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by Sega and Black Box

Snapshot
Ups: Good controls and graphics.

Downs:  Super goalies, lousy camera angles, subpar AI, tepid sound.

System Reqs: Dreamcast

I remember when the NHL used to matter. When I was a kid, I lived in the Chicagoland area, and one of the teams I lived for was the Blackhawks. Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Eric Nesterenko—now that was hockey. And back then a lot of folks followed the NHL—your average sports geek knew names like Bobby Orr and Bobby Clarke and Phil Esposito. But that ain’t the way it is now. Ask your average sports fan who’s the best shortstop in baseball or the best tight end in the NFL, and you’ll get a quick answer. Ask them who’s the best defenseman in the NHL, and you’ll get a lot of blank looks. Sure, there are still some rustbelt and northeastern hockey hotbeds, but outside of Canada and those all-tundra countries, hockey is now a “B” sport. I don’t know why this happened—maybe it’s because hockey has never been a great TV sport, maybe it’s because the many Americans who moved south during the 70’s and 80’s just want to forget about anything having to do with ice, maybe it was all those Mighty Ducks movies. But the NHL has seen better days.

The real-life NHL, that is. Because the NHL in video games is pure money. Of all the major (or once-major) sports, there’s none that translates so well to the PC or console as hockey. You can even think of Pong, the Ur-video game, as a sort of lowest-common-denominator hockey game. Who didn’t waste hours of valuable adolescent hours playing NHL games on the Sega Genesis instead of studying for the SATs? Why is it that EA’s hockey games win tons of awards every year, and their Triple Play baseball games are flashy pieces of trash? Because hockey was made for video gaming, that’s why. So we were really looking forward to NHL 2K, Sega’s hockey game for the Dreamcast.  Like a lot of others, we loved the graphics IN NFL 2K and NBA 2K; unlike a lot of others, we found the gameplay to be lacking in both of them. So we thought that maybe the third offering in the 2K series, being about hockey and all, would be the one that finally fulfilled the Dreamcast’s sports game promise. We were deluded.

Because while NHL 2K looks good, it still doesn’t look as good as the earlier games in the series. Unfortunately, it does share the other games’ subpar gameplay; in fact, NHL 2K’s gameplay is probably the least fun of all the 2K games, somehow managing to be both simplistic and unenjoyable at the same time.

Graphically, NHL 2K just isn’t as sharp as either NFL 2K or NBA 2K, but it has its moments: the motion-capture on the players looks good, the arenas are stylish, the ice gives a nice reflection effect and deteriorates as the game progresses, and shavings fly when players stop suddenly. Unfortunately, one of NHL 2K’s most serious shortcomings is its limited and often unplayable camera angles. If you play on the default setting, you get the full effect of NHL 2K’s graphics. However, it’s nearly impossible to play a competent game of hockey from this view. However, If you switch to the best view for gameplay—the overhead—you’ll forgo most of those nifty graphics. It’s not a happy dilemma.

Sound is a mixed bag; while I found the announcing by Harry Neal and Bob Cole mostly benign, I was surprised by the lack of loud, visceral sound effects. Body checks didn’t crunch enough, slap shouts didn’t echo enough, and the organ music was mixed way down. Worst of all, no siren goes off when a team scores and the crowds are strangely silent. Anyone who’s been to a hockey game knows just how much of an aural assault such contests can be, and it’s unfortunate that NHL 2K’s sound seems more like Wimbledon than Winnipeg.

But the play’s the thing, and a host of faults can be forgiven if you’re having a ton of fun. Unfortunately, NHL 2K just isn’t that much fun. First of all, like all the 2K games, it’s a little too arcadey. This is OK on rookie setting, of course, but as you amp up the difficulty, you expect a deeper game of hockey. It just doesn’t happen here. Much of this can be blamed on the AI. While you can call defensive and offensive plays, they don’t seem to make much difference—amazingly enough, even on the “aggressive” offensive setting, you teammates will rarely camp around the net, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen the goalie sprawled outside the net and the puck loose in the slot and nobody anywhere near the biscuit—or seemingly very interested in it. The opposing AI isn’t very impressive, either; it’s a little lethargic on offense, and a little loose on defense. It’s pretty easy, even on all-pro setting, to set up breakaways and one-timers. Not that this will help you much, because the worst thing about NHL 2K—like the old EA Sports NHL series—are the super goalies. That’s right, you can breakaway and have the goalie one-on-one and still get blanked. All the time. And even beautiful one-timers don’t go in the vast majority of the time. I’ve made more goals in NHL 2K throwing in sloppy slapshots from the point than from breakaways and one-timers, and that’s a problem.

While NHL 2K’s control is pretty good, especially the passing, you can’t remap it and there are no deke or fake shot buttons. They would be welcome additions, especially since the shot controls don’t seem to faze the super goalies at all—I’ve shot high, shot low, shot left and right, and still the goalies easily thwart my wrist and slapshots. And NHL 2K has great puck physics—pucks will often go caroming off into the crowd, and occasionally they’ll pop up over the ice. Unfortunately, you can’t dump passes over opposing player’s sticks—all passes stay on the ice, making them unrealistically easy to intercept.

If you’re looking for eye candy, NHL 2K will probably be worth your dime, and after all, it’s the only hockey game in town for the DC. But if you’re looking for a great hockey game, you’d be better off sticking to the Playstation or the PC.

--Rick Fehrenbacher