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NHL Faceoff 2001 (PSX) Review

Publisher: 989 Sports
Release Date: September 2000

Background Info

PSX Screens (5)
Hockey! It's only September. Oh, I forgot. The NHL takes about a week off between seasons before hitting the ice again. Seriously, the NHL season starts up before you realized it has ended. That's fine by me, as this wonderful game on ice provides some of the best action in sport. To coincide with the start of the NHL season, 989 Sports has already released NHL Faceoff 2001 for the PlayStation.

This year, two new teams are added to the NHL fray and are duly represented in the latest console hockey title. In addition to a couple of new teams, 989 packed a couple of extra features into the game. The end result is a solid and entertaining hockey title just in time for the first drop of the puck.

Presentation/Graphics : 86
Having just played 989's football titles for 2001, I was a little skeptical of the intro. The two football games had fast action replays of incredible football highlights. Unfortunately for those titles, the graphics (let alone the actual play) didn't live up to the same standard as the intro. Once the game started up and I saw the FMV with breathtaking slap shots and celebrations, I thought I was in for another letdown.

Take an about face. The fellas at 989 did not disappoint graphically (nor in play). As soon as I got to the first game, I was wowed by the detail in the stadiums. My first game was in the stadium for the Nashville Predators. Besides detailed American and Canadian flags hanging from the ceiling, the stadium included the intricate girders comprising the roof. While the crowd looks bland and is a pixelated patchwork of colors, the rest of the stadium is great. Lights reflect off the ice and cast shadows of the players. You can also see the reflection of the boards in the ice. The glass even shakes when a player hits it too hard.

The players also look great. Uniforms are detailed and there will be no mistaking player numbers. During replays, the quality bumps up a notch and details such as white teeth or plastic face shields on helmets are noticed. Likewise, the player animations are smooth; skaters fluidly skate across the ice. The goalies may stop the puck and then stretch their legs across the goal to stop a rebound shot. When players leave the ice, the half door opens to let them in. Even the intermission animation is good, complete with Zamboni machines and small inflatable blimps that are common to indoor arenas.

However, not all is well in graphics-land. The only real problem graphically is one that affects the play of the game. While there are several camera views available in the game, they all suffer from the same problem. On faceoffs, the camera zooms close to the action. Once the puck is dropped, the camera slowly pulls out and changes to your default angle. This transformation seems to take an eternity (well, a second or two). During this time, you are essentially skating blind. Even if you win the faceoff, there is no guarantee you will retain possession of the puck since you can't tell where your nearest opponent is. On more than one occasion I lost the puck to this factor. It is particularly worrisome when in your own zone.

Presentation/Audio : 95
To go along with some very good graphics, the sound in NHL Faceoff 2001 holds the same high standard. The game opens with either the American or Canadian anthem sung by an invisible vocalist. Depending on the Canadian province, the Canadian anthem can be in either French or English.

Once the anthem concludes, the crowd starts cheering and the two-man booth of Mike Emrick of the Devils and ESPN's Darren Pang call the action. They call a straight game and are on top of the action. The calls are accurate and the commentary remains fresh. While it doesn't have the witty (and tiring) comments of a John Madden, fans of the classic style of play-by-play will appreciate the sound. On the ice, you get the usual hockey sounds. Pucks coming off the pipes clank, boards rattle when hit, and slap shots pop.

Interface/Options : 82
Faceoff 2001 has several variations on the hockey theme. The meat of the game is in the Season mode, where you play a full 82-game season. Some may be turned off by the lack of a shorter, customized season. However, you can always sim games along the way to speed up the season. During season play, you can also run the front office. You can sign, trade, and release players. Unfortunately, there is no career mode in the game. Once the season ends, that is it.

In addition to the long 82 game season, the Quick Start mode lets you jump right into the action without setting the game options. To play a single game with customized settings, play in Exhibition mode. For those wanting a happy medium between Quick Start and Season, the Playoffs and Tournament modes provide a short trip to the championship. The two modes are essentially the same, except that the Tournament mode uses international teams to capture the gold medal. There is also a practice mode that can be accessed (but probably not) and a Shootout where you take penalty shots. This was perhaps the best part of the game (please note the sarcasm).

Before heading out to the ice, you can configure the game to fit your style. The game has settings for injuries, penalties, rules, difficulty, and more. Perhaps the best option is the ability to change the speed of the game. I am a fan of realistic sports games. All too often sports games take place at speeds which approach ping pong rather than the sport they represent. Faceoff 2001 has a slider bar to adjust the speed of the action. I set the speed to around a quarter of the bar and found the pace to be realistic. The speed can be adjusted for any difficulty level.

Once on the ice, game controls are a breeze. On offense, every button is utilized. Using various buttons and combinations, slap shots, wrist shots, redirected shots, drop passes, and one-timers are at your disposal. You can even fake your shot to outwit the goalie. On defense, the controls are minimal. The game lacks in this department, as defensive controls are restricted to player switching and hip checks. There are no poke checks in the game, nor the ability to wrap a player up. Even more, there is no lay down feature to drop to the ice to block a shot.

During the season, stats are kept and are realistic. Stats are kept for every category imaginable. In addition to the realistic seasonal stats, games end with realistic scores. Goal-fests simply do not occur on the higher difficulty levels (Veteran and All-Pro). However, playing on the Veteran level did tend to be fairly easy. Using the Penguins, I have won many more games than I lost on that level. The step to All-Pro, though, is severe and will kick plenty of tail.

Gameplay : 86
The moment I started my first game I was hooked. Despite some problems mentioned earlier (camera views and lack of some defensive options), I had a blast. My previous favorite was Sega's NHL 2000 on the Dreamcast. The realistic pace of that game had won me over. Well, with the adjustable speed setting in Faceoff 2001, I was in hockey heaven. I played most of my games on the Veteran level, which is the middle level of the game.

What I like most about the game is that it captures the essence of hockey. On offense, the AI controlled defense is not overly aggressive. You don't have one or more defensemen hounding you the moment you receive the puck. Each time down the ice you have time to set up plays. You can pass across the ice to set up a shot, although passing too many times will result in a turnover. During a 5-on-4 advantage, the CPU resorts to a box or diamond defense. Unlike other hockey games that continue to attack the puck, the AI defense bunkers down and defends the shooting lanes. Once they get their sticks on the puck, they instantly clear the puck to the other end. I did, however, notice one flaw in regards to penalty play; if the CPU is called for a delayed penalty, it sits back rather than attack the puck to get the whistle and stop a potential 6-on-5 short-term advantage. Getting the CPU to be called for penalties took some doing. The default penalty setting never seemed to call penalties in my favor. Increasing the penalty option by a position made for a balanced game.

Scoring in Faceoff 2001 is realistic, and the goalies play excellent defense. Despite shooting near 25 shots per game (10 minute periods with a fast clock) on average, my goal percentage hovered around 15 percent. Cheap goals can be had, though. Slapshots are rarely stopped by the goalie, and players following the play can sometimes pick up the scraps for an easy feast. More times than not, however, your players just don't have the position. Scoring can occur from all parts of the ice. I've had slap shots go in from the point, wrist shots on breakaways, and even wrap around goals. One complaint I have on both sides of the puck is the goalie play once he captures the puck. CPU goalies always freeze the puck, even when there is no immediate threat. This slows the game down and is more of an annoyance. My goalie will also freeze the puck if I'm not quick enough on the outlet pass. There is nothing worse than an errant pass by the CPU that lands down in my zone. My goalie grabs the puck and I wait for my men to cross the blue line. Even before one of my guys or a CPU player crosses the line, my goalie sits on the puck.

Another complaint I do have is with fatigue. Initially I was playing with fatigue on and the line changes option set to on. After some time, I noticed the same players on the ice. Furthermore, they were fresh as daisies. Befuddled, I looked through the options and noticed I could also set the line changes to auto. In doing that, the lines certainly do change, but the lines never seem to tire before their shifts end. I notice no difference in speed between the beginning and end of a shift.

Additional complaints I have with the game include pucks that seem to penetrate skaters and faceoffs. Rarely do pucks deflect off the sticks or bodies of either team. With so few deflections, some of the realism is taken out of the game. Likewise, faceoffs are unbalanced. Winning upwards of 80 or 90 percent of faceoffs is a breeze. Of course, with the aforementioned camera problem, keeping the puck after winning the faceoff can be a challenge. One other complaint I have is the lack of checking by the CPU players. My checks against the CPU were nearly an order of magnitude greater. All that changed once I bumped the difficulty up to All-Pro. The CPU took me to the woodshed for a grand whoopin'. Its checks increased to a realistic level and it was called for more penalties. It retained the same defensive AI but was more aggressive and successful on offense. The number of shots it took was on par with my team. Yet it still had trouble winning faceoffs.

Replay Value : 88
Despite some flaws in the game, I thoroughly enjoyed Faceoff 2001. I wasn't expecting much from the game coming off some horrendous offerings lately from 989. But I was pleasantly surprised. I found a brand of hockey that had a realistic pace and a computer AI that let me set up plays on the offensive end. All too many hockey games turn into a primitive exercise of rushing up and down the ice with one-timers.

I do wish more defensive controls were implemented in the game. With only one aggressive move you lack the ability to play a finesse defense. The hip check is a dangerous maneuver that often draws a whistle. Even momentum based impacts for a body check would have been a great addition. However, the game excels in spite of some of the misgivings.

Overall : 87
I loved NHL 2000 on the Dreamcast and was upset to hear that the sequel may not make it out this year. However, after playing NHL Faceoff 2001 on the PlayStation, I won't be too upset. The game has one ingredient that keeps me interested. It is fun. I looked forward to each game I played and enjoyed every minute of it.

By: James Smith 9/22/00

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