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NHL Championship 2000 (PSX) Review

Publisher: Fox Sports
Release Date: September 1999

Background Info

PSX Screens(8)

Although NHL Championship 2000 appears to be the first of a series, in reality it possesses a distinguished lineage. In 1996 Radical Entertainment developed NHL PowerPlay '96 for 32-bit systems; video hockey players, overlooking some of its shortcomings, praised the game's realistic treatment of on-ice play. Two years later NHL Powerplay '98 (and its reincarnation on the Saturn as Sega NHL All Star Hockey) became a favorite with players who questioned the realism of other games. An attempt to build a new franchise by forging a link with ESPN proved abortive; rumors circulated that future PowerPlays would be short-circuited. However, Fox Sports Interactive has picked up the game, creating a little more competition in the world of Playstation puck. Will the tradition continue?

Presentation/Graphics : 83
At first glance the visuals may not astonish you--at least they did not in the beta version I played. I found the screen shots to be a little misleading when it came to the clarity and detail of the players on-screen. Player renderings are adequate (smooth, especially in close-ups, but a bit blocky and less distinct during play), but the animations are very good (especially the goalies). They appear to be a bit large for the ice surface and move just a little too slowly for my taste (and I'm not a fan of every one pretending to be Pavel Bure), but that adds to the playmaking challenge. An adjustable speed component would have been welcome.

Alternate jerseys are available at a pre-game screen, with representations offered so that you can assure a good contrast between teams; the jerseys are up-to-date (although the player names on Coyote alternate jerseys are in sand, not copper, which is hard to read against the green background). The only problem with player uniforms is that it is sometimes hard to pick up numbers and names.

The ice surface is a little disappointing. While the surfaces themselves reflect individual home team preferences (sometimes reflecting last season's choices), the arenas themselves are generic and the representations of the crowd sections are a little too bright. The ratio of player size to ice dimensions is also a little off, especially behind the net, where bodies collide a little too often and it is hard to maneuver. Oh, yes--a hard check can smash the glass. I've already targeted Ruslan Salei and Darien Hatcher for such treatment; too bad Dale Hunter retired.

The in-game presentation is at pains to reproduce the mechanics of a televised broadcast, complete with between-period screens, reminders about the announcing crew, and a series of post game screens that move you toward the final sign-off. Automatic instant replays are well-placed and help one understand (and appreciate) what just happened. The in-game cameras offer the usual assortment of views, although it appears that the side-to-side swinging of the old PowerPlay camera is gone.

Presentation/Audio : 86
Kenny Albert offers play-by-play, while John Davidson chimes in with color commentary. Both are upbeat; Davidson's "Oh, baby!" will gratify his fans. At least in this game he restrains his Ranger bias. As usual, over time one notes the repetition of phrases, and in a few instances the voices lag behind the action described, but on the whole the game does a good job of using its announcers to enhance the game environment. And for a touch of nostalgia, old PowerPlay tunes sometimes air during stoppages in play. The overall impact of the audio is to add a great deal to the impression that you are watching a televised game; the Albert/Davidson team may be the best of the three hockey announcing pairs available this year for the Playstation. However, the music and the cheers could have been louder, bolder, and tailored to specific arenas--especially at critical moments in the contest, including scoring plays, penalties, and the end of a contest.

Interface/Options : 97
NHL Championship 2000 offers players rather straightforward playing controls which are customizable; wrist shots and slapshots each have their own button. The controls are responsive, but not to the point where your player can stop and change direction on a moment's notice--the sort of "tight" control that is not always an accurate representation of on-ice movement. Aiming passes and shots (as well as moving your player) relies on the D-pad/analog stick; other buttons offer a turbo boost, checking options, or control line changes. It's too bad the wrist shot button is also the block shot button--for players scrambling for rebounds sometimes find themselves going to their knees to pray with no foe within reach. If you like the FOXtrax/halo puck option, it's here. Somewhat less successful is an option whereby the player in possession of the puck is denoted by a circle, with arrows pointing toward possible pass recipients. Some people may like this; I don't particularly care for it. You can toggle these latter options off.

Players may choose from playing a tourney (in various formats), a head-to-head series, a playoff series (again, various lengths), or one of four season lengths. Players may also choose various gameplay options, making the result an extremely customizable game. There are provisions for multiplayer game and season play. There are NHL teams, North American and World All Star squads, and sixteen international teams.

As readers of my reviews know, I'm a big stickler for roster management options. NHL Championship 2000 just falls short of perfection. Of the hockey games presently out on the market, Championship 2000 has the most complete and up-to-date rosters, requiring but minimal tinkering to make them current. It also offers a deep free agent list filled with players who are currently available (although unsigned restricted free agents such as the Coyotes' Robert Reichel and Niki Khabibulin remain on their team rosters). There is the usual create-a-player routine. There are only two shortcomings I have encountered with this system. First, it takes a little patience to page through the list of free agents; that's minor. A little more irritating is the inability to create and add players to international teams (something that was available in PowerPlay 98). And there are no classic teams. The stats package is not quite as deep as it might be, but it's adequate. What Radical and Fox have presented, however, should be the base standard for future games.

Equally superb is how NHL Championship 2000 addresses coaching. Players design three overall approaches; within each approach they can select breakout, defensive zone, offensive zone, forechecking, and special teams tactics. Then you can adjust the overall approach in the game (or tinker with the components of each approach). This system offers a shrewd combination of flexibility and discipline, in that teams play according to overall systems from end to end composed of various options. Again, the result strikes the right note. Moreover, you can change both forward lines (four) and defense pairs (three)--which is the way this should be for all games. But it is wise not to wait too long during a play stoppage to change strategy or lines, for the controller does not always respond to your requests.

Only the fact that the game will eat up most of a memory card--it's far more demanding in this regard than is its competition--and the sometimes long load times detract from the solid package offered in Championship. Other designers would do well to study what the folks at Radical put into this part of the game; with a few tweaks and additions, it would be as close to perfect as one could get.

Gameplay : 95
NHL Championship 2000 allows players to choose one of three difficulty levels: what is worth celebrating is that the veteran level offers a competitive game against a worthy opponent. Let up for a few minutes and you will lose. There is a particular kind of challenge in trying to go through a season and playoff run undefeated, but it is far more gratifying to find a CPU opponent who puts up a fight every night below the All Star difficulty level.

More than any other game available on the market, NHL Championship 2000 makes you work for your shots, especially in the slot. Shot totals are pretty realistic in ten-minute period contests; Championship has figured out how a good defensive AI leads to a more realistic overall game. You are going to have to work hard to forge a successful offensive game plan, but if you do, you'll find that if you put quality shots on the net, you will score. Defenders aren't prone to let forwards roam untouched in high-percentage scoring areas; to succeed, players are going to have to develop their passing games. Handle the puck too long, and you'll lose it. End-to-end rushes are infrequent, and breakaways are unusual. Sometimes the action seems a bit sluggish, sometimes neither team is able to penetrate the opponent's end on a consistent basis. This will frustrate people who confuse highlight films with an accurate representation of hockey.

And that is what Championship does best--it comes closer than does any other game to making you play video hockey in a way that approximates its real-life counterpart. Games are close; a few mistakes and you might find yourself in a deep hole. Playing attention to how you position players, a willingness to hustle back on defense, and an ability to use the corners, the points, and even behind the net to make plays adds to a realistic hockey experience. Juggle your lines shrewdly, bring on fresh players when needed (something the CPU does not always do, and never has in this series), and heed your three gameplans, and you will do well--this game is more than a skate, pass, and shoot contest. Sure, it could be a little faster, and there could be more room to move behind the net. But that's what sequels are for, right?

Replay Value : 84
The increased challenge at the intermediate difficulty level in itself will test players used to awesome season records; using ten-minute periods results in satisfactory scores (although the low-scoring contests of the last two years in the NHL will be hard to reproduce on a consistent basis). Even rookie level may irritate somewhat less intense or skilled players. So, each time you feel comfortable, crank up the difficulty level. However, although you can play international tourneys and the like, and the multiplayer options will draw many players, there's nothing here about multiseason or career mode.

Overall : 92
NHL Championship is not a very flashy or extremely visually impressive game (although I've heard complaints about player renderings and animations on all of this year's Playstation hockey games). However, despite some flaws, it offers what may well be the most realistic game of ice hockey that is currently available on a home console. Victories are earned and bring real satisfaction. Sure, the FOXtrax is here, but there's little about the game that suggests an arcade-flavored experience. Another year's work on the graphics, animation, and sound, and some tweaking elsewhere, and Fox may have a long-term winner--although by that time new consoles will be vying for the energies of developers and publishers.

By: Brooks Simpson 10/11/99

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