I’ve never played hockey. Not once. I’ve played a great many athletic sports (only casually) throughout my life, but my inability to ice skate has always kept me away from hockey -- that brutal, face crushing, frenetic sport. This hasn’t kept me from watching the occasional game however. Before I begin, let me preface this by stating that I’m not as much of a fan of hockey as I could be, but I’ve always appreciated it for its complexity and sheer intensity. To this end, I’ll try to give you a good idea of the fun I had playing this title and, hopefully, I won’t get bogged down in technical issues that I’m not an authority on in the first place.
EA Sports has been making sports games for quite a while now and it can often be said that the line of games produced by this one division of Electronic Arts is definitely the lifeblood of the company. Refining what they learn each time, I’m happy to say that NHL 2002 is most definitely the latest and greatest evolution in a series of what have been relatively good games. Offering more features and gameplay modes than nearly all competitors, you’ll get the chance to take the helm of any of the 2002 hockey teams, and proceed to use it to crush your opposition.
Focusing on quick, strong gameplay and the excellent graphics that grace all of the latest EA Sports games, NHL 2002 provides a good arcade/console style game that doesn’t take much to learn and is easy to control. You can play a quick game if you’re just looking to do a single match, or start a tournament or season to indulge in a long-term campaign against the computer. There is even an NHL Cards feature, which lets you collect this year’s entirety of the Top Deck NHL card series, store them in a binder, and examine them to your hearts content.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
The first thing you’ll need is a good gamepad. Not what I’d call a severe flaw, but a bit of a disappointment nonetheless, is the fact that keyboard play really sucks. This game, like most sports titles, really needs a gamepad to work well, as you’ll get better control and quicker response out of it than you would with the arrow keys and space bar. Thankfully, there are only about five different controls you’ll need for most gameplay, so you won’t have to move your hands back and forth between the gamepad and controller too often.
Once you’ve started a match, the first thing you’ll notice is the wide view area you’ve got to work with. Not too constricted, you can see enough of the rink at one time to properly control the flow of the gameplay. You’ll be able to control one player at a time (with the rest of your team handled by the NHL AI), attempting to pass, block, and deke your way to a goal shot. If you’re feeling particularly cocky, you can even take control of your goalie and do a little free skating while you’re waiting for the punk shooter on the other team to line up for his shot. Don’t worry about your back, as the AI in NHL 2002 isn’t stupid, and actually performs the way you’d expect an actual team to handle itself. This, I believe, is because of the wide variety of parameters that NHL 2002 takes into account (more on that ahead).
You can create new players, partially modify the ones you’ve got, and even change the coaching strategy that your players follow while you’re not directly controlling them. This doesn’t sound like a lot to deal with at first, but this is where I’d pay the most attention, as there are hordes of different alterations you can make. If you want to create a player, you can modify things like his hero factor, agility, and even aggressiveness towards the other team. The coaching strategies let you change whether you’re using a triangular layout for your players, or a positional one, complete with a helpful graphic display that lets you know how the changes you’re making are impacting your overall game.
Finally, you can play the game in a number of different ways. You can create a fantasy league, play through all the games in that league, participate in a tournament you’ve created yourself, or even take your chosen team through a whole season of hockey. If you just want a quick buzz, you can just play a single game, with random teams or the same one you’ve been using the entire time.
EA Sports included a small in-game browser that can poll EA.com or a list of servers from the NHL 2002 master server. You can play most all of the normal game types online with friends and, aside from taking a while to setup a connection, I found the online experience to be rather smooth. I suspected that the game browser may have needed a little work before release, given how long it took to load a server list and actually communicate with the master server, but once that was taken care of, it was smooth sailing. Even when I was getting beaten (which was regularly, due to my lack of mad Hockey skillz) I found the game to be performing at top-notch levels.
The graphics in this game are stunning. EA Sports has a strong foundation of making amazing looking games and NHL 2002 doesn’t disappoint. From the gleam of the helmets to the motion of the players, nearly everything looks realistic and highly detailed. You’ll need to look hard to find signs of clipping problems or tearing effects, as they just aren’t there.
To be fair though, there are a few things I found a little disappointing about this part of the game. Minimum system requirements aren’t all that high, yet the game still seems to have a few performance issues. I was using an Athlon 800mhz processor with a Geforce 2 MX card, and I was still experiencing a lot of slowdown during the parade sequence at the beginning of each game. An added burden comes in the form of the color commentary that, while entertaining, takes a large chunk out of the system to run well. There were a few problems with the way cloth rolled over the bodies of the players, and they still don’t know how to make hands with real, operable fingers, but those things are barely noticeable.
NHL 2002’s audio is pretty good, with a mix of pop background music for the interface and realistic sound effects that just make you want to scream ‘bueno excellante!' The puck, stick, and skate sounds all come across well, even on a poor sound card, and in the background you’ll be able to hear the commentary speaking volumes about your game. As the emotion meter builds up, you’ll even get to listen to the crowd boo, applaud, or hush as you play.
Windows 95/98/00/ME/XP, 300 MHz Pentium, 32 MB RAM, 100 MB hard drive, DirectX 8.0, 4x CD-ROM drive, and 4 MB 3D video card.
Even as a novice, I had a lot of fun with this title. I’m not normally a fan of sports games, as I usually enjoy a bit more of an arcade style game, but NHL 2002 kept me in my seat, playing game after game. Even with its help, I’m still not good at hockey, but with a game like this, who cares? With excellent graphics, strong gameplay, and top-notch design, this is definitely one of my favorites of 2001. There are so many customizable features in this game that it’s just impossible to go into them all. If you’re a true fan of the sport, you probably won’t find a better hockey title this year.
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Since Blades of Steel was released years ago, there have been quite a few pathetic, but also a few solid, hockey games released. Even some of the better attempts like EA’s last NHL 2001 for the PlayStation 2 seemed to not grasp that next level that distinguishes it from all the rest. For instance, NHL 2001 gave a solid multiplayer performance, but was severely lacking in the single player modes and also ran into trouble generating adequate frame rates. Well, if you were disappointed with NHL 2001, you’re in for a pleasant surprise with NHL 2002, as it appears EA Sports was listening to your grievances. This year’s installment features much-improved single player modes like Season Play, Career Mode, and Playoff that greatly increase the games replay value, as well as increased frame rates that put last year's version to shame. In addition, the commentating has been greatly improved, you can create your own player, and there are various other extra features that help keep the game fresh. As you’ll see, NHL 2002 really takes hockey to the next level, with only a few minor gameplay issues to distract you.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
When starting, you’ll see this year there are various different modes to select. For instance, there is a play now option for a quick game, a selection to view NHL cards you’ve earned, and a game mode option that lets you start a new season, playoff, tournament, or shootout. The play now option, basically a quick game, can be a decent alternative when time is short or you don’t want to start one of the longer game modes. To keep this option fresh, there are a range of different settings and strategies available. You’ll be able to adjust the player and goalie’s boost level on yourself and opponent, control the difficulty of the match, and the clock speed can be adjusted. In addition, how often penalties are called can be controlled, how often fights break out can be managed, icing and 2 line pass can be turned on and off, and even injuries can be allowed to occur. All these options are only the beginning of the selections offered, as there are twenty different coaching strategies also available. Anything from a triangle offense to crashing the net to an umbrella power play, you’ll have a difficult time not finding an appropriate strategy to implement. With all these selections, not only will you have more control over the penalties and time of match, but you can also control the strategies used, adding a new perspective to the game. If you need more than a quick game however, you’ll be pleased with some of the other modes presented. One of particular interest will most likely be the season or career mode. Here you can play an entire season starting with the draft and ending in the post season. Awards are even given out after the season is completed for the league’s regular season scoring leader and league MVP. You can also build a career for up to ten seasons going through drafts, free agency, and watching players retire each year. If that’s not personal enough for you, there’s also the ability to create your own player, adjusting a range of different attributes until you’re content. Maybe creating a player doesn’t interest you, but creating a dream team is an entirely separate matter. Here you can pick different players from the NHL and compile them onto one team.
There are other options shorter in duration, as tournament, playoff, or shootout modes can also be played. The tournament and playoff modes can be great options when you have time to play a few games in a row. You can, however, save in either of these modes, so completing a full tournament or playoff schedule in one sitting isn’t necessary. If you’re into scoring or improving your defense, the shootout mode maybe the way to go, as you take five shots at the goal on offense and protect the net using the goalie on defense. Although there are many game modes possible, if the actual gameplay is lacking then twenty playable modes isn’t going to make it exciting. NHL 2002 does deliver excellent gameplay, including plenty of depth, creating a more realistic hockey experience. The AI has been worked over and is definitely a challenge. Your opponent works well as a team and should not be underestimated. Even the goalie seems better able to defend the net and move with the puck. Other smaller things also help the game like being able to skip cut-scenes to get to the action and the emotion meter which, when high enough, increases the crowd involvement if you’re the home team and quiets the crowd when you’re away. To involve you more in the game, you’ll get instant replays of great goals from different camera angles. Some give the puck’s view slamming into the net and every so often there’ll even be a game break to show a play that changed the momentum of the game. Helping you with other goals than to just score, NHL card points are also awarded when certain criteria are met. After the match, those points can be cashed in and packs of cards can be purchased similar to the Madden games. One other thing you’ll notice is the controls. After about a half-hour, you should be comfortable with the basic functions and screaming across the ice. When you have the puck, a saucer pass is performed with the X button, the square shoots, the triangle dekes, the circle gives a speed burst, and L1 and R1 spin left and right. When you're defending, however, the controls change with the X changing players, the circle giving a body check or speed burst, the square will hook, block shot, or poke check, and the triangle performs a big hit. Overall, there is enough control to be effective and the variety of shots and hits gives further variety, helping the game be more realistic.
Just as you would expect, the multiplayer game is top-notch. You could easily spend hours battling it out on the ice. To make it more exciting, up to eight players can play if two multitaps are used and although rarely would you have eight controllers, two multitaps, and eight friends together at the same time, using one multitap and four controllers is more reasonable. Playing two on each team will keep four guys going for quite a while.
Have you seen an EA Sports game with mediocre graphics lately? There are reasons why EA is one of the biggest game producers around and one of them is the graphics capability of their games. It’s always remarkable and NHL 2002 doesn’t miss a beat. You won’t see any physics violations as players won’t be inhumanly fast or strong and the puck angles off walls and players as it would in a regular hockey game. Helmets, facemasks, and even the ice reflect images like one would expect and skates scar the ice while the ice actually sprays off the skates when turning. One issue that could be improved, however, is the face of the athletes. Although better than before, it’s still hard to recognize some hockey players, but most of the time you can at least see some similar qualities.
Not to be outdone by the graphics, the sound definitely holds its own. With clear and crisp sound effects like pucks skipping across the rink, hockey players’ body checking each other, or crowds cheering, if you were in the other room, it would be hard to tell it was just a game. Even the announcers do a fantastic job and react to the game, appearing to have dynamic comments and humor that keep the game moving. Overall, EA Sports did a fantastic job capturing different sound bytes and creating a more engrossing atmosphere.
With NHL 2002, plan on getting solid gameplay and strong single player modes with great graphics and sound. Not only will you get your money's worth, but you’ll probably still be playing it whenis released. This certainly builds a case for the most complete hockey game currently on the market and if you’re a hockey fan, you won’t want to pass this one by.