Radical Entertainment's NHL Powerplay '96 for the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn was among the first significant sports games of the 32-bit era and remains one of the most playable hockey games in recent memory. Not only did it help usher in true 3-D gameplay and graphics to sports games, it was also fast and intuitive—easy for beginners to learn and authentic enough to absorb die-hard hockey fans. It also had an amazing replay feature that's been copied in just about every sports game since. However, for all of its visual brilliance and stellar gameplay, Powerplay felt incomplete. Maybe it was the inadequate season mode, which failed to track and save player and team statistics. Or, it could have been the lack of any bells or whistles (the game also lacked basic essentials like organ music, fighting, and left-handed players) that would have created a more convincing hockey atmosphere. Whatever it was Powerplay lacked, it was enough to dampen the overall experience of playing the game—a real shame for a title that had so much potential.
Talk about history repeating itself: Here we are over four years later, and it's happened all over again. This time the game is Sega Sports NHL 2K, another next generation hockey game—beautiful to behold and fun to play—that's not only a certain indication of things to come, but yet another sign that the future of sports games is already here. This one was developed by Black Box Games, who just happen to be comprised of several ex-Radical employees—people from the original Powerplay team. Surely these guys have learned a thing or two since coming so close a few years ago, right? Well, I want to believe they have, but it's hard to say. There's no doubting the amazing audio and visual advancements that NHL 2K so eagerly showcases. Combine those with easy-to-handle controls and solid gameplay and you have a strong case for the most enjoyable hockey simulation ever. This game gets back to the basics, whereas the most recent hockey games on PlayStation and Nintendo 64 have been following an ugly trend of overly complicated gameplay. NHL 2K is the most fun I've had playing hockey since EA Sports' glory days on the Sega Genesis.
Unfortunately, NHL 2K still manages to disappoint—not because it's un-fun, but because it's unfinished. Much has been made over the tight deadline Black Box faced in developing this game (less than half the time Visual Concepts had for NFL 2K), and indeed, despite the beautiful graphics and relatively high production quality, the final product definitely feels rushed. The overall execution of NHL 2K can be compared to a bad ice surface—smooth and glossy when seen from a distance, but full of holes and puddles upon closer inspection.
There are several minor issues—like the mediocre computer AI, in which other teams often fail to take advantage of obvious odd-man rushes and opt for a line change instead. Even at the "Pro" setting, the computer never seems to provide an adequate challenge. More serious problems arise when it's time to shoot the puck. I'm all for simplified controls, but because of the single "shot" button, it's too easy to do a slap shot when a wrist shot is intended, and vice versa. It's also difficult to get the puck high on a goalie. In typical hockey fashion, there are water bottles sitting on the tops of the goals—just begging to be knocked off end-over-end by a top-shelf blast. I have yet to experience such a satisfying goal because my shots routinely glide along the ice surface. It's possible to place your shots through skillful use of the directional pad, but in the heat of the furiously-paced action, it's hard to find the time to get so picky about where you want the puck to go—you just want to get the shot on-net.
There are many other areas in NHL 2K that could have been rectified with a few more months of development. The play-by-play and color commentary sounds like it was recorded in a couple of hours. There's no auto-save feature. The season mode lacks any kind of real customization or variety. Overall, it's as if just enough attention was given to this game to make it playable and competent. Make a stop at Black Box Games' Web site however, and you'll find the following conflicting comment, "The company's first title, NHL 2K for Sega Sports, was delivered ahead of schedule." Well, if that is indeed the case, this is one game that would have greatly benefited from a production delay or two.
The few extras that were included in NHL 2K are representative of the rest of the game's shortcomings— they're decent enough, but the necessary care wasn't taken to make them more worthwhile. The Custom Players mode is actually quite good. No other game realizes a fan's dream of playing in the NHL better than NHL 2K. The superb graphics have a lot to do with this. With stunning clarity, you can see your name on the back of your favorite team's sweater. But despite the many adjustable attributes, there's no limit as to how good a custom player can be. Instead of implementing some sort of system where created players can get better with experience over the course of a season, you can just jack-up every player trait to 99 and instantly become the best player in the league. Also worth noting is the extensive availability of reserve players for each team, which NHL 2K promptly squanders by failing to include player injuries—effectively icing any possibility of in-depth team management. Then there are other cosmetic elements that were just thrown in at the last moment, like pucks shattering the glass along the boards. It happens in real hockey once in a while during a season, but in NHL 2K it seems to happen once every period. It's just another example of not taking the time to get the details right.
All of my complaining might indicate that there isn't much to like about this game, when in fact there is plenty to like. For the first time in a hockey game, the players don't all look the same. Most have their real-life counterparts' faces mapped-on, and all are correctly modeled according to their various differences in appearance (size, stature and whether or not they wear face shields). The only exceptions to this great level of visual detail are the goaltenders, who all wear the same type of helmets (in reality, goalies like Arturs Irbe and Dominik Hasek wear distinctively different face masks). The cool replay system that's been carried over from NHL Powerplay not only lets you see a play unfold from every conceivable angle, but also allows you to zoom in close enough to see the writing on a player's stick or the artwork on the puck. For the most part, it's clear this game was made by people who know and love hockey. It's because NHL 2K does so many things right that the oversights and omissions are so frustratingly apparent. It almost boggles the mind as to how good this game could have been. It looks great and plays well, it just needs some refinement. NHL 2K is like a brilliantly written essay in which the writer forgot to run a spell-check.