reviews\ Oct 21, 2002 at 8:00 pm

NHL 2003 - PS2 - Review

Steve Yzerman gathers up the loose puck and charges down the ice towards the net minder Patrick Roy.  He gets off an amazing wrist shot, but Roy snags it up with his huge trapper glove and raises it into the air in celebration of his spectacular save.  But wait, the puck isn't in his glove; it's sitting behind him near the goal line!  Shanahan eyes the puck and taps it in for the winning goal while Roy looks around in confusion.  Roy's big mistake had to be the #1 highlight of the 2002 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs for us Red Wings fans.  Or was it game seven against the same Colorado team, which Detroit won 7-0?  Either way, I'm happy to say that the 2002-2003 hockey season is now underway and with the excitement of the new season, as always, comes another edition of EA Sports' coveted NHL series.

NHL 2003 marks the third year that this series has been offered on the Playstation 2 console and all of these releases have followed a very simple pattern.  More realistic gameplay and impressive features have been included in the game each successive year.  This year's release is no exception to the rule; with the introduction of the dynamic deke control, accurate puck physics, and more realistic goalies (sorry, they don't showboat like Roy, but they do make some great saves) - NHL 2003 is every hockey fans' dream.

The dynamic deke control has to be the most innovative feature of the title, since it adds another dimension to the offensive game.  It lets you control a player's overall movement and stick movement independently, thus allowing for some amazing moves to be pulled off.  All it takes is a flick of the right analog stick, which triggers one of eight possible deke moves.  These moves, which can also be combined into one sick maneuver, include impressive one-handed dekes and other various types.  To shoot the puck after making a deke, all you have to do is press down on the R3 (analog stick) button.  It's an easy to use control scheme and very effective during gameplay.

In NHL 2002 the adrenaline meter was taken away and replaced by the emotion meter.  With the release of NHL 2003, the emotion meter has now been booted and the game breaker meter has taken its place.  Surprisingly, this one is significantly different than the past two meters.  The game breaker meter gets filled up as you use the dynamic deke control and also when you score goals.  Once it's completely full a tap of the L2 button will put you in the game breaker mode, which changes the camera to one that resembles the breakaway cam and gives you a considerable speed advantage over the other players.  This allows you to you can sail past the defense and try to beat the goalie 1-on-1.  The old meters both had an effect on the entire team, whereas this one only affects the player with the puck.  They also often made the game far too lopsided so the new game breaker function really makes a lot more sense.  However, if you happen to prefer no meters as all, you do have the ability to turn this one off, which is always nice.

If a sports title is intended to be a realistic simulation, it's essential that the physics be as accurate as possible in all regards.  While the physics weren't clearly off in the previous years' games, they're definitely right on in NHL 2003.  The puck physics have received the most significant overhaul and as a result, the gameplay has really changed.  The puck can now be deflected in front of the net (whether on purpose using the L1 button or on accident), the speed & direction of rebounds are both more realistic, and the puck can get stuck on the side or top of the net,   Most noticeably though is that it's much more difficult to gather up the puck for both players and goalies.  No longer are players' sticks puck magnets - now it takes precision to get control of the rubber.  As a result, if the puck is by the side of the net (even when it's pretty close to the front), goalies don't automatically get control of it and even if a player wins a race to the puck, that doesn't necessarily mean he'll gain control of it.  You have to watch where the stick blade is at in relation to the puck.  The ability to use the right analog stick to independently move a player's hockey stick when he doesn't have the puck would have been a worthwhile feature to include because of this often frustrating characteristic.  Maybe next year!

The physics of the players themselves have also been altered slightly.  Big hits don't have as much power as they previously did and it's generally more difficult to knock a player down than it has been in the past.  It is possible to change the hitting power within the gameplay settings, but the default setting seems to be the most realistic.  Speaking of gameplay settings - gamers still have a great deal, perhaps an unparalleled amount, of freedom when setting up how this game plays.  Every possible rule and gameplay setting can be fine tuned to your liking.  Alter the puck friction, shot blocking, pass interceptions, shot accuracy, game speed, and much more.

Goalies now behave more realistically as they choose which position to go into for a particular situation.  They may use the butterfly position for a typical shot, but go into a pad stack or a Hasek-type flop if they're totally desperate.  If faced with a breakaway, they may pull off some crazy never-seen-before maneuver and seem to completely change the mood of the game.  Rebounds are now a lot more common before (by default) and this allows for many new scoring opportunities.

Just as the art of shot blocking seems to be getting more popular in the NHL itself, it's now more common within the video game too.  Often times it can be difficult to get a shot to even reach the net if the opposing team decides to go on a shot blocking spree.  Getting good at this tactic is important if you want to dominate in this game and it works especially well when trying to frustrate your friends.  There are two ways to block a shot in NHL 2003.  You can either press L1, which makes the player lay down completely, or square, which puts a player down on one knee; both methods are effective in different situations.  However, you must be careful not to deflective the puck into your own net - it can and does happen!

A small, but very nice feature that has been implemented into NHL 2003 is a clock that uses actual seconds for the last minute of gameplay.  So if you're playing a game with 5 minute periods the seconds will be very fast (since it uses a 20 minute clock) until the last minute, when it starts counting down in whole seconds.  This allows you to more accurately plan out what you're going to do within the last few seconds of a period because the last minute went by so quickly in previous versions that it was hard to even think about it.

The GameStory feature has also evolved and is now known as GameStory 2, since it now tracks and highlights player and team stories throughout an entire season.  This addition may not be significant to some people though, since many of us never even see the story because we just mash buttons until the next face off comes up.

In NHL 2003, the game state can be drastically changed by playing collected NHL cards altering coaching strategies at different points in the game.  There are tons of cards to collect, so trying to get all of them is quite a task in and of itself. Use the cards to give one of the opposing players the flu, make one of your own players a hero for a period, or immediately empty your opponents game breaker meter.  As usual, the Easter egg cards make for some interesting gameplay.  Sumo hockey, anyone?

No new game modes have been added in 2003, but gamers can still choose from play now, franchise, playoffs, and international (tournament) modes.  Just as before, franchise lets you trade and release players, pick up free agents, and draft rookies for up to ten seasons in a row.  Custom players as well as custom teams can also be created if desired.  The fights within NHL 2003 are a little different than before, but still not very impressive.

If you want a hockey game that is a true simulation of the sport - look no further than EA Sports' NHL 2003.  Gone are the days when certain moves always resulted in a goal, when there was no stick-handling freedom, and when puck physics were far from being realistic.  The new features, especially the dynamic deke control are remarkable and may warrant an upgrade from a previous version for the true hockey fans.  This game looks good, sounds incredible and plays like a dream.  However, be aware than with more realism comes a harder difficulty level.

Gameplay: 9
This game plays beautifully.  The new unique control features and realistic physics make for unparalleled gameplay.

Graphics: 8.5
While there wasn't a huge jump in graphical quality from the previous version, the game still looks great.  The reflections on various surfaces, the lighting, and the shadows allow the game to closely resemble an actual hockey game.  The perfectly modeled arenas and detailed crowd also add to the experience.  Players are modeled accurately and their movements are very lifelike.  Many animation sequences have also been thrown in the mix for between plays; refs hold back players after fights have been broken up and goalies immediately complain to the refs after getting scored on.

Sound: 10
The audio is absolutely amazing in this game.  First of all, the soundtrack simply cannot be beat.  The shear number of songs is impressive, but the quality of the artists chosen is equally amazing.  Expect to hear Jimmy Eat World, Queens of the Stone Age, Papa Roach, Default, and many more.  The play-by-play and color commentary has gotten more creative (or annoying, depending on your perspective), but what's more innovative is the "on the ice" sound, which really puts you in the game.  This consists of actual game sounds that have been captured from hockey games, including bench noise, players shouting, and sticks/skate blades scraping the ice.  It actually sounds like you're sitting in the middle of the ice, especially if you have a good surround system setup (the game supports Dolby Digital and DTS systems.  Within the game you have to choose from either the one ice sound or the commentary and my vote goes to the former.

Difficulty: Hard
NHL 2003 is noticeably harder than previous versions, which is primarily due to the increased amount of realism found within the game.  It takes more time to get used to than past versions, but at the same time it's nice to be faced with a challenge for a change

Concept: 9
Even though it's still a typical hockey game, the new features make it conceptually unique.  The dynamic deke system is a significant development since it allows for realistic stick-handling freedom.  The game breaker meter also adds a new twist to the game since it can be triggered manually.

Multiplayer: 8
As always, up to eight players can play using two PS2 multi-taps; however, the lack of online support is disappointing.

Overall: 9


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