The most common sentiment offered when discussing EAs NHL 2002 is that its Madden for hockey fans. Thats high praise indeed, as each years Madden game is eagerly anticipated by football fanatics and is arguably the best videogame football simulation around (best in that it mirrors real live football more accurately than many of the other series out there). Yet I cant help but think that someone who doesnt really know a lot about ice hockey has penned that statement. For while NHL 2002 undoubtedly captures the essence of NHL hockey better than any other, it doesnt come nearly as close to mirroring the real game as Madden does with football.
Thats not to say that NHL 2002 is a bad game—its not. Its a title with a staggering amount of depth, nice graphics, great physics, and several new innovations that set it apart from previous installments. However, unlike football (and Madden in particular, which captures the real games rhythms and cadences quite well), hockey is a more free-flowing experience. If football were music, the game would have a staccato rhythm—huddle up, run a play, blow the whistle, then huddle up again. Hockey is more like free-form jazz; its a fast moving, largely improvised game thats almost constantly in motion. Both sports have set plays, but theyre far more integral to football than they are to hockey. The staccato approach of football translates to a videogame much better than hockey does—which is why NHL 2002 is a good game thats more like an arcade version of hockey than real hockey and Madden is essentially traditional football in videogame form.
But enough philosophy—lets talk about the game.
Like most ongoing sports titles, NHL 2002 brings the rock-solid gameplay of earlier incarnations to the table and then adds several new wrinkles to the formula to make the game even more realistic than the previous years title.
At its core, the game offers a standard 5-on-5 hockey experience, complete with real NHL players, uniforms, and arenas. Players grab the puck, pass, shoot, check their opponents, take penalties, and hope to score goals, just like every other hockey game out there. What sets NHL 2002 apart from its predecessors (and its competition) is its attention to detail. After playing for roughly thirty-minutes, it becomes readily apparent that the creators behind the game have both a love for hockey and a strong desire to make the game as realistic as possible.
Witness, for example, the way players skate and control the puck. If you carry the puck up ice with one of your shifty little wingers who can handle the biscuit, youll see that the player will keep the puck close to his body, and that hes less likely to lose it should he be hit or poke-checked. In another example, watch a sniper slam the puck past the goaltender up high, perfectly picking one of the corners—then try that same shot with a regular player and watch as he shoots it right into the goaltender for an easy save. Its elements like these that bring a great deal of strategy to the game. Youll want to have the right personnel on the ice in the right situations, and youll want to know how best to take advantage of each player on your team. Youre not going to want to have Mario Lemieux on your checking line, but youre not going to want to have Kryzstof Oliwa on a break-away, either. Depending on the game situation, youll have to adjust your lines accordingly. There is a marked difference between the skilled players and the regular players, so having the wrong guys on the ice at the wrong time can be costly.
Some other little (but impressive) things turn up in the player animations. Unlike hockey games from previous years, NHL 2002 is very concerned with your positioning on the ice when passing or shooting. In the early games, you could one-time a slapshot off your backhand side nearly as hard as your forehand—but not anymore. Pass to your players off wing for a one-timer and hell have to stop the puck, whirl around, and then fire on the net…just like in real life. This adds more depth to the game. You cant just put guys anywhere on a line; you have to consider if theyre right or left-handed.
Goalie animation and AI has improved this year as well. The infamous pass to the slot and hammer home a one-timer strategy doesnt work nearly as often as it used to, and goalies can get hot and stop everything if you catch them on the wrong day. Puck physics and the games overall physics are also quite impressive. My only real complaints are that some guys are all but impossible to knock off the puck, fighting is a joke (its nothing more than mashing a button), and the inclusion of the big hit button gives the game a decidedly arcade-like feel.
Other improvements include the new emotion meter, which causes the emotion of the crowd to increase or decrease as events on the ice transpire (getting your teams meter maxed out often leads to big plays), and the breakaway camera. The breakaway camera pops up whenever you come in on the goaltender all alone, shifting to a first person perspective that allows you to see the goaltender and pick your shot. Its really a neat innovation.
Perhaps even more impressive than any of the aforementioned elements is that the game is incredibly deep. There are four difficulty modes to play, guaranteeing that players at every skill level get a challenge (but not an impossible one). The game can be a little cheap on the harder settings (I noticed that your goalie will stop lots of shots for awhile, then suddenly four softies will float right past him), but its still challenging for the majority of the time. Aside from the difficulty settings, much of the game can be even further tweaked by adjusting the various slide bars in the options menu. You can increase or decrease speed, the regularity of penalties, fights, injuries, etc. Dont fret if youre not a hardcore hockey fan, though the game even features a simple "Just Play" setting that will have you skating around on the ice in mere seconds.
NHL 2002 offers a number of different modes to increase the games replay value as well. You can play through an 82 game season and go through the playoffs in hopes of winning the Stanley Cup, play in the international tournament, or you can start the "career mode," which spans 10 seasons. On top of that, the game borrows the "Madden Cards" collectible card mini-game from Madden 2002. You earn points to buy cards by completing certain tasks on the ice (score a hat-trick, get 5 big hits with one player, etc.). In turn, the cards can either enhance certain players attributes, set up wild events in the game (making it "next goal wins" for example), or can unlock different celebrations in the "Easter Egg" menu. Just trying to get all of the cards will have gamers playing NHL 2002 for long stretches of time.
While both the gameplay and the attention to detail on the ice are nothing short of impressive, the games presentation is also worth mentioning. NHL 2002 does an excellent job of capturing the feel of televised hockey. There are a number of different camera angles, the sound of the action on the ice is clear, replays can interrupt play to highlight a huge save or big hit (without interfering with the flow of the game itself), the announcers will highlight certain "storylines" throughout the game, and so on. Don Taylor and Jim Hughson handle the announcing duties, and its honestly pretty decent. There arent as many oft-repeated phrases as youll find in other sports games, and a lot of the silly banter is fairly amusing. However, if you find them driving you nuts, you can simply turn them off.
Intermissions and breaks in play will allow the camera to scan the crowd (where the first few rows of fans will be 3-D characters sporting one of the teams jerseys) and the PA announcer to play some music (much of it from Canadas own Barenaked Ladies—not one of my favorite groups). These are just a few more of the elements that give the game an authentic feel.
Your players are all well animated and motion-captured so that they skate, shoot, and act just like their real NHL counterparts. About the only complaints that can be leveled at the graphics are that the jerseys look a little drab and stiff, and the faces arent often recognizable in relation to the real player (and why does almost every teams coach look like Phoenixs Bob Francis?). Additionally, theres some occasional polygonal "clipping" (a glitch in which characters or objects are not fully drawn). Other than that the game looks good, but its obviously not pushing the XBox hardware at all.
NHL 2002 ultimately succeeds at bringing NHL-styled hockey to the XBox. While it isnt a perfect recreation of the worlds "coolest sport," it does a nice job of capturing the major nuances of the game and recreating them in videogame format. Couple that with the great graphics, the amount of replay offered by all the different game modes, and the high level of customization available to the player and you wind up with one very satisfying gaming experience. Only the fact that it still plays more like arcade hockey than the true NHL game keeps this one from cracking the 9.0 score barrier. One can only hope that next years NHL 2003 improves on the solid foundation laid by this game.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.