The NHL markets itself as "the coolest game on earth" and each year developers try to bring that mentality to the console market. The non-stop action of hockey is ripe for emulation in a video game yet implementation is often critiqued on the basis of gameplay. Fickle gamers are serious when it comes to sports games.
PS2 Screens (3)
So here comes NHL Faceoff 2003 with its touted reconstructed game engine that promises realistic play and some spectacular graphical features.
Presentation/Graphics : 60
The box art says there are more than 700 new skating, checking, and goaltending animations plus new state-of-the-art player models and arenas-- those are 989's words, not mine. Unfortunately, the game's implementation of the animations shortchanges this title. There are too few frames for any given animation and the result is a game that looks choppy. For example, when your player executes a speed burst, the player model instantly switches from a compact skating stance to one that is stretched out. There's no smooth transition between styles. Likewise, goalie animations change on a dime. Spastic goalie motions do little to make you believe you are playing a hockey simulation. Even the "hooverphonic style" puck dynamics scream of needing improvement. Pucks jump in space from one player to another or into the glove of the goalie.
The player models, while decent, lack the quality befitting the latest generation of consoles. Sharp angles define the shapes rather than gentle curves. Only in cut scenes are players decent looking. A significant issue with the players is the collision detection. When players are close to each other, the puck magically goes from one skater to the next without pressing the pass button.
The other issue is the line change. I once saw two CPU players trying to get to the bench. The CPU team skated with 3 players with the other 2 fighting each other to get through the door. This led to many 5 on 3 situations for a few minutes. In another instance, the CPU had 7 players on the ice due to a skater pinned to my goal. No call was made until the CPU tried to penetrate my zone and finally an offsides infraction was called.
Presentation/Audio : 60
What sound? Darren Pang and Mike Emrick do the play-by-play and color commentary. Unfortunately their calls are sparse. You get standard calls on possession, but there really is no color in the game. I've heard more entertaining announcing listening to college hockey than what you get here. It's flat and adds absolutely nothing to the presentation of the game. On the positive, the puck does have a realistic clank off the pipes and hits sound decent
Interface/Options : 40
Equally disappointing are the game modes and options. The game comes with several game modes, including practice, season, exhibition, shootout, tournament, and career. Most sports gamers lick their chops when it comes to the career mode. You won't be licking anything with Faceoff as the career mode is very basic. You can sign free agents and rookies, but you can't take a look at your roster during the process. Thus, unless you know exactly what your current lineup is after player retirements, there is no way to address your needs, without relying on blind luck. Furthermore, the GM duties are done without consideration to cash. Salaries are nonexistent in the game, and as a result rookie and free agent pickups are available on demand.
The gameplay options are very limited. Aside from presentation settings, you can adjust the difficulty, speed, fatigue, injuries, fighting, and a few rules. The fatigue option is poorly implemented. Even with fatigue on you can keep your players on the ice indefinitely. Their normal skating speed is unchanged, though their speed burst ability goes away quickly. While the CPU makes constant line changes, you can keep your line on ice for breakaways. The fatigue model should punish you for playing a line too long. The fatigue model in Faceoff does not do this. Some gameplay sliders would be highly effective here. Even things like puck friction are way off. You can shoot the puck from one end of the ice and watch it slide forever without a drop in speed. I've had to chase the puck around the rink on more than one occasion due to a lack of puck friction.
Gameplay : 50
Faceoff 2003 is a one dimensional hockey game. Even though there are options for arcade and simulation, both modes use the same engine. The emphasis of the model is on constant up and down action. Even when charging up and down the rink trailing teammates sometimes stop at the blue line rather than naturally complete the rush with you.
Also, I have yet to experience a goal from the point. Every goal scored by me or the CPU has been on a break, one-timer, or right near the goal. And because of the vacuum effect the goalie has on the puck, rebounds are few. Even when there is a rebound, the puck often sucks itself onto the nearest stick rather than waiting to be picked up by either side.
Fortunately there are times when you can set up behind the goal for a few seconds. This can be effective in trying to score a one-timer in the crease. If you wait too long the defense does converge. Speaking of defense, defenses play a man-zone style defense. You can skate in a loop and constantly evade the defense as only one AI player will converge on you. Break out of his zone and a different player will pursue. In the extreme, players will skate away from the puck holder if he gets too far away from his zone. I've seen skaters inexplicably skate quickly from one side of the rink to the other leaving the puck holder unchecked.
Defensive play is too dominant in the game. Poke checks from behind result in a slight tap of the skate. The end result is a puck that flies away from the offensive player. Also, the slightest hit can knock a player off the puck. This makes for plenty of neutral zone play, but it bogs the game down. I'd rather have realistic, momentum-based checks, pass intercepts, and poke checks on the part of the defense than what I perceive as shortcuts in the defense.
Replay Value : 50
There are some positive aspects of Faceoff. The neutral zone play is good, though a bit too aggressive. Likewise, the goalies are tough to beat. I don't mind tough goalies as long as goals are scored from a variety of spots on the ice. I prefer a game that mixes up goals from slap shots, one-timers, rebounds, and more; however, the negatives detract from the gameplay. The one-dimensional game style, variety of bugs, lack of options, AI issues, and poor career mode make for an uninspired hockey game.
Overall : 50
Despite a year off last year, Faceoff 2003 hasn't improved enough to stay with the competition. The redesigned game engine has the underpinnings of a good hockey title, but it needs additional tweaking. Also, 989 Sports needs to address some obvious bugs in the game. The sound and graphics likewise need to be updated in order to compete with the other hockey games on the market.