A Great Show On Ice.
Back in the day, ice skating rinks stood for two things: those cheesy Disney on Ice specials and those lame ice skating competitions that mom always loved to watch. But that was before the boys took over, and no, I am not talking about Brian Boitano and Scott Hamilton. I'm talking about in-yer-face, board slammin', head knockin', fast as lighting ice hockey - the best sport to ever grace a gigantic ice cube.
Up until now, EA had sole ownership of the PS2 rink with its popular NHL series. But now things have changed. Sega Sports has strapped on a pair of skates and is blazing its way on to the PS2 for the first time with a style of play that offers the simulation style that hardcore fans yearned for as well as the ease that casual fans could enjoy.
Enter NHL 2K3, the next saga in Sega Sports' tale of stick-wielding ice gladiators. Like many of the other Sega Sports titles, this version of hockey adds a little ESPN flavor to the mix for a professional presentation. Also included is a solid show of graphics and excellent control. Tack on a huge franchise mode and good gameplay and you've got one hell of a hockey game.
Perhaps the best thing to be said about NHL 2K3 is its versatile control scheme. If you've ever played a hockey game, you'll have no trouble picking up the basics. Even brand new players shouldn't have too much trouble getting started. Pass, shoot, check; it's all pretty easy to understand.
But what about dekes, shot modifiers and all that? Well, it's jammed in there with the help of a handy little modifier button. Not only will you be able to perform all the necessary jukes, but you'll also be able to change lines and make your team more or less aggressive on the fly. It takes a little getting used to, but once you get it down, you'll feel like you can do it all. So pick your poison - simple and easy or total control all in one package.
Since NHL 2K3 plays with a more of a simulation feel, some people might feel a little intimidated. Have no fear, though, since the pace of the game is still as fast and fun as hockey should be. Players move more realistically than an arcade style game, but still handle quite well. These guys aren't the sluggish movers we're used to seeing in sim games.
There's also the ability to pin players against the boards. Just jam an opponent up on the side and you'll set up a face-off. The pinned guys can still fight back with elbows or just by kicking the puck away.
The puck physics are pretty good. Even at the net, you won't see the gravity-defying twists and turns that the puck will take in other games. Once, I banked the puck off the post. The puck slid back toward the goalie and then bounced off of his skate and slowly slid toward the goal, but the falling goalie was still able to cover it up while flat on his back. No mystery moves by the puck on that play.
The look and the sounds of the game are solid. The graphics are pretty clean and the commentary is informative, but only mildly interesting. Not a whole lot of extremes going on here, but at least it gets the job done.
Once again, the all-important fighting is a button smashing fest with three handy moves (punch, duck and grab) to choose from. The only problem is that you'll rarely see it, even with the fighting option cranked all the way up. We all know that fighting is a time-honored part of the game. Hell, it's the only non-combative sport where the officials just sit back and watch! We definitely need to see more here.
While the computer AI seemed to do a decent job of running the show, even at the "Pro" difficulty the opposing team's goalie is not pulled toward the end of the game when needed. The omission of this simple and basic strategy seems kind of strange considering what a decent job the AI usually does.
If you're in it for the long run, NHL 2K3's Franchise mode is more than enough to keep you busy. Scout players, make trades, balance the team's budget - it's all here. If you've got the drive and the patience to carry your team through a seemingly endless number of seasons, this is the mode for you.
About the only thing that really keeps NHL 2K3 from greatness is its lack of anything out of the ordinary. Its options remain unimaginative, with no special modes or things to do. There is a Sega Sports Challenge mode that you can use to post your stats on segasports.com, but that's about it. Even the EA series had little distractions like NHL cards to keep things fresh. It would have been nice to see a little something here as well.
What we do get, however is still very good. NHL 2K3 does an excellent job on the ice, providing the best all around control that I've ever seen. Good physics and a solid presentation add to the show, making this game the best thing to happen to ice since cherry flavored syrup.