Cons: Too arcadey for real hockey fans, even with full sim settings
The Bottom Line: I still prefer the real thing.
Ah, the dog days of summer have arrived. Days when all you can really do is sit around the house with the fan blowing at full blast, wishing you were someplace with a lower-temped climate. Siberia, perhaps. Or maybe Alaska. And if youre REALLY stifling, youll probably so desperate as to wish you were in Buffalo, New York. Which brings me to why Im writing a review of a hockey game at this time. If you want to cool off, or at least experience the illusion of cooling off, you should plug a nice hockey game into whatever your console of choice is. Im writing this to help narrow down the choices.
As for what I think about hockey games in general, anyone whos read my review of NHL 95 knows what I think. Hockey is just too dang fun to make it into a decent video game simulation. Well, the same could actually be said for every sport, but hockey offers the most bang at this time. Think of the options: You can play baseball out in the hot, hot sun. Basketball is a great game to play under the sun, unless youre willing to throw away a ton of cash in a health club. Football is played in the elements in hot, heavy pads, unless you want to risk injury. Hockey is played in a controlled environment on cold, solid ice. So if you really want to play hockey, just go out and do it.
Be this as it may, any sports game is still just a game. Especially for hockey. And we also know that I consider NHL 95 for the Genesis to be the be all and end all pinnacle of the sports genre. Which means the game in question, NHL 2001, had a lot to live up to. You would also assume NHL 2001 would be able to live up to the bar standard set by its senior brother. After all, they were both made by EA Sports. And NHL 95 was on the puny, 16-bit Genesis, while NHL 2001 got the benefit of being on the muscular, all-powerful PlayStation 2. It should quite naturally be bigger and better, right? Well, bigger, yes. But better? Thats totally debateable.
Dont get me wrong, Im not saying NHL 2001 isnt fun. Its a lot of fun, if youre up for a good cheap thrill. Its just that after so long, the thrill begins to wear off. Its just that whenever I think of quality sports SIMS, EA Sports doesnt immediately spring to mind. Making a bold statement like this is video game heresy, I know, but its the truth. EA Sports doesnt really seem to want to captivate diehard sports fans with accurate simulations of their favorite sports, theyve lately begun to just want to sell games. What made NHL 95 such a great game was that is was a truly great hockey simulation which made you work for everything you achieved. In all honesty, though, their games are more arcade than simulation. NHL 2001 is a great arcade game, but it isnt the kind of earth-shattering revelation that NHL 95 was to NHL 94. In fact, its pretty much the same game, only with updated rosters and lots of flash.
I should begin an explanation by first mentioning two of the main things which were included in the 2001 package: The Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild, both of which made their NHL debuts around this time. As expected, both of them are ranked rather lowly and, despite the whole Wild Cinderella story which was the Wilds run to the 2003 Western Conference finals, neither of them will be expected to win any championships in this game. Besides the Blue Jackets and the Wild, you can also choose between the ultra-powerful Eastern and Western Conference teams. Then there are many, many international teams from many places, including a North American all-star team, Canada, Japan, Kazakhstan, and of course Czechoslovakia. And some of these arent just world all-star teams, either. They are legitimate hockey teams.
A gimmick which was included this season allows you to choose the jerseys both teams will be playing in. Each team has a home jersey, an away jersey, and a number of other jerseys. Although I do find a few MIAs in the jerseys. I saw a classic blue and gold Sabres road jersey, but no blue and gold home jersey. The Carolina Hurricanes are allowed to play in the jerseys of the team they were before moving to Carolina: The Hartford Whalers. Most teams have inaugural jerseys.
Besides this, the games modes offer nothing you probably havent seen before. Quick games, a full season, a tournament, and a shootout. Of course, the game comes complete with a fantasy draft feature, but trying to navigate your way around the fantasy draft screen is pure torture. After you choose your team for the season, all the teams get to pick from the talent pool in the classic round robin style. The problem is, the computer never bothers to tell you what player it picked for what team. This can get very, very annoying after awhile because you often go off looking for a player, only to not find him, then not find another player you were looking for. You can start off looking for Rob Blake, then when you cant find him, try to settle for Mike Modano. Then you go flipping through the players again, cant find Modano, and just settle for the highest rated guy onscreen at the moment. Then the computer makes its picks, and you flip through the computers picks (which are shown onscreen before you go) and find that either Blake or Modano WAS actually still available in the last round. Its very annoying.
The problem here is that the roster and statistic screen lack any kind of organization. You can check out the league leaders, but the numbers on that screen only arrange themselves to show the highest number down, not the other way around, like in many Sega Sports games nowadays. When you try to draft players, it takes forever and a day to scroll all the way down through the entire roster of the NHL in search of the one guy youre looking for. At least the player creation option is still what it always was. You decide your players attributes, set his numbers, draft him to your favorite team, and lead him to the glory of the Stanley Cup. And hes likely to be a pretty good player, so you dont have to worry about him being any kind of cripple while hes on the ice.
One of the more advertised gameplay features in NHL 2001 was the momentum meter. The idea is that the thing builds up whenever a player on your team makes a big hit, a big save, a big shot, a big goal, stuff like that. When it gets to full momentum, you then get to unleash your teams full potential. The big shame in this, though, is that extra momentum wont save you in the event of a 12-goal deficit. In fact, even when the momentum meter is all maxed out, you wont notice any momentum at all. Your team will just keep on going like no meter is there. If your players a fatigued, theyll remain fatigued. If theyre on a cold streak, extra momentum wont bring that cold streak to an end. In short, the momentum meter is just a kind of elaborate feature which is simply THERE. No real purpose, outside of maybe selling a few games.
In another EA Sports folly, the fighting got screwed up once again. Although fighting has the distinction of actually being included in the game, unlike its 1995 counterpart, it also has the distinction of being worse than even in Mutant League Hockey. Instead of two guys sliding all over the ice pounding each other, you see the two fighters from the waste up, and whoever taps the two types of punches faster wins. Its laughable nd ridiculous.
You have two options for playing the on-ice game - arcade and simulation. Its a nice thought, but the problem is that the game is nothing more than an arcade game no matter how you look at it. The arcade mode plays faster and has harder hits, but thats where the differences end. Outside of that, the default setting has all the ice infractions (icing, offsides,) off, and the penalties are set to a minimum. The differences even with them on are subtle at best. The virtual referees dont really make any calls. Except for fighting, of course.
The actual gameplay is arcade all the way. Without any penalties to hinder your progress, youre free to hit and storm the opposing goal as you please, but only on the first two difficulty settings. This is another place in which the sim element fails: On the first two difficulty settings, youre free to swarm the goal as much as you want. The game may take the puck into your end and maybe even score one or two goals itself, but for the most part your team will swarm the opposing goal like bees whose nest was just kicked over. As a result, the number of shots skyrockets to over 70 sometimes, and winning teams will often create double-digit deficits. How realistic is that? I played hockey for four or five years, but none of the teams Ive ever played for even got a double-digit score, let alone won by one. If you ramp up the difficulty to the harder skill levels, the computer becomes the swarm of bees, and you become the hapless victim. Theres no difficulty balance.
One of the problems with the difficulty balance is the WAY the computer strikes at you. It all of a sudden becomes faster and harder-hitting. It doesnt defeat you through strategy and use of the moves the game supplies you with. While Im on the subject of strategy here, I might as well mention the serious lack thereof. The most strategy youll find in NHL 2001 is in trying to one-time the puck into the net, which youll be able to do ridiculously often. As for the moves, heres something different: some fancy figure-skating-looking spin which really makes you wonder if the programmers at EA Sports have ever actually seen a hockey game. Ive played hockey, and Ill continue watching it until Im long gone, and hopefully even after that. Not once have I ever seen an NHL player bust a spin like that.
The graphics in NHL 2001 are rendered into some pretty good player faces. But the game tricks you: Everything moves so fast onscreen, you think theres less animation than there really is. The movements in some of EA Sports 16-bit efforts will look more fluid in this way, but dont let it fool you. After all, this is the PS2 were talking about, so all of the movements and animation frames are there. Not only that, theyre also spectacular. The goalies really show you why theyre so valuble in the NHL with showcases of dynamic saves, and some of the hits look pretty painfull. The team uniforms are all recreated with stunning accuracy, but no distinction exists between the ice rinks yet. And dont you non-hockey fans be fooled - these distinctions do exist.
Using the Collective Soul song Heavy in the background of the opening cinema was a brilliant move, and Templars Here We Go in the menu screen was pretty cool too. But the game could have benefited from a few extra songs. The other music in the game is the standard hockey pipe organ fare, though this isnt a bad thing, especially when it all comes through so clearly. But after hearing those announcers, I now understnd what everyone has against EA Sports commentary. The announcers say stupid things like Whats this? A fight? In a hockey game? Who ever heard of such a thing? At least they say those things clearly, though. But the audio commentary is still very limited, even for back then, when developers were still learning what the PS2 could do. And the worst thing about the commentary is a debate about whether or not Brett Hull actually scored the game-winning goal in game six of the 1999 Stanley Cup finals. Lets get it clear right now - no, he did not.
The controls respond very well, and there are lots of moves. There is a deke, a poke check, a big hit, shooting and passing. The passing is a bit too accurate for my tastes, though, and none of these moves serve a real purpose in this arcade-dominated gameplay style. All you do is take the puck up the ice with a few speed bursts and pepper the goalie. While you have plenty of moves at your disposal for defense, there is simply no way to play it effectively on the higher difficulty levels. The game still controls better than any other NHL game Ive ever played, though.
NHL 2001 is a lot of fun for the casual gamer. For the hardcore hockey fan, though, it leaves a lot to be desired. The strategy which exists in real hockey simply isnt here. NHL 2001 is more arcade than sim, and its one of the reasons why EA Sports is losing ground in the sports sim race to rival Sega Sports. It simply doesnt meet the standard set by hockey grand master NHL 95. If EA Sports keeps churning out such ridiculous excuses for sims, theyll lose the sports race for sure. For the casual gamers, Im going to recommend this game.