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NHL 2000 (PSX) Review

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: September 1999

Background Info

September...and a hockey fan's fancy turns toward training camp (and contract holdouts, sometimes). The icemen are coming back for another year. And so are their video game counterparts. Electronic Arts introduced the first serious NHL-based video game for the Sega Genesis in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh Penguins' first Stanley Cup win in 1991. Now, nearly a decade later, here comes NHL 2000. It will face some tough competition this year, from a perennial challenger (989 Sports' NHL Faceoff series), a comeback (Fox's NHL Championship 2000, a third-generation title once known as PowerPlay), and a new kid on the block with an old name (Konami's NHL Blades of Steel 2000). EA took the overall PSX video hockey championship last year. Will it lay claim to two in a row?

Presentation/Graphics : 100
At first glance the players, the rinks, and the arenas suggest that NHL 2000 is at best a touch up of its immediate predecessor. However, first impressions are deceiving. The upgrades are subtle but noticeable. First is the increased frame rate. Animations are more fluid; goalies in particular are much more impressive. Although players' faces are more detailed and individualized, there are not too many chances to get up close and personal with the on-ice personnel. At a distance the players lose some detail and take on a grainy appearance.

In-game cameras include the familiar zoom option for play in the slot; the angles are highly playable, although each player will have his or her preferences. The default angle offers plenty of side-to-side vision with which to generate a good passing game.

There are some nice touches. Most teams are equipped with alternate jerseys (I had the Devils break out their old green and red togs); in most cases they replicate the real thing down to the last stitch (although the Coyotes' third jersey still retains the purple piping of the prototype that disappeared with the final jersey). The puck is now surrounded by a gray halo and leaves a streak when shot hard (shades of Triple Play!). This is what EA calls "motion blur graphics." But the interiors of the arenas, despite some individual touches, look largely generic.

The game menus have been drastically overhauled, offering users a rather clean, bright interface (even if the fonts used remind one of the Faceoff series a few years ago). Game load screens feature photographs of the arenas, not the old flyby, although more information is displayed (hot and cold players, for example). Although I normally care little for the FMV openings for most games, I'll make an exception here, if only because it features the famed Phoenix Coyote whiteout during playoff time. Of course, the Coyotes' record at home during the playoffs during their three years here is not exactly inspiring, but...

Overall, a slight improvement on its predecessor, especially when it comes to fluid movement and animations.

Presentation/Audio : 90
Most games boast about their play by play audio; some celebrate their team in the booth. EA is no exception. Jim Hughson is back behind the mike, joined this year by Bill Clement, who has come a long way in terms of hairstyle since his days with the Flyers and is now far better dressed than he was during the Easter Epic (the quadruple-overtime Islanders-Caps deciding contest in 1987). However, EA's philosophy this year must be "less is more," for Hughson and Clement don't speak quite as much as did Hughson and Darryl Reaugh, and they offer comments keyed to specific players and teams. I count that as something of a setback. In contrast, the PA is, if anything, somewhat funnier.

The crowd noises, chants, arena-specific horns and sirens, and organ and arena music add a great deal toward making you feel that you are actually in the arena. So does the sharp clang one hears when puck hits post. And the crowd explodes when the home team scores, completing the experience. Here EA has built on a solid foundation. The menu music is upbeat and a little less daunting than that played on NHL 99, although I suspect that it, too, may become a bit wearing over time.

The decline in the performance of the announcing team detracts from what is otherwise a pretty good (but not spectacular) audio package.

Interface/Options : 84
NHL2000 offers players all sorts of options, from various modes of play (including exhibition, season, playoff, and tourney) to multiple levels of difficulty; players can calibrate various audio options and toggle on/off various rules. In short, you can customize the game to your liking. The game controller offers one the usual individual player and coaching options; new this year is a "big hit"/"deke" button that offers players the opportunity to take risks to make big plays (or suffer setbacks). The controls are highly responsive, a slight improvement over NHL 99 and a significant one from NHL 98. This is important because of the increased speed of gameplay.

There are also the usual roster/coaching/player creation options, although these are slightly deeper this year. Now one can see all four lines on screen at once, making shuffling assignments (and assessing their impact) far easier. Unfortunately, coaches still control only forward line shifts; defense pairs have minds of their own.

New to this year's edition is a fantasy league mode, complete with draft, and a career/dynasty mode, allowing you to move through multiple seasons. At last video hockey players can engage in the same sort of team management once reserved for their football counterparts. This is a major addition, and a welcome one. Finally, memory card management is easy and straightforward, as is navigating the menu system.

Gameplay : 75
So far a reader of this review may sense that although I'm generally pleased with this game, I'm not quite overwhelmed. And that would be true of the presentation package and even most aspects of the interface (although the dynasty/career mode is a major attraction). But that's because I've saved the best for these final two sections. Simply put, NHL 2000 plays a mean, fast, hard game of hockey.

In NHL 98, players moved quickly, but they were out of control; games reduced themselves to alternating end-to-end dashes, with speed burst answering speed burst. Players in NHL 99 moved more realistically--but they also moved more slowly. What NHL 2000 has managed to do is to bring together speed and control. The game moves faster, but that's no problem, for the controls are tight and my reactions are implemented without much trouble. Even more impressive is how the CPU-controlled players work with the user-controlled players on offensive rushes, one-times, and plays off the faceoff. You can move the puck around on the powerplay; a rushing defenseman knows that a forward will cover for him defensively. Play good defensive hockey, and you can shut off passing lanes, pick off errant pucks, and initiate a fast transition game. The result feels authentic. The puck moves realistically, players pound home rebounds; there's even more pushing and shoving in front of the net after a stoppage (so much so that more fights should beak out). You can smash the glass with a hit as well as with a puck. And the fights are now quick affairs of decision, not the prolonged boxing matches of yore. In fact, my only disappointment came when I witnessed the somewhat curtailed Stanley Cup celebration.

The ease with which the players move, pass and shoot, and the skill with which the AI positions players not controlled by the user, results in a solid game that plays like the real thing. That's all one can ask for.

Replay Value : 70
The addition of a franchise/career mode plus the intrinsic challenges offered by the game (at different levels of difficulty) simply makes a pretty good game that much better--and worthy of return visits. Dedicated players will get their money's worth in hours of compelling gameplay.

Overall : 83
NHL 2000 is an impressive game and a fitting inaugural step into the new season. It's not quite perfect, and in some areas EA has regressed a bit. It is worth the upgrade from its predecessors; it sets a high standard for this year's competition.

By: Brooks Simpson 9/27/99

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