If you've never played NHL and consider yourself even a casual hockey or sports fan, you owe it to yourself to get the latest game in one of the finest computer sports franchises of all time.
There was a time when there were a lot more PC hockey games to choose from--when you could pick a serious simulation, an action-packed, arcade-style game, or even a text-based strategy game. Yet even a half-dozen years ago, one game stood head and shoulders above all the contenders. That game was EA Sports' NHL Hockey. Skillfully developed north of the border by hockey-crazed Canadians, NHL grew from its humble 2D beginnings to become so dominant in the world of computer hockey that it's now the only way to get a good game of hockey going on your PC. NHL 2003 is the latest edition in this series, and it continues a long-standing tradition by offering just enough in the way of improvements to warrant at least a cursory glance from past customers. If you've never played NHL and consider yourself even a casual hockey or sports fan, you owe it to yourself to get the latest game in one of the finest computer sports franchises of all time. However, if you're a veteran player back for another go, you might want to consider putting away those rose-colored glasses and waiting for the inevitable NHL 2004.
Some would argue that EA Sports' NHL series has risen to such prominence due to its impressive television-style presentation, but serious players know that underneath all the gloss lies a sophisticated gameplay engine that delivers an action-packed take on the world's iciest sport. Unfortunately, for all its strength and potential, the series' artificial intelligence has traditionally never been especially realistic. For NHL 2003, EA has improved some areas and left others untouched.
In the latest game, goaltender animations and skills have undergone a serious face-lift. Now, goalies leap and lunge at difficult shots and loose pucks. They'll venture farther from their net and rifle passes to their teammates even when a forechecker sits between them and their target. Fans of the forward's best friend, the deke, will certainly appreciate the game's all-new "dynamic deke control" option, with which they can pull off a broad range of automatic or manually controlled sleight-of-hand maneuvers. And desktop coaches will enjoy instituting individual offensive and defensive strategies for each of their five-on-five, power-play, and penalty-kill units.
Veteran NHL fans will be glad that EA has made sure that NHL 2003's hockey games don't always seem like they have a predetermined winner as they have in previous games. You'll no longer be forced to watch your team lose even as they've outshot their opponents by a 4-to-1 margin and completely dominated every facet of the match. Having said that, NHL 2003, like its forebears, does exercise an unwarranted amount of control over several aspects of the game. Players in the real National Hockey League don't fire the puck over the crossbar when perched just 5 feet from a wide-open net, but in this game they might--if the game decides to keep the score tight.
NHL once again lets you engage in various forms of pure post-whistle violence, leveling your enemies with unexpected, unprovoked body checks when you should be playing fair and square. Although this extracurricular activity is great for a few laughs, EA Sports has somehow allowed players to incur real injuries from such altercations, which doesn't seem right, considering the way fights have been handled in previous games.
Post-whistle shenanigans aren't the only oddities you'll find. Players will, on occasion, overskate the puck for no apparent reason, even while traveling at a walking pace. AI-controlled skaters will sometimes mysteriously adhere to the boards and shuffle their way awkwardly down the ice. Much of the clutching and grabbing hindering the real-life National Hockey League continues to remain in its licensed game as well, even though NHL president Gary Bettman has sworn to eradicate such tedious strategies this season. Furthermore, the game doesn't reflect recent player movements. For the first time in recent memory, the NHL series seems behind the times: For instance, NHL 2003 neglects to shift guys like Andrew Cassels from his former team, the Vancouver Canucks, to his new digs in Columbus.
And that's not all. If you find yourself in a face-off situation just outside the blue line, there's a very good chance someone on your squad will jump offside before you have an opportunity to advance the puck. If you find yourself shooting on an empty net from outside the offensive zone, your oblivious player will simply lob the biscuit into the corner rather than fire it at the unguarded cage. It's this kind of situational unawareness that seriously infringes on NHL's credibility. Simply put, players don't often react in accordance with the current circumstances. This is not the case with EA's FIFA soccer series, where players actually play differently depending on the current score and the remaining time left in the game.
NHL 2003's depiction of fatigue is no less curious. Granted, players noticeably drag their feet or drop their skill level when weary, yet nobody seems perceptibly less mobile after incurring a series of big hits. The infamously little and brittle Saku Koivu can take several crushing smacks on one memorable shift, yet continues to burn along at his typical hearty clip, none the worse for wear. All the above changes drastically, however, if the game decides it's time for an injury and spirits you off the ice and into the dressing room.
In a visual sense, NHL Hockey continues to offer one of the finest depictions of professional sports found anywhere in computer gaming. Sadly, those dazzling introductory sequences of yesteryear have been swapped with somewhat uninteresting footage of various real-life NHL players shamelessly plugging EA's latest sports product. Nevertheless, the game is otherwise so beautifully presented that even a real-life television broadcast would be hard-pressed to look as good.
Off the ice, the development team has fashioned a substantially smoother menu system whereby all pertinent information is accessed from a single interface and the many mini-windows that lie within. As opposed to many recent games, which seem to be moving inexorably to clunky console menu formats, the tight, relatively sophisticated appearance of NHL's pre- and postgame interface is welcome indeed.