NHL FaceOff 2003 Review

989 Sports has given NHL FaceOff an overhaul this year, including a new graphics engine, motion captures, and player moves.  The changes were necessary to try to keep the game in the same league with the bigger franchises in the hockey game field.  However, the changes did not go far enough and the result is a game that is still a notch below the top players.

Pardon me, good sir.

The game's graphical enhancements have failed to bring it up to par with the PS2's better looking titles.  The player models bear only a passing resemblance to the real players and the textures used for the uniforms are fuzzy and lack any details.  The new motion captures make player motion look good, but the transitions between the different motions are awkward.  You don't even have to wait until the gameplay starts to see that NHL FaceOff 2003 falls short graphically.  Games begin with a pressbox cam shot of center ice as lasers trace the home team's logo on the ice.  The scoreboard and logo look so fuzzy you'll wonder if the opening sequence was lifted from some old PS One code.

It's hard to categorize the game as either an arcade version or simulation of the sport.  Gameplay can be pretty fast (the game gives you the option to slow things down if need be) and players seem to be magnets that snag all passes that are "close enough".  On the other hand, steals and blocks are quite common and it is far from a given that you'll be able to move the puck down the ice and keep it in your opponent's zone.

Waiting for the puck to drop.

It's possible to accept this type of game and just adjust your style of play to match it, but what really weighs the game down is its AI.  The computer's defensive scheme is to swarm the puck handler with at least four defenders.  You'd think that this would make it easy to find an open man to pass to, but your teammates are slow to make it up the ice and don't really make an effort to move into a position where they can take a pass.  On defense your team does not use the swarm tactic and is, of course, slow to get back and help on defense.  It also seems that your team has decided that chasing down loose pucks is exclusively your job, as they're more inclined to watch a nearby puck than to go for it.  Goalies do a pretty good job of blocking shots, but they're also likely to put the puck back into play with two members of the opposing team camped out just outside the crease.

To its credit, NHL FaceOff 2003 is an easily accessible game.  The rules of hockey can be relaxed so new players won't have to strain themselves trying to make sense of icing and the two line pass rule.  All beginners really need to learn is which button passes and which shoots.

The game also includes a number of gameplay modes, including a practice mode that allows you to set the number of players on the ice.  You can use it to handicap the other team while learning to play or to practice power plays.  In addition to the quick match, tournaments, and shoot-out modes, the game features career and season modes.  The most notable feature of these last two modes is that you can not specify the number of games to be played.  A season is always a marathon 82 game endurance trial.  In the career mode your reward for sticking it out to the end of the first season is a generic draft and free agent signing session that pretty much just involves looking for the player with the highest rating.

In The End, This Game Hath Been Rated: 65%.  A not so ready for primetime player in the hockey game field.


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