reviews\ Oct 26, 2002 at 8:00 pm

NHL 2003 - XB - Review

Having been a fan of NHL 2K2 on the Dreamcast, there hasn’t been a hockey title that really held my interest until NHL Hits 20-03.  Yet while as wildly fun as those titles are a part of me craved an ultimate hockey simulator experience.  Then in comes EA Sports NHL 2003 for the Xbox and die-hard fans of ice hockey will agree that we’ll have one more thing to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.


There are some really great game modes available to test your skills: Franchise, Playoffs and International.  The Playoffs mode puts your team straight into the playoff while skipping the entire season altogether.  You set the rules and series length and take your team to victory or defeat.  Meanwhile International mode pits country against country on a tournament to win the international championship cup.


While the Franchise mode is not completely in-depth, what is featured here is still a real treat.  You control almost every aspect of your team’s strategy including the roster, trades, task list and rules and settings.  You can retire players and sign on fresh talent, but beware, the game realistically challenges your decisions by adding personality to players you want to sign on for the season (some players don’t like your team while others might be more than happy to be signed on).


The Playoffs mode puts your team straight into the playoff while skipping the entire season altogether.  You set the rules and series length and take your team to victory or defeat.  Meanwhile International mode pits country against country on a tournament to win the international championship cup.  You can even create a player and add him to your favorite national or international team.


This year’s game introduces loads of fancy new moves and a much tighter control scheme for a more complete game.  For starters, there’s a function called the Dynamic Deke Control that allows you to execute one of eight dekes or you can just create your own dekes using the right thumbstick.  Find yourself in the opponent’s zone on your own and the game will trigger a Game Breaker where everything slows down to a nerve-wracking moment before you make a shot to the goal.


The other basic moves such as passing poke and body checks and big hit work perfectly with the faster pace and fluid gameplay.  You can also see the conditions of your teammates just by the icons by their names.  A red cross means a player is too injured to go on playing while a thought bubble with a Z in it means the player is too tired and should be pulled out.


Computer-controlled opponents are a lot tougher to beat this time around as well and make intelligent defensive and offensive decisions.  For one thing and this really depends on the team you’re playing, the opposing team can tighten their defense when you hard hitting star player are on the ice.  Some teams even adapt to your playing style, making them difficult to beat.  Yet as smart as they are, they are still prone to making all the same mistakes you can.


The graphics are not only sharp as a knife, but also high in detail when it comes to the players’ physical features, arena decor and even ice smoothness.  The arenas are something to admire since they’re full of highly detailed fans (many of them who jump up or pump their fists in the air) and the ice looks so smooth that you can trace the lines left behind by the skates.  Each player is neatly rendered as well and with great facial features, you’ll recognize your favorites.  My only complaint is that body movement during animations can look a bit mechanical and sometimes victory animations become too repetitive.


As highly detailed as the graphics are, the sound can also boast the same thing.  There are enough sound effects in this game to make this a realistic experience rather than a televised one.  You can distinctly hear the skates cutting through the ice, the sticks striking against your opponent’s stick and the puck being slammed across the ice.  The two-man commentator team is also outstanding and they call them like they see them--a really nice touch.  And, of course, there is some great rock tunes featured here by Jimmy Eat World to Papa Roach. 


Hockey fans, you don’t have to look any further for that intense yet realistic hockey game because NHL 2003 has all the goods and then some.  Not only does it play like a dream come true but the sharp visuals, near perfect sound and entertaining multiplayer option makes this a new fan favorite.


#Reviewer's Scoring Details


Gameplay: 8.6
The controls are both tight and responsive with the option to customize the game any way you want it. You can slow down the game or speed it up depending on your experience.  The action is both fluid and intense just the way hockey fans like it.  


Players can also get into fistfights with your choice of offering an opponent a jab or a solid uppercut that will send him down on the ice.  Of course, fights spell ejections but what’s hockey without a good brawl?


Graphics: 8.7
The graphics are definitely fitting of the Xbox with crisp graphics and plenty of details to fall in love with.  Each arena is packed and alive with fans that stand up when their favorite team makes a goal or they clap their hands in synch while cheering on their team or calling for defense. 


And the player models are fantastic when it comes to their facial features and their jerseys, although sometimes the movements can appear a bit stiff and awkward.  The animations are various and truly impressive but there are times when you’ll be seeing the same animation over and over again.


Sound: 9.1
The sound is just the best heard in a sports game with a play-by-play commentary by Jim Hughson that’s spot-on and never repetitive.  And while the color commentary by Don Taylor is both funny and informative, there are times when his colorful jokes become way too annoying to continue listening to (thank you, EA Sports, for including an option to turn off the color commentary). 


Yet the best part of the sound is the detailed sound effects of the crowds going nuts when a goal is made or the sounds of the other players on the bench to the blades scraping the ice.  And to keep you company, there are some great tunes from Queen of the Stone Age to Gob and Default.


Difficulty: Medium
Players are a lot smarter this time around and even the goalie AI puts up a real challenge with some great saves.  There are four difficulty settings to choose from--Beginner, Easy, Medium and Difficult.  Choosing the Beginner setting obviously changes the computer-controlled opponent response but the commentators will also offer advice throughout the game.


Concept: 8.9
The realism factor accurately capture the game quite well and because of the Dynamic Deke Control functions and the Game Breaker feature, the game just feels more complete.  There’s also the NHL Cards feature that offers plenty of extras such as cheats and the option to unlock members of bands featured in the soundtrack as playable characters.


Multiplayer: 9.0
This is definitely the type of game to play with a group of friends and thanks to all the great modes, you can chose to be a favorite national team or even an international one.  And the best part is that up to four players can play.  You can pair off and see which team makes it to the championships. It really doesn’t get any better than this.


Overall: 9.0
EA Sports has done it again, NHL 2003 is an over-the-top hockey experience that will surely be a sports favorite.  Hockey fans don’t have to look any further since you can’t really go wrong with this one.  A recommended Must-Buy.


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