NHL 2002 Gets its AI Back

NHL 2002
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This review comes on the night after the first Washington Capitals game which I attended. Granted this stupid town is obsessed with Michael Jordan and basketball at the moment. Hey idiots, bear in mind that one player will not help the stinking Wizards. Can you say Deion Sanders?

There is no denying that Jagrmania is rich at the MCI Center, as his addition to an already strong defense and killer goaltender might be DC’s underrated saving grace. And if tonight’s 6-1 victory over the defending Eastern Conference champ New Jersey Devils is an indication, I suggest everyone quit looking at the pathetic Redskins and the rancid Wizards. Hell, even I am caught up with Jagrmania as well (I’m wearing his jersey which I just bought tonight at the moment), and it’s going to last a long while.

And once again, now that the NHL season is finally under way, I get to see if EA Sports decided it would either disappoint me once again with their annual hockey title, or if they would turn out to surprise me in the end. When I saw the E3 copy of NHL 2002, I was pleased with the new look and the new features, but my main concern was the poor goaltender AI that plagued the last two seasons. Once again, I bugged the game’s production staff about this matter, even giving a live demonstration of some of the bugs using their goal setup as a prop, and once again I was told that it would be fixed.

Naturally after being screwed over in 2001, I was very skeptical and feared the worst when I received the PC version. But after a clean installation, and some tweaking of the AI sliders to my personal taste, I was in for a shock. It’s official; the artificial intelligence [AI] has been restored to its NHL 99 glory days!

At the default AI on Medium difficulty, the goaltender still gives up easy shots (but not as many as last year), but when taken to Difficult, the goaltenders are virtual brick walls. They are good, and maybe a little TOO good. I even had to tweak each of the AI sliders, particularly in Puck Retention and Rebounds to make it a bit easier to score. I still have to find the right settings (if you know any settings that will imitate the real NHL, please email them to me), but so far I’m enjoying what I’ve seen so far.

Likewise, the PlayStation2 version had the same quality in terms of AI, and I have been pleased with it as well. I’m more involved with the PS2 version lately because it looks better (and runs much smoother as well, although only running at 30 FPS unlike the 60 in Madden and NCAA), and because some of the off-play scenes run real slow on my PC (cutting down the detail only made the players a block-headed mess). I do, however, miss some of the GM (general manager) features that the PC version had, such as easier access to line editing, and the ability to designate captaincy between players (I want Jagr as an alternate, dammit!)

The new in-game features add some new depth into the already improved engine. Saucer passes have been added, which provide a slight lift of the puck to bypass an opposing player’s blade for more accurate through passes. Puck control is also varied so a player with better handling (the circle above his name will darken as his control is improved) will not lose the puck at a critical moment.

New cameras add the usual glitz that EA Sports is known for. The Hit and Save cameras provide a slow-motion triple take of the great play, while the new Breakaway Cam removes all sights and sounds aside from you and the goaltender (with only your heartbeat as background noise). It might be gimmicky (not a surprise from EA Sports), but it is definitely involving.

Game Story features have been added as well. Basically they give information about an important event of the game, such as an important save, a critical goal that might change momentum, or a goaltender ready to provide a shutout. They do help to provide information that will direct how the game ends, but I feel that it could have been used more.

Lastly, taking a cue from Madden and NCAA, the popular Cards return. However, unlike the previous titles, each of the required tasks to win cards (ranging from winning a faceoff all the way to beating Team Canada in a tournament using Team Japan) can only be executed one time, meaning that to win more cards, you’d either have to sell duplicates for more points, or get ALL the required tasks completed, which is no easy task.

Alas, there is something that is not perfect in NHL 2002, but surprisingly it’s not the AI, but rather the commentary! I’m not talking about the usually solid play-by-play by Jim Hughson, but rather the new color commentary by Don Taylor. Granted I am not a big Bill Clement fan (he did the last year’s commentary, and was actually good, although he is Lemieux-biased for real), but Don Taylor is just too goofy for my taste. I don’t know whether it is the Visual Concepts influence on commentary (which still can’t be coached), or is it the Dennis Miller factor, but some of the comments he makes have nothing to do with the sport of hockey. I mean, does Don Taylor know the real meaning of "tossing his salad?" Yes, he actually says that, I’m afraid to tell you. Even the PA announcer says some silly stuff, but fortunately it’s not as bad as Don Taylor’s comments.

Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that EA Sports has finally listened to my demands. Granted the gameplay is still on the arcade level compared to classics such as Wayne Gretzky Hockey, but it is good to see the AI can finally be set right to appease even the most jaded NHL purist (such as myself). I can even go as far to say that first with NCAA, then Madden, and now NHL, it’s safe to say that EA Sports is forgiven for all they have done for the last few years (kinda ironic, because I’m now turning my back on Sega for their harsh treatment lately), and I am going to give NHL higher ratings than I originally planned.

I wanted to give the PC version 4 Gems and the PS2 version 4 1/2, but I decided to make it 4 1/2 for the PC and a perfect 5 for the PS2 version (the PC version loses a bit because of the higher requirements that were taxing on my PC), and I only hope that EA Sports keeps this AI as good for NHL 2003.

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