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PS2 Staff Review by Mike Weatherup

Every conversation I have had in recent years with hockey fanatics usually has the fan asking me when will developers create a true hockey simulated experience. I probed for more input and it bothers connoisseurs of the sport that hockey videogames do not really represent the true physics to the game. Sure there are the big hits and fighting but have you ever watched the likes of the New Jersey Devils play the Toronto Maple Leafs? It does not make an exciting evening but the fact that both teams play a certain defensive style does give new meaning to the game of ice hockey. These hockey nuts will be happy to hear that Sega Sports has addressed this issue in NHL2K3, which makes an appearance on the Playstation 2 this year. The games creators at Visual Concepts have added incredible realism to the playability of this years iteration. For the first time in a hockey game, you can control your players to hold offensive players in the corner in an attempt to work the boards for a loose puck. Add to this tight control and great mechanics and you have a classic in the making.

Visual Concepts has a great record of accomplishment when it comes to presentation and without any doubt they do not disappoint here. Player models have been drawn very carefully and the usual endless hours of motion capture have been used to ensure the utmost realism. The animations are extremely smooth throughout the entire game. Checking animations are appropriate and not too over the top like in other hockey games. The detail on each players face is staggering. All of your stars look life-like and not some cardboard cutout. The arena replications are accurate and the fan animations are half-decent. They could still use some polishing to give the entire presentation a more television like appearance. As usual, Visual Concepts did not disappoint with the announcers by teaming up with ESPN voice talent to handle the booth. The play by play is quite deep with a lot of variance in accordance with the on ice action. In the same, vain, the sound effects and front end music is solid.

As already mentioned the big difference between NHL2K3 and the competition this year, lies within the incredible gameplay mechanics. Visual Concepts have done their homework by ensuring every aspect of hockey has been included to a viable and very playable level. Controlling the players and their various moves is simplified thanks to the tight controls. Shooting is much more realistic with the ability to let off a quick hard shot without having to wait ten seconds for some silly meter to fill up. Even wrist shots can be suddenly fired with speed and accuracy just like in a real hockey game. The element of a sudden shot has been masterfully implemented. The puck physics are also impressive. Pass the puck to your defensemen at the point on a power play, and let him blast it. A tip in is possible if execute correctly. In other hockey games, a tip in is just pure luck. What has to be one of the more annoying things with hockey games lately is the ease of scoring. Most games end up with basketball scores instead of hockey scores. Again, Visual Concepts has made scoring more real by giving the goalies their real-life skill characteristics. Patrick Roy is masterfully presented in his full butterfly style of play. When these superstars make spectacular saves, you can actually see the puck going into their glove. My only gripe with this game is that I feel it could have been sped up a couple of more notches. Sure, you can toggle options in the deep menus but it still does not feel 100 percent.

NHL2K3 merits a purchase on its gameplay physics alone. Visual Concepts, however, did not stop there. They included an incredibly deep Franchise mode that will keep even the hardcore players busy for months. You are in control of a roster of 40 guys to choose from. Many can come up from the minor leagues just like the real deal. In addition to the Franchise mode, the usual array of game modes is available which include single player options, multiplayer options, playoffs and more. Unfortunately, online play did not make it into the PS2 version but was included in the XBOX version. It is not clear as to why this happens, but I suspect it was a deal made with Microsoft to be exclusive to XBOX Live.

What else do you need to know? NHL2K3 has brought back the glory of yesteryear with hockey titles like NHL94. Finally, someone has figured out that hockey is more than just pretty graphics and stupid fights. I am certainly excited to see what Visual Concepts does with this franchise come next fall. In the meantime, the crown this year belongs to Segas NHL2K3.

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