January 22, 2001
It looks like Electronic Arts made a wise decision to bypass development on the Dreamcast in favour of the PS2. The company claimed over 30% of the total Playstation 2 software sales in America during 2000. Somewhat unsurprisingly, EA's top games were Madden NFL 2001 and the very impressive snowboarding game, SSX. Following closely behind these games was this game, NHL 2001. It's not hard to see why this game has been selling so well, it's tremendous fun. For those of you who are unaware NHL is the National (Ice) Hockey League in America. The game includes all the teams in the league as well as 20 international teams. Put on your skates, pick up your stick and prepare for some of the most frantic action ever seen.
Electronic Arts' NHL series has been around for almost a decade now but has never managed to remain a consistent "essential" high quality purchase. For some reason the series has suffered from an unusual "odd year syndrome". Basically every odd-year game (ie NHL 95, NHL 97 and especially NHL 99) has been worse then the previous version. It's a strange event, and one that Electronic Arts have tried to avoid this year. And avoid they have. NHL 2001 is one of the best versions of the game yet. The gameplay is near spot on and while the lowest difficulty levels are way too easy (I won my first game 9-1), the higher difficulty levels are definitely more challenging.
Controlling the players in NHL 2001 is quite simple. Movement is through either the analogue or digital controls while the passing, shooting, speed up and rotating the player are done via the buttons. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of this game is the AI of the other players. Unlike some other sports games where the players just seem to stand around the players in NHL 2001 react to your own movements. Each player also has his own attributes that greatly affect their performances. In fact, while playing a full season each player may go hot or cold streaks, which can greatly affect their performances.
Each match is also totally customizable. Each rule such as offside, icing and checking can be turned on or off as can the fights, automatic goalies, line switching. The list goes on and on. Being the brutal sport that Ice Hockey is fights often occur, and will land you in the sin bin for 2 or 5 minutes depending on your actions. This leads to power plays where your team, with the opponents sin binned, has effectively got an extra player on the rink.
It's unfortunate that the fast and frantic gameplay doesn't totally convert to the graphics. The players are more detailed then any other game, and that includes EA's awesome Madden NFL 2001. They are superbly animated with slides and skating at full pace particularly impressive. It would have been nice to see a smoother swing when shooting the puck. While the amount of detail in the players and on the ice skating rink is impressive at times there is a very noticeable drop in the frame rate. In the default view this isn't very noticeable, but switching to other camera angles results in some major slowdown. Unfortunately Electronic Arts, as with all their titles, didn't include a 60Hz mode, although the game has been made full-screen.
One area where NHL 2001 really excels is with the sound. The commentary is as close to real life as I have ever heard, and yes, it's better then Visual Concepts' excellent NBA2K on Dreamcast. The music, while the players are entering, between plays and during the breaks is exactly what you would hear at the real stadium. I also want to thank the person that reduced the American Nation Anthem before each game to about 4 seconds.
Although NHL 2001 has a couple of flaws it is still a remarkable game. The graphics and sound add so much atmosphere while the actual game is a lot of fun. If you've never played Ice Hockey don't worry this game is easily picked up and learnt within a matter of minutes. Electronic Arts have produced yet another great title on the Playstation 2 and I would highly recommend this title to any sports fan, or anyone looking for a sports game which is a lot easier to pick up and play then the complexities involved with Madden NFL. NHL 2001 is a pure winner.