Back for another year is the NHL series from EA Sports. This polarizing title always seems to pit fans of hockey simulations against those who appreciate a fine arcade based rink title. EA must have found the sweet formula to success, however, as this franchise always tends to get the gamers' dollars. Fans of the NHL franchise will recognize many of the elements of this somewhat tweaked hockey game. Promises of improved goalie AI and the Dynamic Deke Control system are just a few of the new elements in the game.
Presentation/Graphics : 70
It seems like I can never get comfortable with the camera in NHL 2003. Every other EA sports game has a pretty decent, if not even customizable, camera. But in NHL 2003 you are given only about a half dozen camera angles, all of which have one problem or another. The default action camera is too close to the action. The players look great, but you can't establish any strategy due to the overly narrow field of view. The other two up and down cameras likewise provide little by the way of rink real estate. That's a shame since the players really do look nice in these views. In these three views the puck is clearly visible and easy to follow, player models are detailed to the point of reading names of the jerseys, and it really puts you into the action. However, just to play this game I had to shift back to the TV style camera which views the rink from left to right. In this view, the detail takes a substantial drop and the puck is difficult to follow at times. This could have easily been averted by providing a custom camera with zoom feature. Note to EA - do this for the next version of the game. The lack of a decent camera negatively affects the game in a huge way.
If you do play with the closer cameras, you'll find that the animations are well done. The mixture of moves are well executed. The hockey series borrows a bit of player control from some of the other sports titles in that the right analog stick is used to execute manual dekes. What I found most engrossing was how the manual control really affected the player animation. For example, when skating down ice you can pull the stick in the opposite direction and then quickly push back to execute a well planned evasive maneuver. Also, you will notice plenty of action in front of the goal. Goalies dive for pucks and will try to reverse direction on rebounds. Defensive players maul their opponents by wrestling them to the ice.
Presentation/Audio : 90
NHL 2003 utilizes the same sound package as last year's version. That means you get accurate play-by-play and some off-the-wall color commentary. The commentary always seems to be fresh and witty. Clearly realistic commentary is not EA's goal, but I've always found the offbeat audio entertaining. Aside from the booth action, there are plenty of ice sounds. The sound of the puck hitting the pipes is perfect as are things like hits into the boards and the stick scraping the ice. What isn't done as well is the slapshot. A loud whoosh fills the speaker as a player unleashes a massive shot.
Interface/Options : 85
The gameplay modes of NHL 2003 include single game, season, playoff, and franchise. Most gamers will likely find themselves in the franchise mode. In this mode the stat tracking is immense. You can look at every conceivable stat in the game and the stats are realistic. The unfortunate thing about this mode is that it lacks the depth of some of the other EA sports titles. While you can make roster moves or trade players, the management of your team is done without concern for salary. After my first season I was able to pick up several top free agents quite easily. There is no salary negotiation with a player, just a message from the game stating whether a player has signed or not.
The game settings are diverse. The game implements sliders, and these sliders adjust nearly two dozen parameters including puck elasticity, hitting power, pass accuracy, and more. The addition of the sliders means you can customize the game and bias it towards more arcade or sim-like tendencies. Another option back this year is the NHL cardbook. When perform tasks in the game, you earn points. By amassing points you buy packs of cards. The cards can be played to briefly improve performance of players. Of course, to save the cards you need a game profile. The game profile is just one of the things in the game that makes the game a resource hog. This game takes up a big chunk of your memory card at 2.75 megabytes.
Gameplay : 80
NHL 2003 is a love it or hate it title for many. Those looking for a realistic simulation of hockey have grown to hate the title. Those gamers long for the good old days of versions past. On the other hand you've got the casual hockey fan who will likely find NHL 2003's gameplay fast, furious, and fun. Camera issues aside, the gameplay can be addictive.
So why do serious hockey fans hate it and casual ones love it? The answer centers on the realism that NHL 2003 has to offer. The basic rules of hockey are clearly there, though oddly the default options in the game have those rules turned off. Yes, things like icing and offsides must be turned on. Even penalties are cranked to the lowest setting by default. Then there's the action. If you like up and down action with little neutral zone play, this is your game. The emphasis is clearly on breakaways; it seems like more than half of the possessions are uncontested mad dashes down the ice. The AI team is highly effective at breakaways due in part to their ability to outskate your players down the ice. Oddly, you can actually get a player closer to your streaking opponent by not controlling him. The speed burst appears to take a slight dip when you are in control of the player. Another problem is that at times the AI goes out for lunch. When a player streaks up ice, there are cases where the defense skates out of the way.
While there is an emphasis on offense in the game, the defensive strength holds its own. It seems like the number of shots by the offense has dropped considerably, and this is due in large part to better defensive awareness. While you can still levy some massive hits on your opponent, they are less frequent. The usual defensive tendency is to bump a player and cause a loss of momentum. In doing so more defensive players show up to try to steal the puck or intercept a pass. Poke checks, however, are almost non-existent. It can be awfully difficult to dispossess a player of the puck with any sort of stick play.
But not all is bad with NHL 2003. If you approach the game as a sim, you can actually play some good hockey. The game delivers scoring from all points on the ice, and things like blocking the goalie's view clearly affects scoring chances. When slowing the action down some, you can grow frustrated by the constant mugging by the defense in the crease. Offensive players are shoved to the ice and manhandled making one-timers in front of the goal a challenge. On power plays there is more than adequate time to set up a quality shot. The defense shifts to a zone style defense which opens up shots from the point. To try to outwit the opposition, EA has implemented what it calls the Dynamic Deke Control system. Using the right analog stick, you can execute up to eight moves.
Replay Value : 80
NHL 2003 shouldn't be confused with a true simulation of the sport of hockey. However, it is fun to play. The action is non-stop, and there is enough diversity in the play to keep it interesting and take on an almost sim-like quality. The defensive strength has been toned down a bit so that constant hitting isn't the norm. The lack of heavy hitting means loosening the puck away from the CPU is difficult. Depending on the type of gamer you are, this has a tendency to either pull you in or drive you away from the game. For me, I'm enjoying the action despite its inability to be a pure simulation.
Overall : 80
NHL 2003 is a fun but flawed game. On the bright side, the game has an addictive quality about it. The gameplay is slanted towards arcade action, but there are enough simulation aspects to keep it involving. The sound package continues to be exceptional in this series. But the camera work is atrocious. There's simply no good camera in the game. No matter which camera is used tou end up missing out on a substantial amount of hockey.