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NHL 2001 (PSX) Review

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: September 2000

Background Info

PSX Screens (8)

The first true cold front since the Spring just whipped through lower Texas, dropping the temperatures down about 20 degrees into the upper 70s and lower 80s in the afternoon. It's not quite enough of a drop to freeze water, but still it's not too early to start thinking about the best game on ice. If you were thinking curling, think again. It's hockey time. Now some of us southerners can't comprehend the sport; we simply use that hardened water to cool our beverages. But for transplanted northerners such as myself, hockey on TV is as close as we get.

With that, EA has released its latest rendition of the NHL franchise upon us. The creatively titled NHL 2001 comes to us ready to put one between the pipes. With every team in the league represented in the game, it certainly has the foundation to prove its worthiness in the console market. Various modes of play allow users to experiment with the game. The game features decent graphics and somewhat over-the-top sound. But the biggest factor for gamers will be the pace of the game. Depending on the way you like your hockey, the fast pace of the game will either have you keeping the game on the first line or dumping it with a 5-minute major.

Presentation/Graphics : 83
Depending upon the camera view, of which 8 are available, player models look great or are simply small icons on the screen. To view the best looking players, you must play with a camera that is too close to the action. This restricts your ability to set up strategic rushes down the ice or prepare a proper defense. As you move the camera out to a more suitable distance, the player models break up slightly. While you can still separate the players from the sticks, the players have a chunky look to them.

After play stoppages, a TV style camera usually takes over, giving you the rich detail you yearn for. What you find during the close-up views are players with detailed faces. The animations are likewise impressive when viewed close. The developers have captured the essence of the sport with the variety of animations, including poke checks, hip checks, slap shots, and spectacular saves by the goalies. Unlike the player models, you can still recognize animations from the distant cameras. For some reason, however, animations take a dive when players fight. You'd be hard pressed to recognize a jab or uppercut in the brief shows of machismo.

Stadiums look great. Prior to a game, a detailed photo of the home stadium or town is shown. It sets the stage for stadiums which include details such as working scoreboards, a nice looking crowd, bannered boards, and even rafters. The Fleet Center in Boston was impressive with the many Bruins flags hanging from the rafters.

When I first started playing the game, I was about to throw my controller. On several occasions I swear the CPU was offsides. I would even replay some of the non-calls in slow motion to see if my perceptions were accurate. Sure enough. At times the puck is clearly in the neutral zone while CPU player's skate is in my zone. After awhile, I took it for granted that offsides would not be called accurately. What it signals is a somewhat deficient collision detection system. Pucks don't rebound off the goal posts accurately. In fact, sometimes they go right through them. At times the puck seems to miss players completely. This occurs to both you and the CPU team. I have seen many an icing call because of it. Furthermore, some icing calls should have been waived off because of the proximity of players near the puck.

Presentation/Audio : 75
In keeping with modern sports games, play-by-play is included in NHL 2001 and keeps you abreast of the action. The calls of the bland variety - announcers basically mention who received the pass, etc. The stadium PA announcer chimes in with, well, PA-style comments. Some of the announcements made are pretty good. I swear he said something like, "Tonight is free stuff night. Be sure to pick up your free stuff." Hmmm.

The sounds of the game take a nose dive. While the sound of a puck hitting the pipes is done perfectly, the rest of the sounds are over-emphasized. If you played EA's Rock the Rink earlier this year you will be familiar with many of the sounds in the game, from slap shots to checks.

One prophetic comment I heard in the game from the announcers was "Welcome to the world's fastest game." I was not sure if they were referring to the game of hockey in general or this particular game. If you want to know what I think, read on.

Interface/Options : 87
From an options standpoint, NHL 2001 lacks the glitz of some of its other sports titles. But there is a franchise mode in the game to help. Rather, the modes of play include seasonal, exhibition, tournament, playoffs, and a shootout mode. All but the shootout mode feature traditional hockey. The shootout mode is a boring contest involving nothing but penalty shots. Finding the options takes time to find off the main menu unless you actually read the manual.

The main menu lets you enter a "quick" game with the Quick Start option. If you want to experience something a little deeper, you need to click on the "Advanced Options" button. What? I didn't think playing a season was that advanced. If you select season play, parameters such as period and season length are specified. I initially started playing with five minute periods but quickly found the games were too brief. I figured a five minute period would last five minutes. Instead, the clock ran off faster than a roach once the lights go on. The stats were unrealistic and the games were over too fast.

Switching to 10-minute periods, the game stats were more realistic, as shots were fairly even and in the mid to upper 20s. Also, I had to bump the penalty setting up to make the game play more realistically. The longer periods also increased the body check count, though it still is miserably low. Scoring with 10-minute periods looked reasonable. The most number of goals I scored was 7, but mostly I was stuck between 2 and 4 goals per game. Likewise, my goals against average was near 3. For some reason, the stats section of the game shows the proper goals against average. However, before each game the goalies are introduced. Nearly every game had incorrect intro stats. Goalies had goals against averages nearly double their true values.

You can customize the game by setting a multitude of parameters. Aside from the difficulty (beginner, rookie, pro, or all star), basic rules' parameters can be set. Penalties, big hits (exaggerated hits), and fighting are controlled with a slide bar. Rules like offsides, icing, and two-line passes are toggled on or off. Injuries are also included in the game. Parameters can be switched during the course of a game except for difficulty and time settings. In addition, you can adjust the speed of the game.

As mentioned, the game has a franchise mode. With it, you have management responsibilities over the course of a season. You can waive and sign players and even trade players with another team. After the season, the rookie draft lets you improve position by position. Once complete, it's time to sign the players. Make your offer and see if he accepts.

Along the way, the NHL Challenge feature of NHL 2001 is a reward system whereby you earn points for reaching certain milestones. The points can be used to increase the attributes of your players. If you want more speed, power, or hitting strength, this mode will keep you busy. Personally, I turned it off. Shots already pack enough punch and skaters are plenty fast as it is.

Gameplay : 70
Remember that comment from the audio portion of this review? The game's announcers welcome you to the world's fastest game. They were not kidding. NHL 2001 is essentially a revamped Rock the Rink with five-man lines. While EA's Rock the Rink is one of my favorite titles, its nothing more than an arcade title. Unfortunately the developers have abandoned the sim lovers in favor of a faster game. While I love arcade games, I had expectations of a true hockey simulation. This game is hard to grade. My personal bias says to be tough on it since it is an arcade game. Yet, there is definite enjoyment value with the arcade aspects of the game. Nevertheless, we have come to expect that NHL 2001 follows in line with the other top EA franchises. This game should be more sim-like. As such, it is lacking.

I played my games at the Pro level and right off the bat the game was fast. I quickly set the speed down to the minimum, but even that pace was too fast. It turns the games into mad rushes up and down the ice. Scoring is based on one-timers rather than setting up plays. The exception to this rule was when the slowest lines were on the ice. or when the CPU was a man or two down. When I had a man advantage, the CPU would bunker down in a box defense and I could actually pass from corner to corner, behind the goal, or near the crease. This part of the game was great. Thinking I was perhaps off-base in my thinking, I booted up NHL 2K on the Dreamcast and was in hockey heaven. That game has the pace down.

If I look past the frenetic speed of the game, you'll find a decent game that has a few annoying flaws. For example, Bonnie Blair would simply love the ice in the game. If you shoot the puck from your end with a slapshot near the boards, the puck will make a complete trip around the rink. I've seen the puck travel as many as 1 1/2 revolutions around the rink. I have also seen one of my players rocket from one end to the other in what seemed like a second.

Your players lack a bit of smarts. When you switch to a player near the puck he sometimes skates in a direction other than your command. When you aren't controlling the nearest player, your teammates often don't converge on the puck. You'll encounter numerous times where the CPU team scoops up the puck as your players scramble away. Or they'll skate way ahead of the puck and force an offsides call against you.

The most disappointing part of the game really is the speed. If EA had only let you adjust the speed from a snail's pace to the maximum in the game, it would have been a much better title. The fast pace of the game affects so much of the game. If the pace were slower I would not be upset as much by players skating in the wrong direction at times - I'd have time to correct. I'd be able to set up plays rather than rush down the ice on a wing, pass to the middle and one-time it behind the goalie. Most importantly, I wouldn't find myself mashing the buttons in my own zone desperately trying to clear the puck.

Beneath the speed you can spot the underpinnings of a good hockey simulation. The AI is pretty good. The CPU converges on the box realistically (albeit at light speed), and the goalies are smart. Even the coaching of the CPU team is right on. If down by one, the CPU will pull the goalie to get the man advantage.

Replay Value : 73
The amount of time you'll give the game depends on your preferences. If you are a hockey fanatic who must have a realistic simulation, NHL 2001 is a dead fish on ice. A few flaws are bothersome, but the largest flaw in the game is the blistering pace and its roots in Rock the Rink. If you like hockey played at light speed and want arcade style action, Rock the Rink, I mean NHL 2001, will keep you happy. Thus, this one is tough to grade. Based on my expectations for NHL 2001, I recommend it guardedly. Rent first.

Overall : 75
To get prepared to play this game, I suggest taping early season hockey games off of ESPN. Then, just before booting the game up, watch your recorded game at double speed. This will set your mental clock to roughly the right speed. Or better yet, just play a little pre-game Rock the Rink. NHL 2001 plays too fast to be considered a serious sim. As an arcade title, it is better and deeper than Rock the Rink.

By: James Smith 10/6/00
Related Link: NHL 2001 PC Review

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