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NHL 2001 (PSX) Hands-on Preview

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: Fall 2000

PSX Screens (8)
Hockey is the most ridiculous of sports when it comes to the length of the season. You can't even catch your breath between the final game of the Stanley Cup and the begin of training camp. With that in mind, hockey season is just around the corner, and EA delivers this year's installment of the NHL series. We just received a development version of NHL 2001, and we put our skates on to give it a test.

When I first previewed the game, I missed a couple of things. I have since updated the original preview to fill in the blanks. I was searching for more game modes but failed to find them. And rather than do the sane thing and check the instructions, my maleness forced me to avoid the instructions at all costs (kind of like men and asking for directions). You see, to get to more modes in the game, namely the Exhibition, Season, Playoff, Tournament, and Shootout, you have to dig deep into the Advanced Options Menu and then a submenu where you never look. So me in my infinite wisdom missed out on some of the modes.

The manual promises the usual suspects - Exhibition, Season, Playoffs, and the like. When it starts off, everything is great. During the final load before the game starts, a detailed image of the home team's stadium is shown from the outside. Once the play starts, the graphics still look good. The stadium and ice have a decent amount of detail although the ice lacks some reflectivity; while lights reflect brightly off the surface, the players project dull gray shadows. The player animations are fluid, yet the players themselves are somewhat chunky. The exception to this is after goals and during replays. In this case, the players are detailed, and you can almost recognize the faces. Also of note are the goalie animations. On one particular rush down the ice, the CPU blocked the puck and the puck went flying to the side. My forward immediately put a stick on the puck and flipped it towards the net. The goalie then stretched across the ice to make the stop, which he did. I was impressed. The faces have a creepy Goldeneye quality to them. The scoreboard shots after a score are top-notch as well. The lights on the scoreboard create animated sequences such as hands clapping. Perhaps the biggest graphical disappointment is associated with fighting. Skaters look like sticks. Fortunately the fighting has a meter associated with it. I was pressing buttons like mad waiting for my skater to strike the opponent. A short time later the opponent lay flat on the ice. Somewhere between punches were thrown, but you would be hard pressed to find them. During the next fight, I realized the punches were short (really short) jabs that didn't even appear to land.

The sound in NHL 2001 is shaping up well. The commentator does a good job at calling the action. There really is no color commentary in the game, which is actually kind of nice. I much prefer the play-by-play which never seems to make a mistake. The hockey sounds in the game are a little exaggerated. Slap shots are too loud, and some hits produce unrealistic sounds.

In the initial preview, I played plenty of games in the Quick Start mode. The moment I started the game, I could think of only one thing - Rock the Rink with six men a side. The pace of the game was frenetic. All the realism you expect from Madden, Triple Play, and NBA Live was absent. I quickly paused the game to find the speed switch. I was upset to find the speed was nearly cranked to the slowest setting. At this speed, the game played like pinball or racquetball on ice. Somewhere along the line I was expecting the players to perform one of their over-the-top moves from the Rock the Rink game. Fortunately I was spared. Don't get me wrong. I loved Rock the Rink. It was a great arcade hockey title. But now that EA has done that, there is no need to release two arcade hockey titles in the same year. In later sessions I have come to realize the problem lies with the difficulty level. If you select the beginner difficulty setting and slow the game to its slowest setting, the game has nearly a hockey pace. Of course, the AI goalie is a cinch to score on and it makes the game less interesting. The moment I cranked up the difficulty settings, the goalies got better, but the AI skaters also got faster at converging on the puck. There is a balance in there somewhere.

Aside from the quickness of the game, I could tell there was a good AI system underneath the muck. Defensemen plugged the passing slots effectively, and goalies were strong. The defensive AI was good even on the easiest difficulty setting. However, because of the fast action, I never had time to set up shots. I found myself skating up and down the ice shooting slap shots from the point, wrist shots as I approached the net, or one-timers until I was blue in the face. Some criticized the slower pace of NHL2K on the Dreamcast, and admittedly it can get slow. But at least in that game you could approach the game like real hockey, such as setting up a play by passing across ice a few times. When I did have a brief break in the action to set up the shot, the shot system was a pleasure. As you hold the shot button (the square button) down, the shot meter fills up to indicate the force behind the shot. You could then shoot the puck in any direction high or low with the stick.

On subsequent plays, I attempted to play in the Season mode, but unfortunately the beta froze each time I attempted it. Seasons can be 27, 54, or 82 games long, and you have full managerial authority on trading or waiving players. At the end of the season you can pick up players from the draft or the free agent pool. In the Playoffs mode, you bypass the regular season and head right into the battle for the Cup. You can customize series by cutting the regular best of seven format down to 1, 3, or 5 games. In the Tournament mode, you set up a 4 to 16 team tournament. Finally, the Shootout mode gives you the ability to shoot penalty shots. Each team gets five shots in this winner take all mode, which after playing once I found I had had enough. In addition to the various modes, the NHL Challenge lets you earn points by achieving particular goals on the ice. The format is similar to the Madden Challenge. You redeem the points for improvements in player abilities.

Hopefully EA will tone the pace down significantly in the final release, or at least the more serious modes in the game. I really enjoyed many aspects of the game. The AI of the goalies at the higher levels was tough and realistic. I instantly drew comparisons to NHL2K for the goalie play. The shot system is tight, and passing is realistic in that not every pass makes it through. There is a whole lot of good in the game at this stage of development. EA just needs to put some of the arcade elements in the box.

By: James Smith 8/23/00

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