fault is the shape the rosters are in upon release. In a rush to get the game in stores in time for the opening of the NHL season, the rosters are terribly outdated. When you add this to the fact that the game continues to fail in providing a player editor, it is once again up to the NHL community to fix the rosters and provide editing capabilities.
Each and every year the NHL series improves in one area: visuals. 2003 is no exception as the game is gorgeous to look at, especially at high resolutions. The detail of the players, arenas, and even the puck itself, is spot-on. There are lots of new goalie animations, which makes everything look a bit more natural. The goalie will now automatically poke the puck to a teammate rather than passing it (if the situation warrants). Simply put, there isn't a lot to complain about in the graphics and animation department, aside from the silly-looking fight sequences.
There is, however, a lot to complain about in terms of audio. The play-by-play provided by Hughson and Taylor remains the worst of any EA Sports game. It's childish, inane, repetitive, and simply grates on your nerves. Everything Taylor says is a joke, and usually a bad one. Even Hughson acts like he's annoyed by Taylor's one-man comedy routine from time to time. Don Taylor is not this insane; he's actually a good color commentator, but the scriptwriters seem to be trying to make this the Abbott and Costello of video game commentary and it fails miserably. EA Sports needs only to look at its own FIFA series to see how great play-by-play can enhance a product.
One of the more surprising aspects of the new game is the completely redesigned interface. For the first time ever, EA Sports has delivered a true PC interface rather than just a port of the console games' menu system. Parts of it are actually similar to that of a spreadsheet; there is little wasted space and everything fits snuggly on the screen. Every EA Sports game made for the PC would benefit from a similar approach.
Games against the CPU are a bit monotonous and with the AI lapses more than a bit annoying, but what truly saves the game from mediocrity are the multiplayer options. Aside from being able to run an online league, games with two human opponents take on an entirely different feel than games against the CPU. The goals feel more realistic and it's usually much more difficult to get off a good shot, but when you do get off a great shot the goalies have a tougher time stopping it. The unpredictable nature of a human opponent relieves the tedium that sets in after playing a few dozen single-player games.
While NHL 2003 is attractive, the engine is showing its age. For the series to take the next step in terms of realism, an entirely new life-like physics model needs to be put in place. Until that happens, many of the problems in terms of AI, control, puck, and player reactions will remain intact.
If you're a diehard fan of this series, there is a lot to like here. It plays a brand of hockey that EA Sports has perfected over the years.
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