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NHL 2000

What's that noise? It sounds a little like the steel blade of a skate biting into a sheet of smooth ice. It sounds kind of like the sharp crack of taped wood against rubber. It may be something like the rattle of bones and muscles against plexiglass. It's the shrill tone of a whistle, the snap of a puck on netting, and the howl of a horn signifying a goal. Ah, it must be hockey season. I knew it was here when I flipped on the Madison Square Garden sports station and watched the new-look New York Rangers play their way to a tie with the Edmonton Oilers. As a sports fan, this was pretty exciting. After all, while I like hockey, the fall is basically football season to me. But the inception of the first year in the post-Gretzky era drew my attention as a gamer as well. Why? Because any sports gaming enthusiast knows that the beginning of the professional hockey season signals the release of yet another installment in EA Sports' long-lived NHL series. And while opinions on the franchise's quality have been mixed, it also happens to currently be just about the only game in town for anyone who's looking for a complete representation of pro hockey. As such, this series, more than any other, has found itself the subject of intense scrutiny over the years.

There's no doubt that every version of NHL has pushed the boundaries of technological sophistication farther and farther from its roots in the heady days of the Sega Genesis. This has been especially true in the past few years, with the onset of the 3D revolution bringing detail and visual accuracy that is almost unmatched in the sports genre. Hockey fans, however, want more. They want features and options that allow them to play the game the way they think it should be played. They want depth and statistical tracking, the ability to mold a team and take it all the way to the Stanley Cup. Most importantly, they want a game that will give them hockey as they've seen it on their television screens. I'm not talking about presentation, although EA Sports seems to have cornered the market on that, too. I'm talking about real hockey, with the appropriate offensive and defensive strategy, realistic interaction between players on both teams, and accurate scores and stats. And while the fun factor and polish of the NHL franchise has always been there, few would call what it presents genuine hockey.

With that in mind, EA Sports set out to reinvent itself with NHL 2000. Sure, they would improve the graphics again. But the main focus, according to preliminary reports, would be to add a feature set that would impress even jaded fans, while improving on an AI that had garnered its fair share of complaints over the past couple of years. The end result, we were told, would be a hockey simulation that would not only capture all the excitement of its ancestors, but also demonstrate real brains and depth. And when the list of features began to surface, it certainly appeared as if the game was on the right track. A full franchise mode with consecutive season play for up to ten years, replete with between-year draft and free agent signings. More on-ice strategic options, including offensive and defensive tactics. And, most importantly, an adjustment to the unrealistic computer control that has left many past buyers of NHL titles feeling cold. Could NHL 2000 possibly address all these issues while maintaining the personality and atmospheric spark that had defined it for over six years?

In order to answer that question, it's first necessary to understand exactly what NHL 2000 attempts to bring to the table. As you probably know, its primary goal is to allow computer owners across the country the opportunity to take to the ice with the real players, real teams, and in the real arenas of the National Hockey League. For years, it's offered high-impact action and gamepad-crunching play, the speed of which -- while bearing little resemblance to what goes on in the NHL (especially in the past couple of years) -- has certainly been popular with consumers. The last few versions have seen the addition of elements such as player trading, more advanced player ratings, and the ability to create players from scratch. What has most often been noted, however, are the advancements in graphics technology that have recently brought such touches as highly-detailed player models with the real faces mapped onto them. The result has been that each year's NHL has set a standard for visual atmosphere

NHL 2000 certainly doesn't disappoint in that regard. Believe me, I'm not one to be seduced by fancy graphics. This, however, may be as close as I have come. The attention to detail that has gone into designing the player models, arenas, and animation is absolutely staggering, and surpasses even the fine work done in NHL 99. Of particular notice this year are the player faces, which not only look good, but also are animated to coincide with dubbed-in speech, and capable of expressing different emotions. This year, EA Sports has also given you the option to map your own face onto a player model when creating your own athlete, a tool that is cool, but not as easy to use as I would have liked. It's not that actually mapping the face is that hard; it's not, and the wizard that the designers have included makes going through the necessary steps a snap. The problem is that, unless you have a really good, really clear mug-shot, you'll more than likely come out looking a little like Igor from the movie Young Frankenstein. But I digress. The point is that you'd be hard pressed to find any sports title that looks better than this, and I'd even venture to say that this is one of the best uses of graphics to convey atmosphere I've ever seen. There were more than a few times when something happening on the ice -- such as the fantastic sequence that precedes the opening face-off -- that brought a smile to my face. As with most games whose graphics I rate highly, what's most appealing isn't that NHL 2000 is technically excellent, but that it uses what it has to such great effect in making it look like you're really watching NHL hockey.

What's more, EA Sports makes a serious effort to bring this realism from its visuals to its gameplay. There have been serious tweaks to the on-ice AI, the most significant of which is the elimination of the "super goalie." Many owners of NHL 99 felt that the computer-controlled netminders were too challenging, making it impossible to score in any of the ways real hockey teams do. One-timers, slapshots, and backhands, all well-implemented into the interface, were basically useless, with rebounds being the only viable means of putting the puck in the net. This year, they're all still there, but this time, they work. Yes, you'll still score on rebounds, but you'll actually have to shoot in order to do so. You'll also find yourself scoring on regular slapshots from many different parts of the ice, and it's particularly satisfying to have a well-executed play result in a realistic goal. You can even put one in from the point if you've got a defenseman with a strong enough stick. I can't tell you how much this is appreciated, as it actually promotes smart offense rather than just dumping the puck towards the goal. In addition, players move in a much more realistic fashion, incapable now of instant one hundred-eighty degree turns and one-timed backhands.

Unfortunately, there's also a lot wrong with NHL 2000 on the ice -- problems that tend to overshadow whatever improvements have been made. Of particular notice is the absolutely horrible positioning of defensemen. They're caught out of position so many times that it's almost ridiculous, creating a constant stream of breakaways that tends to make playing through a full game a matter of who can sprint from one end of the ice to the other better. And while they have no problem packing the goalmouth when you bring the puck straight up-ice, they will follow you en masse behind the net, creating a wide-open space for a quick pass or, if possible, a shot. If you're good enough to get in position for that shot, you'll almost certainly score on one of the small group of "money shots" with which the AI simply cannot cope. Once you discover these moves, you'll be able to rack up points game after game, meaning that you'll pretty much have to restrain yourself if you want to play realistically. But that, in itself, is not realistic, and it hurts NHL 2000. It's not that it destroys the gameplay, and it's still an improvement over last year's version, but it does manage to keep this title from shedding its arcade roots completely.

This is a rather disappointing development when one considers the host of options provided for playing NHL 2000. To start with, you've got single-game exhibitions and playoff modes for those who just want a quick fix. There's also a shootout if you'd just like to get down and dirty in one-on-one contests, and even a tutorial to teach you the ropes. But the real heart is the season mode, which gives you control of an NHL franchise for up to ten consecutive seasons. What's great is that, when you start a season, you can completely reorder the conferences, set the number of computer- and human-controlled players, and even redraft the entire league if you'd like. I liked, and tried it out more than a few times. What I found is that it's a great deal of fun to see the players of your choice dressed in your favorite team's colors, even if it is possible to select too many great players without the computer interceding. Once you've got your league set up, you can execute trades, view amateur prospects, and firm up your lines. Once again, you may find computer-controlled teams plagued with some "interesting" AI decisions, but the GM components are a lot of fun to explore overall. Between seasons, you'll find yourself involved in the amateur draft in order to bolster your roster, attempting to sign free agents (in a system that, while not entirely realistic, does a great job of keeping you from signing everyone), and monitoring the growth, development, and decline of your players.

From the sound of things, you'd think that NHL 2000 was a very polished, solid product, and you'd be right. The number of season options, different styles of play, and customizability have the potential to make it one of the most comprehensive and deep titles EA Sports has ever released. But I simply could not get over the flaws in the AI, as they do detract significantly from the part of the game in which you'll spend most of your time: on-ice play. If, in NHL 2001, the designers are able to bring to bear an artificial intelligence that can match the strength of the interface and the number of features present here, they may have a great hockey simulation on their hands. As it is, they've got an above-average game that shows loads of potential, but falls short of brilliance.

Graphics: Every year, I'm convinced that the graphics in the latest version of NHL can't possibly top those of its immediate predecessor. And every year, EA Sports proves me profoundly wrong. Without a doubt, NHL 2000 is one of the most visually stunning sports titles I've ever seen. It all starts with the player modeling, which is not only great, but was also given an extra boost by the mapping of the real players' faces to their digital bodies. If you think that effect is a little eerie, wait until you see the new "Face in the Game" system. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, stranger than seeing your own face out there on the ice with the likes of Lindros, Belfour, and Bourque. But it's a very cool idea, and if you're a bit more photogenic than I am, you should find it a fun toy. Adding even more quality to the representation of players is the fact that the animation is excellent, with both skaters and goalkeepers given plenty of things to do. Listing them all would be too space-consuming, but rest assured that if you've seen your favorite NHL stars do it on television, you'll see them doing it on your computer screen.

But NHL 2000's visual splendor doesn't stop with its players. There are tons of other touches that add to the atmosphere. The arenas look great, and are showcased during a phenomenal pre-game sequence that changes depending on whether you're playing in an American or Canadian city. You'll also get to see some nice colored lighting this time -- I guess it's a prerequisite to throw that in somewhere in any title that uses 3D acceleration these days. Detail abounds -- from the goalie's squirt-bottle being knocked from the back of the goal to the pucks themselves, all of which have the home team's logo on one side. Want more proof? How about the fact that the ice starts out shining, but degrades over the course of a period. The only word for that is, "Wow," and I found myself uttering it over and over again in my time with NHL 2000. Is it perfect? Well, nothing is. There are some clipping problems and other 3D goofs, but they are minor flies in the ointment. This is about as close to perfect as it gets.


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