Back again is the worlds most popular NHL series, which means it's time again for more bone crunching checks, glass smashing slap shots and jaw breaking fist fights. However can EA finally give PC gamers the complete NHL experience, or does NHL 2003 only offer more of the same?
NHL 2003 has been heavily focused towards online play integration, with almost every menu in the game featuring a login screen with a host of other online options. With this said, it can be hard to find other options like offline game and system settings, with so many features being crammed into a tiny section, and once you do find these settings their placement through other menu screens are inconsistent. For example, you can't seem to access general game options from the initial main menu, rather you access these from inside game modes like franchise and in the actual game itself. It would be great if NHL 2003 featured a general option panel on every relevant menu screen much like the online login fields.
The available game modes have been pruned in NHL 2003 to only feature the most vital. This includes the ability to play a quick exhibition match known as "play now", a franchise mode, playoffs mode, international mode and online match.
The playoffs and International modes are pretty much the same besides the teams and rules. By selecting playoffs you basically jump straight to the post season of a normal season without having to do the actual season, while in International mode you join in on a tournament featuring teams from around the world. Both are good modes to play if you simply want a quick and easy game session with a reward.
Franchise is probably the mode gamers will enjoy most, especially if you're a fan of the NHL to any degree. After picking a team of your choice it is then your duty to take control of their destiny by either playing and managing the team, or just simulating and managing the team. Which ever you chose, chances are you will have fun in franchise mode. Not only do CPU offer and participate in their own trades, but such features as tradable draft picks and indepth rookie reports gives NHL 2003 great depth in franchise management. One area that could use more attention is contract delegating but the experience offered is still ample for most gamers.
Finally it is time to take the action to the ice. Before each match the player is treated to the usual arena entrance cut scene, which is nothing new. However after this cut scene the player is given an insight on the history between the teams via a cut scene apparently representing the memories of certain players. These don't seem to change very often, and I can't say what they remember is actually accurate to what really happened the last time the two teams met. The actual point of it is questionable, but I guess it does have some novelty value, if only for the first few times you witness it.
In-game the action is as fast and intense as ever, with the basic ingredients being practically identical to previous versions. This is not a bad thing, EA's NHL series has always provided good gameplay, however if you disregarded roster updates and saw every NHL version since 2001 playing it would be difficult to guess which game was which. I'm sure that is a slight exaggeration as the graphics would probably provide enough of a clue, however besides that the game 'feels' and plays identically to the previous versions.
If one part of the ingame gameplay has changed it is the puck and player physics. Although executing hard passes is still to easy, the puck seems to move with a little more realism and precision. However the puck still feels like an extension of your players body rather than a different object at most times, as you rarely have to worry about losing it when you perform big dekes going through multiple defenders. On top of the puck changes, players now generally interact with each other with greater realism. No longer do checks with little or no momentum result in your opponent doing backflips, infact to even knock down a player with a check your player will need momentum and physical skill, but checking still seems to be the only effective method of stealing the puck so many games still result in a check-fest, which adds a sense of arcade to the gameplay.
NHL 2003 further involves itself with an arcade style of gameplay by implementing a thing called 'Game Breaker'. What this means is that, once your meter is full you can perform a Game Breaker move basically giving you and your opposing gollie a 1-on-1 scenario going in slow motion. Many will be confused to see why EA have decided to add these arcade like aspects to their game, but luckily it can be disabled.
In-game commentary has always been a strong point for the NHL series and NHL 2003 is no exception. Although at times the humour attempts by the commentators are tedious, the variation of the comments made by them easily provide NHL 2003 the best commentary found in any PC NHL game to date, if not any PC sport game.
It is not uncommon for EA Sport titles to stun visually, but in NHL 2003's case the graphics didn't seem to get the same treatment other EA Sport titles got this year. This is not to say the graphics are bad by any means, quite the contrary, we just don't see DX8.1 Hardware accelerated bliss like we do in NBA Live 2003. This is probably more of a good thing for most gamers, as the graphics on less than higher settings are playable hence reducing the system requirements well below today's standard gaming system, so in a broad sense the graphics in NHL 2003 will please just about everyone.
The controls in NHL 2003 are pretty basic, but they get the job done nicely. You have your usual shoot, pass, deke and speed up buttons on the offensive, and check, switch player, speed up and so on for defensive gameplay.
2003 is the year of full control for EA - in FIFA 2003 we saw great flow between the player and the ball, in NBA Live 2003 we got a chance to bounce the ball in pretty much any fashion we wanted with Freestyle control, and in NHL 2003 we have the ability to take advantage of the 'Dynamic Deke Control' system. This new control system is nowhere near as Dynamic as the other EASports examples mentioned above but atleast it will work with almost any control pad or keyboard unlike NBA Live 2003, as all you have to do is hold down a button and move around instead of using a dedicated analog stick. While the button is in, instead of skating around your player will now move his stick and puck letting you take manual control of your deke moves, which can come in handy when the automatic deke button will do more harm than good.
NHL 2003 is a decent game, don't get me wrong, but it just doesn't seem to impress as much as previous NHL titles from EA did. The graphics are great, the controls are good, and the gameplay is decent, but I can't help and feel a little disappointed, and I'm not even a huge fan of the NHL. EA have mastered many aspects of the NHL experience, but there are still some missing, and it seems with 2003 they were happy enough to settle with what worked in previous versions and not stress on improving the game to all new heights. Some may argue that this is fine, keeping to what works is a safe way of selling games, but for me it came off a little to pre cautious and hence a little unexciting due to the lacking of anything drastically new.
If you have yet to try one of EA's NHL titles then NHL 2003 will offer a great experience, but if you are a fan of the series it would make sense to try the demo before hand. Regardless, chances are you will get a reasonably enjoyable experience out of NHL 2003 PC, because it is really the same solid NHL game we are used to and that isn't necessarily bad, it is just somewhat unexciting.