reviews\ Oct 19, 2002 at 8:00 pm

NHL 2003 - GC - Review

Football season is underway, baseball is in playoffs, which means basketball season is just about to tip off.  What’s that?  Hockey started?  That’s right, America’s number four sport is already getting things going on the ice and it’s time for Canucks to rejoice and hit the bejeezus out of each other for sport.  Electronic Arts has been simulating the fastest sport on ice since the stellar NHL series on the Sega Genesis and this year’s offering continues the tradition brilliantly.  Just pop in EA NHL 2003 into your GameCube and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking aboot… err about. 


NHL 2003 is a bit faster paced than other EA sports titles, making it just slightly on the arcade side of things.  That’s not a knock on the game, but an accurate representation of hockey, which is incredibly action-oriented and rarely lets up its frantic pace.  Just like a well-oiled Lord Stanley’s Cup championship team, you’ll have to combine the delicate art of finesse with the brutish attitude of a bar brawler to spend your day with sport’s oldest trophy.


As in other EA games, a variety of game modes will suit your desires.  The Play Now exhibition mode cuts the corners and pits two teams of ruffians against each other straight away.  Of course all the NHL teams and NHL All-Star teams are available, as well as the Olympic teams of several countries.  Oh the banality of the regular season you say?  Skip it and head straight for the time where legends are born, Playoff Mode.  Choose either NHL playoffs and strive to hoist the Cup or International competition (Japan has a hockey team?) for some flag-waving hoopla. 


Franchise mode is a ten-season marathon that tests your skill on the ice as well as behind the General Manager’s desk.  Stick by a team and play through season after season, trading overrated players, drafting new punching bags, and forming a dynasty.  Players will increase skills, become heroes, and eventually retire to a lovely summer home in Saskatchewan.  Along the way they can even win the Conn Smythe trophy, the Lady Byng trophy, or any of the other trophies the NHL has to offer.  Franchise mode is the ideal single player mode for die-hard puckheads.


NHL 2003 adds a few things not normally found in EA sports titles.  Most EA games are straight simulations, leaving power-ups and streaks to other publishers like Midway and their extreme take on sports titles (NHL Hitz, for example).  NHL 2003 features hot and cold streaks for players, and they really effect the game.  A player on a cold streak sluggishly moves up the ice, handles the puck like a Pee-Wee league bench rider, and has all the shooting power of an eight-year-old girl.  A player on a hot streak, on the other hand, practically melts the ice with his speed, controls the puck like Gretzky, and can take heads off with his slapshots.  Players on streaks are easy to find thanks to their names being in red (hot) or blue (cold) and are often keys to the game.  Another souped-up feature is the Game Breaker.  By powering-up the Game Breaker meter with dekes (stick moves), gamers can trigger the Game Breaker which slows time down as if you are in “the zone”, making it easier to juke opponents and see if the keeper’s five-hole is open for a score.  Breakaways are also accompanied by time-slowing, which apparently doesn’t take too much away from the sim feel of the game as NHL 2003 poster boy Jarome Iginla swears that time really does seem to slow down in such situations. 


The biggest new feature of 2003 is the manual deking.  Using the C-stick, complete control over dekes is simple as scoring on an empty net.  With manual deking, skaters can take it between the legs and bounce it off a skate, slide the stick out and bring the puck back after the defender has taken the bait, and perform many other magical maneuvers.  While auto deking is possible with the Y-button, the manual deking will give players more of a chance to “express themselves creatively” before slamming the frozen disc into the back of the net.  Timing is crucial with these dekes, as you must wait for the move to be completed before you can shoot or pass.  If you’re late on the move you’ll go flying right into the net, but time it perfectly and you are a hockey god. 


Controlling players is about as accurate as it gets. The simple art of skating is not to be overlooked, and the difference in the game usually comes down to who can control their players better.  As anyone who has strapped on a pair of skates knows, moving around on ice on two blades has different rules of physics than the more familiar ambulatory means.  It’s fairly easy to pick up after a while, and after a few contests you’ll be skating like Dorothy Hamill in the Ice Capades.  Shooting the puck is simple: hold down the B button for a glass-shattering slapper, or tap it for a more accurate wristshot.  Defense consists primarily of body checks and poke checks with the B button or laying someone out with a big hit, the Y button.  Miss the hit however, and your target is off to the races. 


At times, hockey players take a slight disliking to each other.  Okay, opposing teams consistently hate each other’s guts.  It’s not unusual for players to occasionally settle their differences by letting their knuckles speak to each other’s faces.  It’s a fact of the sport, and as my dad used to say “I went to a boxing match, and a hockey game broke out!”  NHL 2003 lets players “Play the Feud!”, but it’s quite a disappointment.  Fighters can deliver uppercuts, jabs, and hooks, but it really comes down to who can push the buttons faster.  Nothing comes of winning the fight, you’re still sent to the penalty box, and the flow of the game is interrupted. 


NHL cards are awarded by completing certain tasks in hockey matches.  These cards give certain players power-ups, unlock post goal celebrations, and reveal Easter Eggs such as Big Heads and Chipmunk Voices for commentators.  Unlike its Madden counterpart, points for completing tasks are awarded only once, not every time it is completed.  This means that points come like an avalanche at first, but hit a serious drought once the easier tasks are accomplished. 


The graphics of NHL 2003 are slightly better than last year’s version.  Many of the animations are deeper, especially the goalkeepers’ saves.  Players on the ice move realistically, and if you look closely enough (the game moves very fast), dekes and stick moves look great.  Cutscenes show close-ups of players taking faceoffs, shoving each other, and even reach the crowd cheering, booing, and making moves on other fan’s girlfriends.  See what a little too much Molson can do to a man?  Unfortunately, the cutscenes can slow the game down a bit, and the faces, while not completely disrespectful to the Lords of the Rinks, don’t do them justice either.  Speaking of rinks, each team’s home floor looks fantastic.  The ice looks, well, like ice, and the stadium’s lights reflect off the floor incredibly realistically. 


Commentary is lead by Jim Hughson and Don Taylor.  Their inane banter is definitely one of the points that give an arcade feeling to the game.  Their chit-chat gets old pretty quickly, and can be downright annoying when playing for the win.  Crowd reactions, on the other hand, are great.  Murmurs turn to roars when a big hit is delivered, a goal is scored, or a home team’s player is announced as one of the stars of the game.  Real audio from NHL games was recorded for the game, including player chatter, hits on the boards, and the shrill PING! of a shot off the post.  The soundtrack consists mostly of rock bands such as Queens of the Stone Age, Papa Roach, and Jimmy Eats World, so fans of over-adrenalized rock should enjoy the tunes, but if I have to hear Papa Roach whine “Life is hard” one more time, I’m sending my controller through the television.


Overall, NHL 2003 scores huge for hockey fans.  But with only slight improvements over the 2002 version, the game isn’t begging to be purchased by owners of last year’s game. 



Gameplay: 8.5

The controls are excellent, with only the manual deking being difficult to pull off courtesy of the GameCube’s misplaced C-stick.


Graphics: 8.5

Good stuff here, but only slightly better than last year’s.  The close-ups weren’t impressive, but the on ice action makes up for them.


Sound: 6.5

The commentary could use a highstick to the face, and goals could use a little more hooplah, but the action sounds are well done. 


Difficulty: Medium

The adjustable difficulty level of the game leaves something for everyone.


Concept: 7

Not a pure hockey sim, but as close as you can get while still making the game enjoyable.


Multiplayer: 8

Sports games are always more fun to play with or against a friend, and NHL 2003 is no different.


Overall: 8.5

With sports games, it all comes down to control, and EA’s NHL 2003 is one of the best in the business.  NHL 2003 has a slight arcade feel to it, but EA manages to pull it off so it appeals to both the sim purist and the button-mashing arcade fan.   


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