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Drop the puck: EA Sports NHL 2000


October 21, 1999
Web posted at: 3:54 p.m. EST (1954 GMT)

By D. Ian Hopper
CNN Interactive Technology Editor

It's good to be the king. It can also be a real pain - once you're the king, where do you go from there? EA Sports has, since Wayne Gretzky Hockey disappeared in the late '80s, been the undisputed king of PC hockey. There's just nothing better, not even close.

That's why it seems almost unfair to keep digging up and picking on its faults year after year. The product does improve, but it gets so close to hockey perfection that the problems get to be all that you see. That's why it's important to note that EA Sports' "NHL 2000" is the best PC hockey simulation available, and that it's great fun to play. You won't get tired of this game, and if you're a hockey fan, it'll stay on your hard drive until next season's edition. While reading everything that follows, just remember that one fact.

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As can be expected, the graphics in NHL 2000 are better than last year's. There are more player animations, cooler deke moves, and big hits can result in flips and helmets flying. Special attention is given to the celebration animations after a goal - they're far more realistic, with genuine interaction between the players instead of the team just bunching up and bouncing off each other in recent years.

The overall game style is what you've come to expect from EA Sports, with a hard-driving tune from the group Garbage and a movie made of highlight reels. The game interface is barely changed from last year - a good thing, especially since the new "Madden 2000" interface made it almost unusable.

The super-goalies from "NHL '99" are thankfully gone from the new version. It's actually possible to score on one-timers and from a variety of places, although a few "money plays" still exist. Score totals are realistic compared to actual NHL games, even if the shot totals are still outrageously high. This partial fix was made thanks to an innovative way to handle the game clock. Most players don't have the time or inclination to play full 20-minute periods, and set them for 5 or 10 instead. Having a 5-minute clock can cause strange statistical anomalies. There's not much time to score, and a standard penalty can take a player off the ice for almost half the period. Instead, "NHL 2000" models a 20-minute clock and just speeds it up if the player chooses a shorter period length. Penalties end faster and computer-simulated games are more realistic. It's a simple and elegant solution.

Players are very responsive to controls. You can fake out players and goalies using only the directional pad rather than a special move. All the special moves were kept from the last edition as well as a "big hit" button on defense. A big hit is likely to take a player down, but with more risk of a penalty.

Another two problems are inherited from "NHL '99." The difficulty levels are problematic - the 'rookie' level is way too easy, but 'pro' is a bit too difficult and 'all-star' almost impossible. Your mileage may vary here. Also, the realistic game rhythm still isn't there. There are too many breakaways, and the game can easily degenerate into skate races up and down the ice instead of control battles at neutral ice. This last problem is by far the largest obstacle to modeling real NHL games.

The vaunted "Face in the Game" feature - also said to be added in "NBA Live 2000" - is pretty cool. It works by scanning a picture of yourself and letting the game digitize it into an animated 3D face. It does work, but you'll need a very clear, well-lighted mug shot in order for it to work. Otherwise, you'll end up looking like Igor with a hangover. EA Sports also added a huge voice library of first names. If you create a player, you'll hear the play-by-play announcers call his name - that little bit of icing was almost better than the face feature.

In case you've forgotten, EA Sports "NHL 2000" is still the best hockey game made, and it's the closest to NHL Hockey as you can get on a monitor. With the player AI tweaked to improve game rhythm, soon it'll be hard to tell the difference.

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