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NHL 2000 (PC) Review

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: September 1999

Background Info


There are few sports series as controversial as EA Sports' annual hockey offering. Often despised by hardcore sim fans, it's usually a big seller, and popular with arcade game and eye candy fans. Even among this latter crowd, though, last year's NHL 99 stumbled. The infamous EA Sports "super goalies" were back in force, and the computer teams depended on what can only be called cheats to make up for deficient artificial intelligence (AI). Has the EA team been able to rise to the challenge and reclaim their status as the king of arcade hockey games? Read on.

Presentation/Graphics : 100
EA Sports has a reputation for producing graphically beautiful games, and NHL 2000 makes it obvious why. The player models are stunning, with a level of detail that pushes the limits of current PC graphics technology. The way their faces are animated to show different emotions is impressive. They'll shout for joy after scoring a goal or winning a game, and bitterly argue with the referee when a penalty is called. Even on the bench - or walking to and from their dressing room - the animations are superb.

The arenas and animations show an equal level of detail. You can see individual fans in the crowd. They're just 2D bitmaps, but with small animations and movements that adds to the atmosphere. You also see empty seats; the number of people at a game depends on how your team is doing, among other factors. Before and after a period you'll see players going to and from the dressing rooms, and during gameplay you see players' reactions on the bench. There's even a specific animation routine for when you win the Stanley Cup. Your team pours onto the ice to celebrate, and parades the cup around the rink.

The off-play graphics, camera angles, and other TV effects are stellar. The "TV presentation" is done nearly perfectly. EA Sports has really outdone themselves this year, and has earned a rare 100% rating in this category.

Presentation/Audio : 90
The game's sound is almost as good as the graphics. The crowd cheers and boos at appropriate times, and does a great job of setting the atmosphere. The roar of the crowd really sounds like thousands of people cheering. There are a lot of little details, like players arguing with the referee when fingered for a penalty. The color commentary is more accurate than last year's.

The one technical flaw in the sound is the recording quality of the color commentary. It not only sounds like it was done at a different time than the play by play, but also as if it wasn't even done on the same kind of recording equipment. The quality of the recording itself isn't bad, but it doesn't sound like the tandem play calling of two side-by-side commentators. It's quite distracting the way it's presented, so some users may end up turning this feature off. But overall the sound is very well done and adds to the immersion of the game.

Interface/Options : 84
EA Sports has done a good job on the user interface and the wide assortment of options available in NHL 2000. The interface itself is very easy to navigate using the mouse. Even the "import your face" feature is relatively easy to use, with handy features like zoom controls and tutorial-style instructions. I had no difficulty using any function I wanted to access, and that was without the benefit of a user manual.

All of the standard options you would expect are included. You can play exhibition games, seasons of varying lengths, or playoff match-ups. But the Season mode also has some innovative features, most notably the career mode. You can simulate up to ten consecutive seasons, with player drafts and free agents happening in the summer. I simmed ten seasons and was able to win one Stanley Cup by signing Joe Sakic when he became a free agent. A couple times the playoffs were a bit wonky, only eight teams instead of sixteen were let into the playoff rounds. I also had a bit of trouble learning the user interface for signing free agents. But otherwise the career mode seems sound, and the simmed games come up with mostly reasonable results.

The statistics display is complete, though not as detailed as the one available in Fox's upcoming NHL Championship 2000. At the end of the season you can see who won various trophies and awards (both for teams and individuals) which is a nice touch.

The season mode has one other pretty neat feature. You can define your league to have an arbitrary number of teams. For example, I've always maintained that the current NHL league has too many teams, thus diluting the talent. So I set up a 1980s style league with sixteen teams and started it in fantasy draft mode, where every player in the league is put into an open draft. As I expected I was able to build a pretty solid team in this smaller league. A very impressive touch is that the game automatically selected the correct teams, conference, and division names from the time when there really were sixteen teams in the NHL. Intrigued, I tried setting up a six team "original six" league - and sure enough it picked the correct teams as the default selection, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York, and Toronto. Very slick.

There is also a nice set of options for the action part of the game. Of course there are the usual settings for turning various hockey rules on or off. A long overdue option - in all hockey games - is a player-boost slider that allows you to adjust the speed at which the players move. At the default setting the movement speed is exaggerated compared to real skaters, but you can slow it down as much as you want. There's also an option to turn off the equally exaggerated speed-boost turbo button, which I'd recommend doing before starting your first game. Another feature I like is that you can lock your controller into one position. For example, you can play center for the whole game - this is another feature that all sports games should have.

Another important feature is the goalie-boost, which is EA's answer to the "super goalie" criticism of previous games in the series. You can turn the goalie boost level up or down for either team, customizing the goalie skill to your own personal preference. However, there is what I consider to be a major design flaw in the implementation of this feature - it is only available in exhibition games! So in season mode, which is the core of the game after all, both your goalie and the computer team goalie have to be set to the same level. This is a very serious oversight in my opinion. Newcomers to the game may have difficulty competing with both goalie levels having to be set to the same levels. And once you find the goal-scoring plays (more on this in the next section) you'll have the opposite problem, it will be touch to get a competitive game out of the CPU.

Fighting has been totally revamped this year. Gone are the silly pseudo-boxing matches from NHL 99. Now the players hang on to each other with one hand, as in a real hockey fight.

As mentioned, the "import your face" feature you've probably heard about is fairly easy to use. First you create a player and then import a head-shot photo of the face you want to import. Then there is a reasonably straight-forward process of highlighting the locations of the eyes, nose, mouth, and edges of the face in the photo. The game applies it onto a 3D player model, which you can preview before saving your work. Does the result look like the person you imported? Yes and no. The game puts its own selection of hair and eyes in (allowing you to edit the colors). And the 3D shape of the head and nose is pre-defined. Other features, such as cheeks, chin, parts of the nose, and skin color, are captured well. I tried importing my eight-year-old son, and while the resulting 3D player didn't exactly look like him, there was a resemblance that was kind of neat. With a bit more practice I might get better at adjusting things like the shape of the eyes to match the subject photo better. I wouldn't expect to see your spitting image lighting up the goal light, but you can have some fun with this feature.

The only thing I had trouble finding in the user interface was an option for editing players. Creating players was easy but I couldn't figure out where to edit them; I presume there must be a way.

Another important feature of the game is multiplayer support. It supports multiple players on one computer, over a LAN, and over the Internet. Unfortunately it seems a little unstable at this point so I had trouble testing it. My 2-player co-op games on one computer usually crashed at some point during the game. The Internet play has a nice in-game chat and match-up service, but it crashes every time I try to access it (other users have also reported this via the sports newsgroup and EA's web-based NHL forums). The good news is that EA is aware of the problem and is working on a solution. Internet play is an important feature so I expect them to release a patch as soon as possible. But if you are mostly interested in multiplayer you might want to hold off on your purchase until the patch is released. Check back here for an updated review once the match-up service is fixed.

Gameplay : 75
Now we come to the heart of the product, the gameplay. The important question is whether or not EA fixed the gameplay holes that plagued NHL 99. If you are looking for a hardcore, realistic hockey simulation the answer is no. This is still primarily an arcade game. The puck and player physics are not realistic, and the AI is still the weakest area of the game (more on this in a bit). This is not the "gameplay-and-AI total rewrite" that some people may have been hoping for. As an arcade game, on the other hand, it is definitely an improvement.

Almost everyone will agree that the biggest flaw in NHL 99 was the infamous EA Sports "super goalies." There were goal-scoring tricks, but you couldn't score on normal high-percentage hockey plays. Brett Hull could take shots from the slot all day long and not score a single goal. Even worse was the fact that only computer controlled teams had the super goalies - your own goalie was so bad he'd be cut from a Monday-night amateur team. This is no longer the case in NHL 2000. It's possible to score on one-timers, clean shots, deflections, and other realistic hockey plays. This is a long-overdue change to the series that is nice to see.

Nice as the new goal-scoring methods are, making the goalies more realistic has underscored another perennial weakness in the series. Defensive AI. To be blunt, the game has very little of it. This was, in fact, the reason EA implemented the old super goalies in the first place, to make the game harder despite the fact that it had poor defensive AI. They fixed the goal scoring, but without also fixing the AI this makes the game too easy. Brett Hull can now score on two or three out of ten shots. That's not a problem. What is a problem is that he can skate up his wing deep into enemy territory unchallenged - in a straight line, with no speed burst or passing - all day long. The defense just backs right up. If you don't feel like taking slap shots you can score even more often by going behind the net - again, unchallenged - and doing a wraparound shot. And since the goalie boost levels have to be the same for both teams, you can't balance for this by making your own goalie weaker. It's a frustrating experience, because the pieces of a good arcade game are there, but disabled.

The computer offensive AI is improved over last year. The computer will sometimes make good scoring plays such as one-timers. It could still use more work though. In combination with the unrealistic physics model it is too easy to just use the "hit everything in sight" defense, and it is brutally effective against the CPU. The offensive AI of your own teammates is also improved over last year. At some places on the rink they still have that annoying tendency to stop to receive a pass, but it's not nearly as bad as last year. And they don't have quite as bad a "follow the leader" effect either; they will sometimes keep going even if you have to turn around with the puck. Overall this gives the game a better feeling of flow and motion.

The player physics aren't realistically simulated. Players skate and move the same as they did in NHL 99. The momentum of players is a little better (i.e., big players are better at hitting) but they still don't exactly feel like they are on skates. The puck physics is also still arcadish. It's been improved, such as when shots miss the net. That helps make the shot count not quite as outrageous as in NHL99. But the puck still moves too fast, passing is too accurate, and there is not enough friction between the puck and the ice. The player-boost slider that affects skater speed is very nice to see. It doesn't do anything for the weak physics model, but it does allow you to play the game at a pace that resembles real hockey if you turn off the speed boost button as well.

The extra-man AI is just terrible. On penalty killing all you have to do is make one pass and take the puck behind your own net. You can just stand there for the full two minutes until the penalty runs out. The computer team won't bother you. When the computer has a penalty the AI seems just as broken. Often the entire computer team will collapse back into their own net and make a human wall in front of their goalie. The sad thing is that this strategy works - Al MacInnis can blast a shot from ten feet away and it will bounce off a player without even hurting him.

One feature I'm always looking for in a sport game is momentum. EA says it's in there, but I don't see much evidence of it. Maybe the effect is too subtle. Or maybe it's just ineffective due to the weak AI - the momentum changes, but the computer doesn't challenge my players much in any case.

It's hard to come up with a rating for this section, as the gameplay is a real mixed bag. If you are a casual arcade gamer the rating would be about a ninety. For an experienced arcader, maybe eighty. If you want a realistic simulation of hockey it would be much lower, a sixty-five or so. I guess I'll split the difference and call it a seventy-five.

Replay Value : 70
Replay value often seems to be the big question mark with the EA Sports NHL series. Sadly I think they have missed the mark this year. I say sad because they COULD have had a pretty good arcade game just by implementing the independent goalie boost system. But since it's disabled in season mode it is basically useless. Not everyone cares about realistic puck physics and hardcore sports simulation, but arcade game fans still want to play a competitive game against the computer. I think most people will be very impressed by the NHL 2000 graphics and play it for a few weeks, and then likely as not give up because of the goalie-balancing problem. The franchise mode offers some interesting potential as a non-action hockey sim, but without balanced on-ice gameplay to go with it I don't know how long it will last.

The one factor that may make the game worth re-playing is Internet multiplayer support, including support for online leagues. But since it's not currently working for many users, including myself, I can't include this in the rating. As mentioned previously, this review will be updated when the match-up service is fixed.

Overall : 83
NHL 2000 is a better game than NHL 99. If you liked NHL 99, or if you're a big eye candy fan, you will be very happy with NHL 2000. It could have been much better, especially as an arcade game. But the design decision to disallow the goalie-balancing feature in season mode - combined with the near total lack of defensive AI - ultimately leaves a game only a bit more satisfying than last years, despite the new features. So as a single-player game it has potential but falls short of the mark. As a multiplayer arcade hockey game it may eventually provide you with a satisfying experience, assuming you have a fast net connection.

By: Joe McGinn 9/23/99

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