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NHL Championship 2000 (PC) Review

Publisher: Fox Sports
Release Date: September 1999

Background Info


This long-anticipated sequel to Radical Entertainment's Powerplay 98 has been a long time coming. Last year's release was postponed when the publisher pulled out at the last minute. This year Radical has teamed up with entertainment powerhouse Fox, in an attempt to combine their own hockey simulation expertise with Fox's marketing finesse. The result is NHL Championship 2000 (henceforth referred to as NHLC2K, to save my wrists from carpal tunnel syndrome!). With this title Radical hopes to cement their reputation as the premiere developer of serious hockey simulations.

Presentation/Graphics : 92
In the two years since the release of Powerplay 98, the Radical programmers have been kept busy with a complete re-write of the 3D graphics engine. The result is impressive. On my mid-range system the game is silky-smooth at 800x600, using the game's recommended options (most graphics settings on maximum quality). The animations are smooth and fluid, especially the goalie animations, which are superb. The player models themselves are as good as any I've seen, with the exception of EA's facial animations.

The in-game presentation looks exactly like a Fox TV broadcast. Every detail is reproduced, from the 3D screen wipes to the infamous "Fox Trax" puck tracking system (which, thankfully, can be turned off). In between plays you'll see player or team stats, along with some comments from John Davidson, the color commentator. In "rivalry" and playoff games there is an impressive light and fireworks display before the game.

The camera angles are nicely done. A long-requested feature of a user-controlled zoom level is present, and it's a welcome addition. Finally, old Wayne Gretzky Hockey die-hards like me can watch the game from the rafters!

Presentation/Audio : 95
The sound in NHLC2K is absolutely superb. When I first played it the crowd seemed kind of subdued, but I quickly realized this was a problem with the default volume levels, not the sound samples themselves. What I did was turn the volume slider control for the announcer and the color commentary way down, to about one-third. Then I turned the volume control on my speakers up. Voila! It sounded like I was at a real hockey game. The crowd is really into the game, and responds to what is happening on the ice. Their cheering picks up as you enter the offensive zone and they go wild when you score. They boo when a visiting team dumps someone on the home team, and there's even a rich, satisfying chorus of "oh's" when the puck hits the goalpost.

The play-by-play and color commentary is also extremely well done; in fact, it's the best I've yet heard in a computer game. It is occasionally repetitive, of course, but in all other respects it's fantastically done. The combination of Kenny Albert and John Davidson gives the game a lot of personality. Color-man Davidson, in particular, has a great sense of humor. After one fight where my opponent and I basically just grabbed each other he quipped, "I've seen better fights over the last piece of Christmas cake!"

The commentators also do a better job of describing what's happening on the ice than I've seen before. They make note of bad passes in your own zone, good defensive plays, big hits, and they seem to be programmed to respond to a wide variety of specific situations. For example, they commented on the importance of scoring a last-minute goal when I scored one late in a period. In another game I went to triple overtime, and when the period started Kenny Albert said, "Welcome to the longest game in history! I don't know what it'll take to end it." These little touches really add a lot of atmosphere to the game. It sometimes seems like the commentators are actually watching me play.

The only thing I can think of I'd like to hear is a little more excitement from the crowd in critical situations, like the last few minutes of a playoff game. But this is a minor omission in a near-perfect audio performance.

Interface/Options : 80
Radical has a rather different philosophy than long-time hockey developer Electronic Arts. EA tries to pack as many features as possible in each new version, hence the inclusion of things like career mode in this year's edition. Radical, on the other hand, has always focused on the on-ice gameplay, on trying to make a game that really plays like hockey.

The options in NHL2CK are what have traditionally been given in sports games - rule selections, exhibition, season, and playoff modes, and the ability to create and trade players. The game supports multiple players, on opposing teams or as teammates, and includes support for network play on a LAN or the Internet (due to the nature of hockey, a very high-speed connection is recommended for Internet play).

The pre-game user interface is simple, clean, and efficient, as a user interface should be. It is quickly and easily navigated with the mouse. I particularly like the implementation of true Windows-style scroll bars, which can be used on everything from statistical display screens to team selections. The statistics display is very complete and powerful. It contains all the usual stats, of course, but also things like face-off percentage, goalposts hit, game winning goals, and so on. You can really use it to determine which of your players have been effective in various areas of the game.

One feature that seemed to be missing is the ability to edit existing players, though you can create players of course. In a serious sim like this it would be nice to have a table or spreadsheet grid where all player attributes could be edited. This would give the user a lot of flexibility in fine-tuning how the game plays. Hopefully a 3rd-party editor will develop, as has happened with other sports games.

On the ice, player control is absolutely flawless. Unlike the competition, player animations never take precedence over player control. The control itself is both easy to learn and precise - for example, the ability to have a separate button for choosing a wrist shot or slap shot is essential in a real hockey simulation. As I'll discuss more in the gameplay section, it really feels like you are controlling a hockey player. You also have controls for the other standard hockey game fare, such as speed burst, pass, poke check, hook, etc.

One annoyance is that there is no way to truly jump to the next face-off and get right back to action. You can press the pass button and it will change the camera to where the next face-off is supposed to take place, but you still have to wait for the players to skate down the ice, or change lines. It slows the pace of the game. I'm not sure if this is a bug, but I hope it's fixed in a patch.

The referees are well implemented. You can choose from several settings. On Lenient, they hardly call any penalties, much like old-time NHL referees. If you like a lot of powerplays or a cleaner game you can turn up their strictness. I did get one penalty shot (in about twenty games) and it was correctly called, on a player who was tripped on a breakaway.

The line change interface works well, allowing you to independently change forward and/or defensive lines. Changing lines on the fly is a problem though. When set to computer control, the computer coach won't change lines on the fly at all. And even when you initiate it, the line change is so slow that it is impractical to use it; you are better off just sticking with a tired line until you can force a whistle. I think this could be fixed in a patch by disabling the normal animations of players getting in and out of the bench when the change is happening on the fly. They should just instantly swap one line for the other as soon as they touch the bench. That would more closely simulate the way real teams change. Allowing the computer coach to initiate line changes, while not enormously complicated, might be too much to expect in a patch. Maybe next year.

One area that's particularly well done is the coaching options. Radical has always implemented realistic, useful strategy options. But this year they've outdone themselves with a real-time coaching system that gives you incredible control through a deceptively simple user interface. In the game, you can select at any time whether your team is in Defend, Maintain, or Attack mode. But for each of these modes you can define a whole series of team strategies, everything from break-out passes to pinching defencemen to forechecking intensity to special team systems. So with a touch of a button you have complete control over the way your team plays. Need a goal late in the third? Go into Attack mode. Get the critical goal and want to hold the tie to make it into overtime? Use Defend. This is one of those features that other sports game developers are sure to emulate. Once you've used it you wonder why it hasn't always been done this way.

The one major disappointment in the feature list is the lack of player-position lock. In other words, the game only supports puck-hog mode, where you are always in control of the player with the puck. For example, you can't lock your controller into only playing left-wing for the whole game. In a game that is a realistic hockey simulation this is most disappointing, since it limits the degree to which you can play solid positional hockey. For me personally it also diminishes the feeling of immersion. Puck-hog mode seems natural because most sports games have been done this way for so long. But if you think about it, what could be less realistic than "magically" jumping control from one person to another? Apparently this feature was in the works but got dropped due to time constraints. I suppose we'll have to wait for next year for it, but I can't help wishing that some enterprising Radical programmer will whip up a patch that provides it in this year's version. Whenever it does get done, they should remember that in position-lock mode the pass button still works - but it demands a pass FROM a teammate, rather than sending the puck to them.

One other minor omission is the lack of an overall speed adjustment for the game. There are three skill levels, and at the lower levels the game moves more slowly. And at the higher levels it plays much like real hockey, but it would still be nice to have an overall speed adjustment for the game.

I did experience a couple minor bugs. Offside calls on one-timers outside the blueline are occasionally missed. And once the announcer got confused and called everyone on the team by the same name for a couple minutes. I also had a problem with frame-rate (on Voodoo2) when I briefly had DirectX 7 installed, but this affected other games too, so it's clearly a bug in DirectX, not NHLC2K.

Overall the options and interface provide a solid package, despite a few flaws. Once they fill these few holes it will be time to start worrying about things like career mode and custom leagues.

Gameplay : 90
Ah, the gameplay section, where the wheat is separated from the chaff, the men from the boys, and the playable computer games from the fifty-dollar drink coasters. I know there are people who've waited a long time for a serious, playable, competitive hockey simulation. Has the long-awaited hockey Nirvana finally arrived?

Let's start with the physics, the starting point where so many sports sims fail before they even get off the ground. The puck and player physics in NHL2CK are excellent. The control over the players is tight, and it feels like they are really skating. The players move at realistic speeds. The size and strength of a player affects body-checking and fighting of course, but the physics implementation goes beyond that. You can protect the puck with your body, a feature I haven't seen since the old Amiga version of Wayne Gretzky Hockey. Players can hook you from behind and prevent you from shooting, but you can still pass. If they haul you down from behind they have to use a trip or a hook, and risk a penalty (or a penalty shot). When players go two on one against an opponent they have a better chance of both knocking them down and stealing the puck. You can steal the puck with a poke check, but only if you are physically in a position where you would be able to do that (i.e., in front of them, facing them, when they are not moving too fast relative to you). It all sounds so simple when it's done right, doesn't it?

Puck physics are equally believable. The speed seems right on both shots and passes, as does the friction of the puck on the ice - missed passes don't often go for icing. Passing between teammates is quick and accurate, though the puck will often be intercepted if you don't choose your passing lanes well. The puck moves well in three dimensions, even bouncing when it's been flipped high. I've even had the puck bounce over my stick when I rushed in a bit too quick on one bouncing puck. The board play is realistic and behaves predictably. The puck looks just right when you dump it into the zone with a flip-shot. Once very nice feature is little flip passes you can bounce off the boards, just by passing towards the boards when you are near them. That's another feature I haven't seen in ten years.

"OK", your inner skeptic says, "the physics work, but what about the artificial intelligence? Let's start with the defense, these damn games never have good defensive AI."

Think again. NHL Championship 2000 has the best defensive AI yet seen in a computer hockey game. I've never had to work so hard for my scoring chances. The defencemen challenge the shooter, but they also stay in their position to intercept one-timer pass attempts or, failing that, dumping the intended recipient of the pass onto their rear-end. You can sometimes work your way deep into the corner, but rarely make it behind the net. It's very difficult to beat a defenceman one on one unless you have a positional advantage, and even then he will hook you if he can to prevent you getting a solid shot off. On a two-on-one break you have a little better odds, but only if the lone defenceman doesn't pick off your pass. On a three-on-one break your odds improve again - but such breaks are rare, because the rest of the team plays pretty good defense too.

The defense is so good that sometimes dump-and-chase is actually the best strategy, as in real hockey. For example, if you are outmanned, coming into the zone one-on-three, chances are you won't make it past the defense. But if you dump the puck into the zone and manage to retrieve it, then by that time you will have other players in the zone to pass to and you can try to set up a scoring play.

The offensive AI is no slouch either, although this is one area where the game could be improved. The computer controls the puck extremely effectively. One of the neatest features is that the AI players will try to dump the puck off to a teammate when getting checked. This is very realistic, and also helps the computer team control the puck more. It's difficult to take the puck away from them one on one. You need a positional advantage (e.g., a position where you can poke-check the puck away) or a manpower advantage to steal the puck. The computer is capable of setting up great scoring plays, including breakaways and one-timers, although they don't do it often enough. They also are occasionally hesitant when breaking into your zone, and sometimes lose an offensive chance because of it. One area where they are really bad - to the point where it needs to be fixed in a patch, in my opinion - is face-offs. I regularly win 80-90% of face-offs, and that's just too high. Face-offs are an important part of hockey, and the computer loses a lot of scoring chances since they rarely win a face-off in the offensive zone. Computer players in the offensive zone also shoot too often instead of looking for the higher percentage play.

These small offensive AI flaws combine to give the game it's biggest problem - the computer sometimes has trouble mounting an effective offense. Not always. And I do lose some games. The scores are always realistic; it's rare for either team to get more than 4 goals (with ten-minute periods). The shot counts and other stats are realistic too, I'm averaging 20-35 shots per game. But in order to make the game really feel tense I've had to put my backup goalie in, and play the game on the Pro level so that the computer can score more. When I do this the games are generally close and competitive. But the face-off problem as a minimum should be addressed in the patch. This is one reason, by the way, I'd like to see a complete player editor - sometimes these kinds of problems can be rectified by some judicious editing of certain player stats. For example, if there's a "face-off skill" stat I'd just turn it way down for the centers on my team.

I should mention that this is at All-star level, the top skill level. More goals are scored, by both teams, on the lower skill levels of Rookie and Pro. I think the most challenging level is to play a poor team against a good one on the Pro level. Also, keep in mind that I've played about fifty or sixty games of the alpha, beta, and then gold versions of this game combined, and it's only recently that I've started beating the computer consistently (though not always). One last point on this subject. The way I've become successful in NHLC2K is by using realistic hockey strategies. Passing plays, dump and chase, careful positional defense - the basics. The one-man-offence and hit-and-run-defense techniques that more arcadish hockey games have gotten us used to playing just don't work here. That's quite a compliment to the developers.

I have been told that there will be a patch for the game within the next month or so. It's supposed to fine-tune the goalie and offensive AI, to make the game more difficult. Hopefully the tuning will include getting computer players to look for more high-percentage scoring plays like one-timers (the computer can execute these plays, it just doesn't happen often enough). Until then I think there's enough here to keep most gamers challenged.

The goalies, by the way, are really well done. Some people might think they are too good, but I think they are good representations of NHL level goalies. They rarely let a clean long shot in unless it's a one-timer or they can't see the puck. Close shots are much higher percentage, especially if you deke the goalie out of position. You can score on rebounds and one-timers (one-timers are probably the highest percentage play, but difficult to execute because of the quality defense). I can score on breakaways about half the time by deking, which is about the same percentage real NHL players have. Scoring on half your breakaways might sound like a lot, but it really isn't - breakaways aren't that common when sound defense is being played. Most importantly, the goalies seem to obey the laws of physics. If they are caught out of position and I can see the net, I can score. The same applies to a close in one-timer that catches them on the wrong side of the net. Goalies will sometimes have an off-night where they don't play that well, or a great game where it's hard to get anything by them. They also play the puck well behind the net.

Playing against another person is incredibly fun. I tested in on one computer with two Gravis Gamepad Pro's connected; I haven't had the chance to try out Internet play. But we had a real blast. You don't have to worry about face-offs or any other area being too easy, of course. The games we played were very close and intense.

The fighting is actually quite well done. You have two different punch buttons, a duck button, and a grab function. This simple combination allows for fights that actually take some skill to win - button-mashers will quickly be put down.

One major gameplay element that is missing is an implementation of momentum. Keep in mind that this is a complaint about all modern sports games, not just NHLC2K specifically. We all know how important momentum is in real sports. When a team scores it gives the whole team an energy boost, which makes it easier for them to score again - in other words, momentum (for a detailed discussion on this topic, see my hockey editorial). Even the commentators in NHLC2K talk about momentum, when important events occur like a goal in the last minute of the period, or a change of goalies. Sports programmers should listen to them. It's important. And not really that hard to implement, it's just a matter of building up a timed speed multiplier based on certain events (and keeping in mind that momentum is mutually exclusive - whatever one team gains the other team necessarily loses). As I mentioned, no one has done this since the old Wayne Gretzky Hockey game on the Amiga, so I'm not taking points off for its omission. But be warned Radical, I'll be looking for it next year!

Replay Value : 85
I think this title will be on my hard-drive for some time to come, probably until the next version is released. Even as a single-player game it is compelling, despite the offensive AI flaws and the lack of a position-lock feature.

As a multiplayer game it is nothing less than addictive. I've had some incredible head-to-head battles against friends, using two Gravis Gamepad Pro's connected to one computer. You really appreciate the subtleties in the game engine in this mode. In one game I was behind late in the third period so I set my coaching mode to Attack. That helped me keep the offensive pressure on. With a minute left I pulled my goalie for an extra attacker, scored the tying goal, and got the winner in overtime.

The score in this section would be somewhat higher if they improved the computer face-off skill (or someone comes up with an editor that allows fixing it through roster editing) and offensive punch. And it would go through the roof if they could somehow allow position-lock!

Overall : 90
NHL Championship 2000 is a very impressive hockey simulator. In many ways it exceeds the quality of that old hockey-sim king Amiga Wayne Gretzky Hockey. With a few more features - position lock, momentum factors - and a few tweaks to the AI for more offensive punch it could well be the greatest hockey sim of all time.

By: Joe McGinn 11/2/99

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