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NHL Faceoff 2001 (PS2) Review

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Screens (7)
Is there such a thing as the anti-Midas Touch? If so then I believe 989 Sports have this undesirable distinction because right now everything they touch on the PS2 turns bad. Basically an inferior PS2 port of the PSX game of the same name, developer SolWorks' NHL FaceOff 2001 joins NFL GameDay 2001 and NCAA GameBreaker 2001 in the pantheon of pathetic PS2 sports games published by 989 Sports.

Presentation/Graphics : 15
“Oh my God!” That's what I exclaimed the first time I saw an instant replay in Madden 2001 for the PS2; interestingly, this is the same thing I yelled out when I first saw NHL FaceOff 2001 in action for the PS2. Unfortunately for FaceOff 2001 my exclamation was not inspired by awe, rather it was inspired by wretched disgust. One of the ugliest games in recent memory was Jeremy McGrath Supercross 2000, but at least the developers of that game could use the (lame) excuse that the game was for the aging PSX. 989 Sports and SolWorks, on the other hand, really have no excuse for this monstrosity on what is the most powerful console on the market right now.

First off, the game is plagued by jaggies. I always thought the anti-aliasing problem on the PS2 was blown out of proportion, even the in the (supposed) biggest culprit Ridge Racer V I didn't really notice them, and in most of the newer titles they're practically absent. FaceOff 2001's visuals have terminal anti-aliasing problems and the edges of the player models in particular are horribly jagged. It doesn't help matters that the game also has a very grainy low resolution to it, and it seems the higher the quality video connection you use on your PS2 the worse the game looks. I usually use DVD-component input for my PS2, but with component or even S-video input for FaceOff 2001, the jaggies so pronounced you can't even read the names off the back of the player's jerseys!

FaceOff 2001's player models are almost identical to those in the PSX version, and require triple or even quadruple the number of polygons before they even approach those found in NHL 2001 for the PS2. The players also appear to all be the same size and height, and the horrible skewed way the faces have been stuck onto the players make them look like zombies. The goalie models are equally as bad as the players and SolWorks didn't even bother to give the goalies masks the appropriate decals, instead the majority of the masks are completely plain. There's only one referee and no linesmen, and even though the puck looks the size of a giant frisbee SolWorks found the time to have the ref spin the puck in his hands before he drops it for a faceoff. Of course, they didn't animate the referee physically spinning it, instead his hand stays still while the black frisbee mysteriously rotates by itself in mid-air before it falls.

The animations are decent, and the multitude of different checking animations are quite impressive. However, some of the transitions between animations, especially for the goaltenders, could use some work. Arena and rink details, apart from the on-ice logos, are sparse and uninspired, and the arenas are packed with multicolored, non-animated, card-board cutout style 2D 'fans.'

One of the great graphical features in FaceOff 2001 for the PSX are the camera angles, and in particular the Diagonal camera angle that gives a view of a large portion of the rink, and is ideal for when you're playing with more than two people. However, SolWorks tinkering managed to screw this up too, and now the Diagonal camera angle rotates as you near the boards and playing for longer than five minutes with this view gives you nausea. The other camera angles are all pretty poor, and the only bearable view is the High Vertical angle which is similar to the default in EA Sports' NHL 2001.

The only positive graphical aspect of this game is the rock solid framerate that absolutely flies by. However, I don't regard that as a great accomplishment since the player and rink models have so few polygons. Little presentation touches such as the singing of the National anthems before the opening face off that were found in the PSX version are mysteriously absent in the PS2 incarnation. Even the graphical overlays are shoddy, as when you score the goalscorer's name will pop-up simultaneously with a silhouette of his picture and then a few seconds later his picture will finally load up. Graphically, this game is so poor compared to other PS2 and Dreamcast games that I almost felt embarrassed when I had my friends over to try out the multiplayer modes. In all honesty, there are a multitude of PSX games that look a lot better than FaceOff 2001 and SolWorks and 989 Sports should be ashamed of themselves for releasing such a shoddy graphical effort.

Presentation/Audio : 85
Sad as it is, the FaceOff 2001's audio is undoubtedly the best part of the game. The commentary is very good (it's the same as the PSX version) and is handled by Mike Emrick and Darren Pang. Most of the time Emrick is on top of the action, and Pang chips in with comments that are usually pertinent to the action on the ice. The crowd is adequate, cheering when the home team scores and booing when the opposition scores. The rink announcer does his job well, but the tinny echo associated with the voice samples makes it sound like he's talking from inside a bathroom.

Interface/Options : 65
SolWorks have included the bare minimum options that you'd expect from a sports title nowadays. The main modes of play are: Quick Start, Exhibition, Playoffs, Season, Tournament, Shootout, and Practice. The Season mode is for only one season plus the playoffs and for some reason SolWorks haven't included an option to set the length of the season so you always have to play a full schedule – this was a problem in the PSX version as well and it's another disappointment to see SolWorks haven't addressed this. Thankfully you can simulate games, although the stats aren't very realistic; I simulated an entire season and the leading scorer was Jason Arnott with 92 points – a very low total, and I wouldn't expect Arnott to lead the scoring but he's still a premier player in the league so maybe that's not too far fetched. By the way, second in league scoring was Randy McKay with 57 points! However I should have seen this coming as it took me less than three seconds to simulate the entire season – a complex statistical engine is used, I am sure. You can trade players during the season but there are no computer initiated trades, and it's easy to rip them off--Alfredsson and Fisher for Kariya anyone? As in keeping with the overall nature of the game, the presentation surrounding the Season mode is very poor. The stats and menu screens are bland and unimaginative, and when you complete a league game you're not returned to the Season mode main screen, instead you're returned to the main title screen and then have to wade through the menus back into the season mode to continue! This has to be done after every game and, as you can imagine, it does wonders for the immersiveness of the season.

Playoff mode lets you jump right into the playoffs (here you can select how many rounds you want), while Tournament mode allows you to set up a tourney using NHL and international teams. Speaking of teams, the game features all 30 NHL teams, the 2 All-Star teams, and a few international teams as well. The rosters are accurate up to near the beginning of the year, so Bill Guerin is in Boston and SolWorks also managed to sneak 'The Magnificent One' into the Penguins roster. There's also a NHL Legends team that features Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne and other notable NHL stars of yesteryear. The Practice mode is the same as the exhibition mode except you can set the number of skaters you want on the ice. This is just as useless as the lame Shootout mode that seems to have a longer load time than the actual games.

FaceOff 2001 features three 'difficulty' levels: Rookie, Pro and All-Star, as well as the expected settings for toggling line-changes, fatigue, fighting etc. There's also an option for setting the game speed, which actually comes in useful as increasing difficulty levels also jacks up the speed.

Gameplay : 38
There are three important aspects of a team sports game that need to be done right if you want the gameplay to be a success: AI, physics and control. If you get all three right you end up with ESPN MLS GameNight, two out of three (ain't bad) and you get Madden 2001, zero out of the three gets you Fifa 2001. So where does that leave NHL FaceOff 2001? One out of three; the degree of control in FaceOff 2001 is just about adequate, but the AI and Physics are weaker than a Nikolai Borschevsky body check.

FaceOff 2001 affords fairly decent control over the players. Controls are all very similar to most hockey games, including speed burst, pass, wrist shot, slap shot, and body check. A poke check is, amazingly, absent but I'll discuss that shortly. The controls are very responsive and the goalie controls have been improved from the PSX version so that you don't have as many errant passes that lead to silly goals. There isn't a 'deke' button, but that's no great loss as the 'deke' move in NHL 2001 is pretty unrealistic and also absent is the spin move from the same game. Instead, FaceOff features a drop pass, and more useful give-and-go and icon passing.

Unfortunately, after the control the rest of the game falls apart. In terms of the physics, it's absolutely clear that this game is not a simulation. The default speed has the players racing around the rink at ludicrous speeds, and the puck elasticity is incredibly exaggerated. Passes fly with deadly accuracy from player to player, and in defiance of the laws of physics pucks seem to speed up when they fly off the post. These skaters can also race at top speed and suddenly stop on a dime with no difficulty whatsoever – there's hardly any sense of inertia in the skating. The lack of a poke check means that a good old body check is the only way to steal the puck. As you can imagine, this turns every game into a check-fest that would make Don Cherry proud, and in an accommodating fashion the programmers have a truckload of different checking animations. At times I wasn't sure if I was playing NHL FaceOff or an on-ice version WWF Smackdown! Even if you turn down the game speed most of these problems are still prevalent, and with the heavy checking at slow speeds the game resembles what you'd expect if the players in the NHL Old-Timer's game decided to get rowdy and start throwing the body.

These problems are then exacerbated by the woeful AI and the inconsistent refereeing. Your teammates' AI is adequate and they'll stick to their positions and usually won't do anything (too) stupid. The opposing skaters, on the other hand, are morons with about the same levels of awareness as the lamebrains in Fifa 2001 PS2. For example, whenever you approach the opposing team's blue line all five opposition skaters collapse in the zone – that is they back off towards their own net and stay there. If you come close to them they'll smack you to the floor but if you can stay away they'll gladly stand there and watch you. This basically means that you can set up a powerplay-style offence whenever you want. Just skate into the opponent's zone without being hit, cut back and start passing it around. The opposing five skaters will just collapse towards their own net, and occasionally harass your man in front of the net.

This idiotic AI remains the same even when the CPU has a Powerplay, and the best strategy for killing a penalty is to simply get the puck, skate into your opponent's zone untouched, and just keep skating back and forth inside, and parallel to, their blue line for the entire two minutes. The CPU players will just collapse towards their net and watch you – even though they have an extra man! But wait, the idiocy doesn't end there; when the CPU players have a clear breakaway, rather than racing in and trying to deke the goalie, more often than not they like to stop just inside the blue line and take a slap shot! Those that don't usually skate right into your goalie presenting him with the puck.

After playing this game for a considerable length of time I am almost certain that penalties are called randomly. I have been checked from behind on breakaways, interfered with off the puck, boarded, and the ref kept his whistle in his pocket, but when I simply touch an opposing player I get a penalty called against me. Usually, this would be a huge problem, but the AI is so poor that it's just as easy to score shorthanded as it is at even strength. In fact the different AI level are only indicators of how well the opposition can check, as on the Rookie setting they won't touch you, and on the All-Star setting if you get within 5 feet of them they'll try to kill you.

So what does this moronic AI and loonytoons physics do for the game? Well, against the CPU it basically turns FaceOff into a shooting gallery – don't be surprised to pepper goalies with more than 60 shots every game. Of course, to make up for the poor AI the developers incorporated superhuman goaltenders capable of stopping 40-50 shots a game from point blank range, but yet susceptible to floated wrist shots from the blue line! This is probably the worst aspect of the game as it not only affects the one-player mode, it kills the multiplayer aspect. It's incredibly annoying to have numerous chances that should have been goals only to see the goalie make an impossible save, and yet then watch floaters and backhanded one-timers from the point go flying in. There's absolutely no sense of satisfaction in scoring. It'll also take you 5 minutes to figure out FaceOff 2001's money play – come down your skater's off wing, cut in and go top corner shortside – this is guaranteed to score with the top players in the league and at least ring off the post with a bench warmer. Consequently, this game isn't hard in the slightest; before writing this review I beat the New Jersey Devils 14-0 in five minute periods with the Ottawa Senators. I hammered 71 shots on Marty Brodeur, dished out 86 body checks, and scored an impressive 6 shorthanded goals (I kid you not).

In today's videogame market, there are too many games that emphasize graphics over gameplay. However, FaceOff 2001 doesn't fit into this category, instead it plays just how it looks….like crap.

Replay Value : 10
The only redeeming aspect of this game is the multiplayer mode, which is good for a quick laugh and the crazy checking makes for some mindless violence on ice. However, for $50 you could easily buy a copy of the NHL Rock the Rink for the PSX and still have $30 left to burn.

Overall : 35
Coming from 989 Sports, basically a second-party developer for Sony, this game is an insult and a slap in the face to the early adopters of the PS2. Never have I seen a game with such poor presentation values – there are much better looking PSX games. Gameplay-wise, if forced, I'd still play this trollop over Fifa 2001 (the lesser of two punishments), but at least EA Sports gave a rock solid effort with Fifa's presentation. SolWorks and 989 Sports didn't even seem lift a finger with this game – and it has even more flaws than the original PSX title it was ported from. If you're looking for a PS2 hockey simulation, keep looking because this isn't it. If you're looking for a solid arcade representation of hockey get EA Sports' NHL 2001, but please, stay well clear of this one.

By: Lavan Chandran 3/16/01

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