Review - EA is back with another NHL game, and this time they've actually changed things too
NHL 2002 is ostensibly the same as the PlayStation 2 version of the game. Boasting marginally improved visuals and other less obvious changes the game is effectively just a port. Fortunately for Xbox owners it is a game of unfathomable depth, featuring amongst others things an involved franchise mode which can be played for ten consecutive seasons, and a system of skill levels which award points for performing specific tasks during a game. Parading your skills up and down the rink buys you cards, of which 189 are available, and many of these unlock new features from the sensible to the outright obscure. The ubiquitous Play Now mode lets you get straight onto the ice, but if you delve slightly deeper you can go for the exhibition mode with its four player support, or a 16 player tournament mode, or you could focus on your breakaway skills using the Shootout mode. Before you begin though, you can adjust all manner of settings both in gameplay and technical areas (and the difficulty level, which could do with adjusting given I won my first match eleven goals to three), not to mention creating a profile to record your achievements and rack up your points and card totals. During the game, tasks flash up in gold letters upon completion. Graphically NHL 2002 is a mixed bag. Although the players are nicely modelled they have that tell-tale EA look and almost judder at times. That said, 700 of them have their real faces, and animation is very good in general thanks to some wonderful superfluous detail. Facial expressions are varied and usually relevant, and players all act realistically, making adjustments to their stick and collecting stray passes with their feet, although the players' sharp edges dampen the impact of the close-ups and opening sequences, and the relatively sober fight sequences are nowhere near as involved or varied as those witnessed in NHL Hitz 20-02.
One of the 2002 revision's most controversial features is the breakaway camera, which switches the game to a letterboxed close-up and slows the play down whenever a player gets one-on-one with the goalie. It's a nice effect, with muffled sound effects a la Max Payne. The controls don't change and it's quite easy to slot the puck away from this perspective, but whether it adds anything to the game or not is debatable. The same is also true of the big save and big hit cameras, which close in on and replay spectacular saves and body checks. My biggest problem with these features is that switching between camera modes interferes with play, and ice hockey games are supposed to flow gracefully. Gameplay mechanics have naturally been updated for 2002, with EA doing none too bad a job of it. Players have more control over the puck than before, and individual players are singled out for their abilities and given a sniper, hero, big hitter or big shooter rating. As you might imagine, a hero can turn the tide with only a few seconds left in the game. Securing a big comeback win in the closing moments of an important franchise game is made even more satisfying by the wide variety of goal celebrations, which can be bound to various buttons on the controller. Meanwhile the duo responsible for the commentary is slightly wackier than your average John Motson, spouting off cheesy lines from start till finish. The main guy has that inescapable excitement often found in American sports commentary, and the pair's repartee is often triggered by events on the ice. It's rare not to have them talking, and it makes a nice bit of background jabber, so although there are a few slip-ups it's worth having it around. Elsewhere, the sound effects are very good as you might expect, but the menu music is frankly diabolical, with no jukebox option in sight.
NHL 2002 is a serious ice hockey game peppered with some unusual gimmicks. It lacks a stirring soundtrack and there are a few issues here and there, but on the whole it's a very good interpretation of the game with plenty of replay value. I doubt anybody will unlock everything the game has to offer overnight, and in any event it keeps you coming back. Although the statistical side of the game will doubtless be lost on many Europeans, and the slower pace comes as a shock after NHL Hitz 20-02, the good definitely outweighs the bad.