Does NHL 2003 impress like Tampa Bay, or disappoint, like Toronto? God, I never thought I'd be saying those words.
The blast of the siren after the rubber hits the twine. The roar of the crowd. For over a century, the ever-evolving game of hockey has entertained the masses and solidified its position as one of the world’s top tiered sports. And for over a decade, Electronic Arts’ sporadically evolving hockey videogames have entertained the masses while consistently topping the charts above all other hockey games.
EA’s hockey games have always been accessible to the player. Whether you look back to the early SNES incarnations, the transitional move into three dimensions, or the more recently released versions designed for more powerful machines, the concept, controls, and mechanics have consistently been user-friendly. While NHL 2003 should be no different in regards to achieving great sales and pleasing casual gamers, it might not be enough to satisfy the dedicated hockey fan.
Graphically, the game is top notch. The players are excellently detailed, as one would be hard pressed to find a pointy edge or rough texture on any of them. Of course some of the faces can look downright hideous, but when someone’s forced to model hundreds upon hundreds of faces based on actual people, there’s only so much you can demand. The players, for the most part, animate beautifully as well. The arenas are superbly modeled, and the crowd not only consists of sharp and varied 2D sprites, but even features a handful of polygonal fans situated near the entrance to the ice or in other places the camera may focus. Little details, such as the players’ shadows, reflections off the ice, or helmet visors reproducing images of the stadium’s lighting, help complete the accurate visual package.
For the past few years, EA’s hockey games have had strong presentations. Although the opening intro video is horrendously bland compared to previous efforts, that’s all there is to complain about in the area. Before each game, a camera situated inside your team’s locker room pans around the area, showing a few lines of players getting ready. It then quickly focuses on a player and shows you some clips of his previous encounters with the opposing team, all presented in a flashback style sequence. Cut scenes between whistles help recreate the feeling of being at an actual game, as isometric shots of fans booing, cheering, and even throwing hats onto the ice (after a hat trick) help further the experience.
The past couple NHL games have established a reputation for great sound. While other recent hockey titles feature crowds that sound like they’ve been watching cricket for the past ten hours, NHL 2003 realistically simulates the aural experience of actually being at a hockey game. Whenever the crowd isn’t cheering or booing, there’s often a “buzz” that can’t really be explained, but only experienced. After spending a couple minutes fooling around with the sound options (one can even toggle crowd noise and rink speech separately), I found myself just listening to the rink speech at full blast. It’s truly unreal what the sound technicians at EA Canada have done, as they’ve fully recreated the sound of sitting in a seat at your home team’s arena.
It doesn’t stop with crowd noise either, as the usual sound effects you’d find at your average game are all there too, though somewhat amplified for dramatic effect. Ice getting carved by a dozen or so blades, players grunting after getting flattened against the boards, it’s all there. I’m personally surprised that there haven’t been any reported heart attacks as a result of the sound of the opponent hitting your post. The sound of the rubber hitting the iron is just insane. The game also features a wealth of licensed, mostly alternative songs. Whoever produced the list should be commended, as bands like Queens of the Stone Age, Jimmy Eat World, and Treble Charger fit the game perfectly.
The only downside to NHL 2003’s listening experience is the announcing. The announcing team is comprised of Jim Hughson and Don Taylor. Hughson has been a play-by-play man for years and is one of the best in the business, while Taylor currently anchors a western Canadian sports show and does a great job at that. While Hughson’s main play by play is superb (I still get shivers hearing his patented, “GREAT SAVE, _____”), the majority of the dialogue the two spit out is atrocious. Many times you’ll find yourself racing up the ice on a two on one, only to hear the two commentators bickering about the terminology of some joke. At least 60% of their talking is spent either setting up or knocking down a joke, and it’s just lame. That truly is the only complaint that can be issued in regards to NHL’s sound department, but it is a valid one.
Unfortunately, there’s a more diverse list of negatives when it comes to the game’s control issues. While the basic form of movement on the ice is acceptable, players will soon find that positioning is made harder than it should be because of the control. Whether you’re trying to defend on an even or odd man break, the prospect of lining up a hit or even poke check is far too difficult to constantly achieve. Other mechanics have been changed for the worse as well. Poke checking is extremely ineffective, as only perfectly lined up jabs with your stick will free the puck from your opponent, and while purists may appreciate the toning down of the speed boost, it too loses the effectiveness that fans of the series have been used to.
The main reason the controls suffer is that the game was not developed specifically for the GameCube. Key gameplay elements, such as the left and right spin moves, aren’t even included in the default control scheme, so right off the bat you can recognize how this can affect the game. Even though you’re given the option to tweak the control schemes, there really is no layout that allows you to play the game to its fullest extent.
However, EA has implemented a dekeing system that, while not perfect, is definitely a step in the right direction. In NHL 2002, you could perform a manual deke by holding down a button and moving the main analog stick left or right. In NHL 2003, all you need to do to pull off a deke is move the C-stick any direction they’d like. While there are still some issues to be sorted out in terms of dekeing, it’s definitely an inspiring evolution over the old 1-2 deke of old.
While the control is suitable for both beginners and those who have been playing hockey games for years, the same cannot be said for NHL 2003’s gameplay. Though EA’s hockey series has always been somewhat open ended with a pick up and play mentality, they’ve truly separated their brand from the simulation aspect of the sport on the ice. The game can best be described as a mix between Sega’s NHL2K2 and Midway’s NHL Hitz, though the latter comparison can be stretching it a bit. At first glance, one might mistake the game to be one of the most realistic hockey games ever created, as the game offers dozens of different modes and options: sliders for all basic forms of gameplay, numerous classic jerseys, coaching strategies, on ice strategies, the works. But once you hit the ice, those thoughts fly right out the window.
First off, the sense of speed is unrealistically portrayed on the default setting, as you’ll witness players shooting across the ice faster Paul Kariya with a bee in his skates. Though the game speed can be altered thanks to those wonderful sliders (I can’t stress enough how important these things are in hockey games), this just magnifies another key flaw, puck possession. Not only is the useless poke check function amplified under these conditions, but the lacklustre AI is as well. Too many times you’ll see teammates circling around a loose puck for far too long, only to have to opposition come in and sweep it up. To make matters worse, EA has greatly toned down the severeness of body checking. Though I’m thankful that the ‘big hit’ check has become less important, normal hitting and shoving is extremely ineffective, even with the slider for the category moved to the maximum setting. The accumulation of the poor AI and useless defensive strategies results in a feeling of helplessness when you’re in your own zone. Watching a defensive pairing like Pronger and Macinnis skate around without a care in the world while Brathwaite is forced to stop five consecutive shots in as many seconds is practically disgraceful.
On the subject of mandatory miraculous saves, another one of the games bright spots shines through. Though the majority of the regular player AI is lacking, the same cannot be said for the goaltenders. With most games, a goaltender will attempt a preset save, move back to the middle of the crease, and then attempt another save, if need be. In NHL 2003, EA has designed the goaltenders save patterns to link together in a very realistic manner, and it’s apparent right off the bat. There’s nothing cooler than seeing someone like Richter slide across to make a right pad save, keep his position (on his knees), and then sprawling to his left in an attempt to stop a one-timer.
Speaking of one-timers (you knew it was coming), they have always been one of, if not the primary device for scoring goals in the NHL series, and it’s no different in 2003. Even though the likelihood of having your pass intercepted has increased, it's not enough to keep you from attempting repeated one-time throws.
New to the NHL series is the addition of the Gamebreaker, a pseudo knock off of the function found in NBA Street. After you have performed a variety of moves, such as extravagant dekes and big hits, the Gamebreaker meter will eventually fill up, granting you access to a short five-second period when the camera zooms in and the game slows down for a more concentrated gameplay moment. Unfortunately, despite the developer’s intentions, this function actually hampers the player since the narrow camera view reduces visibility, negating many opportunities for one-timers.
This is not the only instance where the camera gets in the way. The default camera in NHL 2003 is way too close to the ice, which brings up the same problems mentioned above. Thankfully there are better angles to choose from.
There are numerous modes available the moment you boot the game up, since you can either dive into a normal exhibition game, or dive straight into the playoffs. There’s even an international mode, which enthusiasts could use to recreate the thrilling Canada vs. USA match up we witnessed in Salt Lake earlier this year. For those who are really into the sport, one could choose a franchise, and be with the team for a decade. If you want to play a major role as a player, you can battle through all 82 scheduled games, and hopefully get into the playoffs. The option to merely simulate those games, and instead focus on the vitality of the team from a management point of view is there too, and it makes for a cool experience. Few hockey games have given the user more than the experience of merely trading players, but in NHL 2003, drafting, waiving, and retiring players are all available options. Finally, the developers have included an ‘NHL Card’ system, which basically allows you to earn points by completing objectives in the game (score a hat trick with two players, win five consecutive face-offs, and so forth) and use those points to obtain cheats or cards that can be used in the franchise mode. It’s a neat function, though I’m sure many will have clashing opinions regarding the ability to make the opposing goaltender sick for a week by merely using a card. Nevertheless, it does add up to what could wind up being a fairly uneventful 82 game drive.
For those of you who are just getting into the sport or want a fast experience without the nuances of setting up your power play, pinning players against the boards, and other seemingly boring aspects of the game of hockey, you’ll probably enjoy NHL 2003. The game is fast, easy to get into, and offers an excess of modes and options that will keep the experience fresh. However, if you can’t stand the pain of watching a player like Bob Probert split the defense, and perform a one-handed deke that would make Jaromir Jagr blush, stay away. The overabundance of sliders, options, and franchise modes may entice you at first, but once you experience many of the game’s annoyances, it will become all too apparent that those hardcore options mask a simple game.