The NHL 2K franchise, best known to Dreamcast owners, makes its debut on the latest generation of consoles. Console gamers have been begging for a realistic hockey game for a while and Sega promises to deliver. The only question is whether the game can strike a balance between realism and downright fun.
Presentation/Graphics : 90
From the default camera, NHL 2K3 provides a graphical presentation that is clean and works well for the game. Player models are detailed enough to let you distinguish players by name and number. In addition, the detail extends to stick play; the difference between hooks, pokes, wrist shots, and backhands are all easy to see with the default view. Even when pinned against the boards you can see the elbows fly. Unfortunately, the ice appearance isn't as good. Why none of the PS2 hockey games have scratched-up surfaces from the players is beyond me. Heck, the original NHL 2K on the Dreamcast even did this!
Shots of the bench or crowd are given between faceoffs, scores, or injuries. The crowd animation helps set the ambiance for the game. Where the game really looks good is with the player animations. Goalies use a variety of moves to fight for the puck including dives, splits, butterflies, and more. If a player gets knocked to the ice you feel the effort on getting back up. Even the referee's motions are spot on. Viewing all this action is easy with the cameras in NHL 2K3. You can customize any of the cameras with the zoom feature. But I found the default camera to be ideal. It gave me a full view of the ice and I was never at a point where I had to blindly pass to a player off camera.
Presentation/Audio : 70
The crowd noise is probably the best thing about the audio package. The crowd gets into the game when appropriate. Unfortunately the color commentary is sparse and repetitive, and the play-by-play is routine. Also, aside from the clank of the puck off the pipes, the sounds of hockey are missing.
Interface/Options : 85
The gameplay modes of NHL 2K3 include single game, season, playoff, and franchise. The franchise and season modes have plenty of options, including management moves. Each team has a salary cap, and you can play with the cap by offering contracts of varied length and amount. The stat tracking engine is extensive. At first I was worried that the amount of stats were too minimal. If you go to the League Leaders section, you only find the stats of the top 10 players in any category. However, by going to player stats and viewing the entire NHL, a multitude of stats opens up. The stats are reasonable based on the 82 game season.
Taking a page out of EA's book, Sega has filled the game with options and sliders to manipulate the gameplay. But what you get in NHL 2K3 is even more voluminous and diverse than what you find with the competing hockey titles. There are five screens of options that encompass over 50 different game options for gameplay, control, rules, and presentation. Things like puck control, rebounds, pass accuracy, and fatigue can be customized. You even have the option of freezing the puck against the boards or grabbing the puck off in mid air. But you have to chastise Sega a bit for providing us gamers with an incomplete manual. Many of the option sliders are not discussed in the manual so you have to guess at what they do. Many are self-explanatory, but a couple are not. You can also edit players to adjust their strengths and weaknesses; however, these changes cannot be applied in the franchise mode.
Gameplay : 90
Hockey fans are screaming for a realistic hockey title. Sega has taken up the task with the NHL 2K series. The first two on the Dreamcast were nice titles that demonstrated a big difference between its style and those of more arcade style titles. 2K3 is no different. The game is replete with simulation aspects. Things like the aforementioned pinning the puck or mid-air puck grabs are examples of this. Then there is the neutral zone play. Many times you'll find yourself giving up or taking away the puck in the middle third of the rink. Turnovers from getting bumped off the puck or pass interceptions are common, particularly if you adjust the sliders to loosen up puck control. Even in your own zone clearing the puck can be difficult.
With the strong defensive presence, you'd think that up and down hockey is impossible. That's not the case at all. However, the instances are moderate. Many times they are a result of a defensive mistake by either team. The speed bursts don't allow for skaters to fly away from their defenders. The emphasis in the game is in effective passing (that is, passing only when the passing lane is clear) and setting up the shot. Fans of rapid fire arcade hockey may be a bit dismayed.
The level of enjoyment in the game ultimately will boil down to the sliders. The default setting for penalties generates too few calls. Once you bump the slider close to the max you get a great mix of calls and you have to be judicious about your use of hits and hooks. However, even with penalties set to the max, five-minute majors are a rarity, as are fights. I'd estimate that majors occur once for every hundred or more two-minute infractions. And one thing I have yet to see is a penalty shot.
Two other issues may affect your decision on this game. At times player awareness is nonexistent. A loose puck may sit on the ice for a few seconds as your players don't converge. Likewise, if you pass to another player and the pass lacks enough zip to get to him, the player will often just stand on the ice. Eventually the puck may reach him, but in reality he should at least loop back to get the pass. Many times the AI team can dart for the puck and head up ice.
The other significant issue is goalie strength. This has been an issue throughout the history of this franchise. The goalies in this game are tough, perhaps too tough. At times it borders on ridiculous. Take a slap shot from the point, watch it bounce off the goalie, followed by a quick shot or two from your players. The goalies often stop each puck with spectacular gymnastic moves. Scoring is kept to a minimum, with both teams often combining for 5 goals or less. Just once you'd like to see the players on either side of the puck get the best of the goalies. Fortunately there is a way to improve scoring in the game, but it can only be done in the single game and season modes. If you want more scoring in the franchise mode, develop better skills. By editing the goalies in the league in attributes like quickness, reflexes, speed, and anticipation, you can open up the scoring more. If you don't want to make this sacrifice, develop those skills. Scoring requires the ability to catch goalies with an obstructed view, using manual shooting and placing the puck in the right part of the goal, shooting from the blue line with players near the crease for deflected shots, and catching the lucky bounce off the goalie. But what's great about NHL 2K3 is that you feel like each goal you score is an achievement, and each goal scored by the opposition is due to a defensive mistake on your part. That's a much better feeling than what I always perceive as random goals (that is, skill plays little role) in some competing hockey games.
Replay Value : 90
I'm smitten with this kitten. NHL 2K3 seems to be fitting in nicely with the Sega Sports lineup. If we take a look at the early NFL titles, those required developing skills. Likewise, the NBA 2K series has always forced you to learn to play defense (except 2K3), lest the CPU wipes you out. To me, games that require more effort on my part make for a richer experience. While I'll play games of arcade style hockey for instant gratification, I'll stick with NHL 2K3 for its depth. It's as close to real hockey as you can find currently on a console.
Overall : 90
The biggest thing going against NHL 2K3 is the goalie strength. At times the strong goalies can frustrate the gamer as shot after shot is either deflected or saved. However, if you stick with the game and develop the skills needed to score or slightly modify goalie strengths, you'll find one incredibly good game. If realism is your goal, NHL 2K3 isn't completely realistic, but it's pretty darn good.