With the NHL exhibition season in full gear and the regular season just around the corner, there’s no better time to lace up your virtual skates for a go at EA Sports’ NHL 2002. In recent years, the NHL franchise has arguably been EA Sports’ finest, although Madden NFL fans may have something to say about that this year, and NHL 2002 is no exception, living up to its predecessors and still managing to expand on an already great hockey experience. So without further ado, let’s drop the puck and get this game going.
The first thing fans of the franchise will notice is the newly designed menu system. From the main menu, players can head right to the rink for a quick contest, customize their settings, select a game mode, or jump into EA Sports’ lounge for some online play. The usual game modes are offered, including season, playoff, tournament, and career modes. NHL 2002 takes full advantage of both NHL and NHLPA licenses, as all 30 NHL squads and their respective players are represented. EA Sports has also included an assortment of International teams, complete with their official rosters, so you can arrange a tournament or simulate the upcoming Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
One of the new additions to NHL 2002 that you’ll notice at the main menu is something called NHL Cards. These digital trading cards are obtained by completing certain tasks, which can be as basic as scoring a shorthanded goal or as challenging as defeating Team Canada in tournament mode with Team Japan. Each objective is assigned a point value and when you accrue enough points, you can purchase a package of NHL cards to fill up your hockey album with. Some NHL cards trigger bonuses, such as the ability to increase a player’s statistics for the duration of a game, while others activate special events, such as “Next Goal Wins”, “Big Head” and “After Hours” modes. Clearly geared towards the arcade crowd, these NHL cards are optional and can be turned off if they hold no interest to you.
When you finally jump onto the ice for a game, whether it be exhibition, tournament or season play, you probably won’t notice a great deal of change in the overall gameplay. NHL 2002 is faster and crisper than last year, the wrist shot has been improved nicely and the addition of saucer passes and an emotion meter are welcome sights, but most of the changes are what you might refer to as fluff. Take the breakaway cam for example. This new view, activated when the player has a clear break to the net, is more distracting than anything. Sure, it creates a sense of tension, but the dramatic change in gameplay is a little hard to swallow. Another new addition to NHL 2002 is Game Story, a feature that spotlights specific goals or perhaps even a player who performs particularly well during a game. It basically guides the commentary and replays, adding to the TV presentation.
The gameplay enhancements are minimal, but well implemented. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Career Mode. This portion of the game remains untouched. The same flaws and inconsistencies rear their ugly head again in NHL 2002, such as the ability to trade high-profile veterans on the verge of retirement for highly touted skaters on the verge of stardom, the ease at which you can obtain multiple first round draft picks at the start of the season for third and fourth line players, the lack of a farm system to increase players not on the active roster, and the inability for some teams to sign free agents, no matter what their overall record was the previous season. These and other minor grips aside, the Career Mode is still the bread and butter of the package.
Visually, NHL 2002 has an improved look about it. Player animations are crisper while facial features are much more noticeable. During breaks in play, crowd shots feature 3D models, although during play 2D sprites remain the order of the day. Collision detection is much more precise, so much so that you’ll be able to feel the open ice checks and the intentional elbow to the head. As usual, the camera work is top notch as well, featuring a variety of camera angles to choose from. The audio component is as strong as always. The sound effects, which range from shots, checks and crowd noises, are right on the money. The play-by-play commentary features the duo of Jim Hughson and Don Taylor. Both men speak with enthusiasm and Jim’s comments are often informative, but poor Don is forced to spew some incredibly cheesy lines. Overall, the production value continues to improve as the franchise ages.
NHL 2002 allows you to play around to your heart’s content. You can customize the league settings to create your own league and divisions, you can alter rules from icing to penalties, you can create your own player(s), and you can even import faces and logos into the game with relative ease.
Ok, time for the nit picking. The artificial intelligence differs very little from last year. One-timers remain the best shot to score with and although the wrist shot has been improved this season, it takes a little getting used too. Opposing teams often use the same strategies as last year, so if you discovered little tricks to dominate your opponents, those same plays will likely work this season too. For example, the opposition still doesn’t know how to run a powerplay, which you can kill simply by controlling the puck and skating in circles. Opposing teams still don’t know how to forecheck properly, both on the powerplay and at full strength.
I have found that goaltenders are much more responsive to plays, particularly if you attempt the same shot from the same angle over and over. Both players and goalies anticipate a little better this year and you’ll likely notice a lot more scrambling for the puck this year. Hockey fans that found it incredibly difficult for a defenceman to score from the point last year will be happy to hear that goals come from all directions this year, so don’t be afraid to wind up from areas you never would have last year. Unfortunately, the fighting aspect of NHL 2002 has not been improved one bit. Fights remain a furious button-mashing contest with little to no control whatsoever.
I could literally go on for hours about NHL 2002, but I tried to keep this review as short as possible. The question most hockey fans want answered is whether NHL 2002 shows marked improvement over NHL 2001. It’s certainly a step up, but by no means a giant leap. Gameplay is faster and crisper, thanks to a few additions and tweaks, the visuals have received their yearly facelift and the addition of NHL Cards and Game Story are welcome elements, if only for arcade enthusiasts. That’s not to say NHL 2002 is perfect, because it’s not. The Career Mode clearly needs some work done on it and the gameplay sports a glitch or two, particularly with respect to artificial intelligence, but the simple fact remains that NHL 2002 is the best hockey game available for the PC and a must have for any hockey fan.