Windows - 2000
Description of NHL 2001
Old Time Hockey
One of the best recurring lines in Paul Newman's classic Slapshot concerned old-time hockey, as symbolized by Toe Blake and Eddie Shore. These two icons were supposed to represent what was once good and pure about the game...and what was so dreadfully wrong about Reggie Dunlop's mid-70s goon show. Of course, if you delve a little deeper into that comment, and the two legends mentioned, you'll find that it's actually got nothing to do with halcyon days of skill and scoring---though it is pretty illuminating about the dual nature of the game itself. Legendary Montreal Canadiens coach Toe Blake was the ultimate tactician. His strategic abilities and blending of skill and strength allowed the Habs to dominate the 1950s and win an incredible six Stanley Cups in a row. Eddie Shore, on the other hand, was equal parts talented defenseman and thug when he lined up for the Boston Bruins of the 1920s and '30s. Four Hart Trophies aside, he blindsided Ace Bailey in 1933 and cracked his skull open. Scratch one career. Shore ended his days as the American Hockey League's version of Bobby Knight, terrorizing players on the Springfield Indians team he owned and operated right up to 1978.
So hockey has never been about either beauty or brutality; it's always been about both, and you need to know this in order to truly appreciate and understand the game. Most people just don't get it. And one of the biggest consistent examples of just not getting it has been on display for a decade in EA Sports' NHL series of games for the PC. Something has always been missing, even during the good years. Different specific flaws presented themselves, such as the super goalies and scoring moves that always resulted in goals, but it always came down to the simple fact that the game wasn't well-rounded. Speed was about the only important aspect of every contest. You'd race up and down the wing, fire the puck back and forth with tape-to-tape passes, and blast as many shots on goal as possible in an attempt to win. This could be fun on occasion, but it was never satisfying for very long.
That's finally changed. NHL 2001 is the closest that the venerable series has ever come to a true simulation of hockey. The addition of AI slider bars allows you to tweak almost every aspect of gameplay, providing a fuller and more accurate recreation of both hockey as a sport and the NHL as its showcase. Individual contests are no longer about ripping around like Speedy Gonzalez on mescaline, pressing speed burst all the way. Manipulate those sliders a little bit and you'll soon be experiencing realistic scores, accurate shot counts, and, perhaps most importantly, on-ice play that's remarkably true to life. Slower, stronger players such as big bruising defensemen can now take their proper place in the lineup alongside speedsters like Teemu Selanne and Jeff Friesen. Developing a feel for the game and a knack for positioning has taken precedence over learning to thumb the speed burst button a thousand times per minute. Although there are still some fairly noteworthy flaws, I would recommend this game to anyone interested in sports titles. Without question.
Toe Blake Has Risen From the Grave
The fullness of NHL 2001 is apparent as soon as you load it up. Like all EA Sports efforts, this one is packed to the brim with options. All the standard game options are present. Suit up for an exhibition game or quick shootout, or get a little more serious and start a season (which is really a franchise mode, as it features rookie drafts, free agent signing, computer trading, and up to 10 consecutive seasons can be played), playoff, or tournament. Online play includes one-off games that can be launched either directly via modem, LAN, or TCP/IP, or through the game's dedicated lobby at EA.com. Difficulty modes include Beginner and Rookie for those just getting started, and Pro and All-Star for those who need more of a challenge. All 30 current NHL clubs are featured, most with a good selection of sweaters from their entire history. So feel free to relive the glory days of the Minnesota North Stars or Winnipeg Jets, or simply throw those ugly old "V"s on the Canucks again. Twenty international teams are also on hand. If this isn't enough, you can create your own team based in the city of your choice, complete with custom logos and sweaters. Oddly enough, there isn't any way to use these custom teams in a season. Each club has also been programmed with specific coaching strategies. Numerous options are available if you don't like how your team performs out of the box, though.
Other noteworthy additions focus on adjusting the way that the game plays out on the ice. A Momentum Bar now tracks the ebb and flow of each game on the scoreboard (though it can be hidden if you want to just feel these shifts). Collect a few quick shots on goal, get a good scoring chance, or knock out the opposing heavyweight in a center ice tilt and you'll swing the bar your way and pump up your entire roster. This both accurately reflects the way that real games work and forces you to freeze the puck or ice it at times to relieve pressure. It's a great addition that adds much to gameplay. The designers at EA Canada also spent a lot of time on ensuring that each user could play the game that they want, and this shows in the presence of a whopping 17 AI slider bars that regulate almost everything that goes into a hockey game. You can adjust Game Speed, Speed Burst Length, Speed Burst %, Fatigue, Aggression, Injuries, Hitting Power, Fall Recovery, Shot Blocking, Pass Interception, Pass Accuracy (can be turned on or off), Pass Speed, Shot Accuracy, Puck Elasticity, Puck Friction, Retain Puck, and Goalie Rebounds. Players and goalies can also be boosted with separate sliders, and the frequency of penalty calls and fights can also be adjusted.
Of course, the biggest new wrinkle is this customizability. Those sliders can completely transform the game into whatever you want. If you're a casual hockey fan who just wants a lot of high-scoring excitement, you can ramp up a number of the settings and turn each game into a high-octane shooting gallery. If you're a more serious follower of the Canadian game, you can turn down options like Game Speed and Speed Burst Length and turn up others like Pass Interceptions and Fatigue. Experiment over a few games and you'll soon be able to make the computer provide you with a challenge remarkably similar to that seen on Hockey Night in Canada and National Hockey Night. Just four exhibition contests were all that I needed to tune the game to my liking.
With the bars set as shown, I've played more than 40 satisfying games on both Pro and All-Star difficulty settings. Game speed is just about dead-on. It's still a bit faster than real life, but it's really as slow as I prefer to play. Dropping the slider all the way down makes players too sluggish. Wow, it's hard to believe you can actually make an EA Sportsrun too slowly. Switching off Pass Accuracy and turning up Pass Interceptions provides a nice sense of randomness to competition and removes those creepy tape-to-tape specials that marked past games in the series. Dialing Shot Accuracy down does wonders, especially when combined with turning up Shot Blocking. Shot totals are always in an acceptable zone, with each club counting between 20 and 35 per game. This range has remained fairly steady no matter how a game develops. A 7-4 shootout between my Leafs and the high-flying Devils produced a combined 57 shots, while a 2-2 draw between the Leafs and Stars produced a similar 54. I can't adequately express how nice it is to finally get away from those 75-60 days of yore.
During the past three weeks I've played the most thoroughly enjoyable video game hockey that I've ever experienced. Virtually all were realistic and competitive, and a good half-dozen games stand out as classics that have taken their place in my mental Hall of Gaming Memories. There was a great one against the Dallas Stars. The 2-2 game was gritty and defensive and end-to-end in turns. It was also marked with a great three-point passing play between Doug Gilmour, Joe Thornton, and Steve Thomas that resulted in one of the prettiest goals I've ever notched. Then there was our great comeback against Calgary. The Flames took a 2-0 lead into the third, but Eric Lindros and Gary Roberts deflected point shots to tie the game. Lindros then scored his second off a nice feed from Derek Morris (trade me, will ya?) to win it with just 14.9 seconds left in overtime. And I can't forget the 5-0 blowlout of the Habs in Montreal where Ed Jovanovski laid seven big hits on the wimps wearing the blu, blanc, et rouge. If the real Maple Leafs perform as well as my fake ones this season, I'll be very happy next spring.
Not Even the Great One was a 10
Yet NHL 2001 is not perfect. As enjoyable as the end product is, there are some aspects of gameplay that just can't be adjusted satisfactorily with the sliders. Perhaps the most annoying issue regards line changes. Players on the "wrong" side of the ice from their bench often get trapped out there, refusing to head off unless the puck is fully iced. This isn't that noticeable if you leave Fatigue set at the default 3, but if you bump this up to 4 so that teams can't give their top two lines upwards of 30 minutes a game, these caught players run out of gas in an obvious fashion, very quickly. I eventually gave in and turned Fatigue back to 3. Defensive positioning is still pretty rough and ready. Some of the best defensemen in the league, with Defensive Awareness ratings well into the 80s, will often scramble around. They'll go to the same man, part like the Red Sea allowing forwards to go straight up the middle, or simply stand around at the blueline. This latter issue is the biggest problem with defensemen in the game. Computer forwards will blitz right by you if you're not very careful when choosing to take over control of the blueliner (or not---sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone). At the other end of the ice, the computer-controlled defensemen will often back away from larger forwards. Eric Lindros, for example, can usually put his head down and barge right to the crease, with the obliging defender backing up all the while.
Soft computer goals are also frustrating. Even with Goalie Boost maxxed out, an average of one or two will float by your netminder every game or two. This could be marked down to goalie fatigue, but even then it doesn't make sense because good starting goalies aren't this inconsistent even when they play five or six games in a row. Fighting is flat-out terrible. Two combatants simply square off and begin punching each other in the face as quickly as possible. Hit the necessary button fast enough and you'll be rewarded with a win and a momentum meter boost. This can be pretty tough, however, as the computer pugilists throw 'em pretty quickly. Also, all players who will fight are rated fairly similarly in terms of how many punches they can take. Seeing Dave Manson get schooled by Kirk Muller despite landing five or six solid rights to the former Hab captain's beak was almost more than I could take.
The computer won't win any awards for the General Manager skills it demonstrates in season play. While it stops well short of giving players away, some values don't reflect reality. Youth and potential mean very little to the AI. It rates current ability and holes that need to be filled before making a deal; nothing else. So I was able to land Joe Thornton for Igor Korolev, Todd Bertuzzi for Sergei Berezin, and Derek Morris for Yanic Perreault. Yikes. At the same time, nobody had any interest in super-prospect Nik Antropov, who'd certainly be worth more in the real world open market than any of the three players that I did move. You can't use these holes to poach true stars, though. The likes of Eric Lindros, Chris Pronger, Jaromir Jagr, and Rob Blake will only be dealt for their equivalents. Of course, if you're patient and dedicated to running a career for the full ten years, the best way to go would be to pile up youngsters for next to nothing. That should get you a Cup contender within three seasons. In the meantime, though, anyone want a big kid from Kazakhstan?
A far more serious problem is the game's current lack of stability. I've experienced a number of hard locks and drops to the desktop in menu screens and between periods. Irritating, but not unexpected in this day and age. But I also had a season file corrupted after 26 games. The program locked up on the main season screen after finishing a game with Pittsburgh and attempting to simulate the following match-up with the boring Capitals. All further attempts to get back into this season resulted in drops to the Windows desktop. Needless to say, this prevents me from giving NHL 2001 the GDR Gold Medal. Only knowing that none of the other reviewers currently playing the game has experienced this makes me comfortable enough to award the game a Silver. You've been warned. My advice would be to back up those precious season data files every five games or so.
While it's taken some space to detail what's wrong with NHL 2001, nothing I've noted above---with the obvious exception of the season-destroying crash---has discouraged me from playing the game. It's actually pretty reassuring that I can afford to be so nit-picky. In past years, I could have summed up the flaws with broad strokes, simply noting that the defense was broken or that it was impossible to score with just so many words. And I remain hopeful that everything is minor enough to be fixed in the inevitable patch.
You've Got the Look
New standards have been set for computer sports games where presentation is concerned. No sports title on the market looks as good as NHL 2001. Faces are easy to distinguish at a mere glance. Aside from rookies, there couldn't have been more than five or six players I didn't immediately recognize. Some are downright perfect. The game's versions of Eric Lindros, Steve Thomas, Glenn Healy, Mark Messier, Scott Gomez, Kirk Muller, Doug Gilmour, and many more are nearly identical to the real people. It's truly some of the most impressive artwork I've ever seen in a game. And that's before they yap at the referee with comments synched to the movement of their lips. Animations are quite good, too, though not completely natural. Skating remains a little too locomotive-like to truly depict NHL calibre skaters. Goalies have a whole new set of movements this year. They'll flop if they get too far out of position, glance behind them on hard shots, and sometimes just be taken aback by a blast that came at an unexpected time. Shots and passes are always a little bit off. The game is obviously not based on physics, as occasionally passes will miraculously end up on the sticks of players who weren't where they were when the pass was released. Slow motion replays of goals reveal the close-in action to be just a bit out of whack. None of this will affect your enjoyment of the game, though it does reveal the creakiness of the engine.
A number of scenes have been added to fill the time between drops of the puck. Wingers will jostle for position at the side of circle, a center will give instruction to a defenseman, someone will skate up to tap the pads of his goalie, and so on. My favorite has to be the way that little scrums often result in one player hacking at the back of an opponent's knees. That's perfectly in tune with real hockey, and had to have been added by someone on the design team who's spent a lot of time on the ice. These little episodes also often end up with the captains or alternates getting a lecture from the referee by the penalty box door.
Audio has been toned down...thankfully. The hits and slapshots from last year's game that sounded more like blasts from a BFG than anything you'd hear in a real hockey game have been cut back. There's still a little too much KA-BLAM in the effects, though they're certainly livable. I can't really say the same for play-by-play man Jim Hughson and color commentator Bill Clement. Hughson's added more specific comments to his repertoire this year, with notes about previous games and performances in season play, but he gets very repetitive if you're playing with the same team a lot. I've heard him make the same observation about the 122 points accumulated by Joe Thornton during his last year in junior at least two dozen times now. Clement just sounds like a gladhanding insurance salesman to me. Everything he says is either smarmy or clichéd. The only reason I don't shut the gruesome twosome off is that Hughson occasionally chimes in good advice about line changes.
As a last note about the audio, I have to say that the designers did a fantastic job with the soundtrack this year. The Collective Soul tune that kicks off the opening cinematic, and the various songs that accompany menu browsing, do a great job of pumping up the gamer. There's also an option to customize the in-game music that fills breaks in play with your own MP3 files. Classics like my copy of The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" add a lot of authentic big league rink atmosphere to each game.
Put on that Foil
I've admittedly been guilty of overestimating NHL series games in the past. I still cringe whenever I think of my review of NHL 98, the very first I wrote for GDR. And even last year I was possibly a bit too positive because NHL 2000 was a fair bit of fun, particularly after the patch. I don't foresee any regrets over what I've written here about NHL 2001. This is a great game that walks the fine line between arcade action and true simulation. It serves hockey fanatics as well as Sammy Sosa High Heat Baseball 2001 serves followers of the American national pastime. This one is a keeper.
Review By GamesDomain
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