As the NHL drops the puck on a new season, so too does EA Sports with the newest title in their long running NHL series. NHL 2003 promises to deliver a new and better graphics engine, dynamic deke control, game breakers, and better goalie and puck AI, along with the staples like create-a-player and season modes that have made it a favorite in previous years. However, the real test in most gamers' minds is; "Did they improve on last year or just update the rosters and give it a new paint job?"
First of all NHL 2003 did get a new paint job from the 2002 version. The new graphics engine looks remarkable on higher end systems, as you would expect. However where this engine seems to shine is in its efficiency. Lower end systems do not need to have all the settings turned down to run smooth and pretty. Of course it won't look as good as it does on the better computers, but its is strides ahead of NHL 2002. That said, the graphics still look similar to last years game, with new crowd and bench shots, along with some silly "dream sequences" the players have before games. So if you're a gamer that liked last years game but wished it looked a little better and ran a lot smoother, you should be pretty pleased.
The sound in EA games is always excellent. The play by play is pretty accurate, with the only real hiccups appearing after intermissions where the announcers will have long discussions that carry on well after the action has resumed. But that is not a real problem by my judgment, as human announcers tend to go off on tangents as well. The banter between the two is again "humorous" like in last year's edition. And again the jokes are really hit and miss, but almost all of them get old after hearing them a million times, which is the only reason I didn't give the sound a better score. So if you were one of the (seemingly) few that liked the silliness last year you'll be pleased, and if not there are always the volume settings in the options menu.
Outside of the play by play, the action noises are dead on. Pucks hitting the boards, sticks, posts, and glass all sound as if you were watching your favorite team on TV. The post noise does seem to go off a little too often and too loudly (like when shots come from behind the net), but that is more of a programming glitch than sound problem. The crowds are great and you'll have no problem recognizing if you are the home team or the visitors. The fans will scream when their team scores and get on their case for bad play, and just for fun they'll "boo" any visiting player that happens to be one of the "3 Stars." Like I said earlier, EA Sports normally does excellent work with the sound in their games and this one is no exception.
The gameplay in the NHL franchise has always been solid but not perfect. This year is more of the same. The main problem I had with last year's game was that there was really no consistent way to score. If an NHL player scores on say 50% of his breakaways, it would be nice if that were close to true with this game. Back in the Sega Genesis days you could score by skating one way and shooting the other, and a one timer was almost sure fire. Not that I want to be able to score 20 goals a game, but I would rather win by outscoring a team than by having my goalie stand on his head. NHL 2003 found a near perfect balance. They have made the goalies tough enough to keep scoring low, but not to the point that every game is 1-0. The dynamic deke control mentioned earlier has a large part to do with this. The dynamic deke control lets you hold the deke button and manually deke (a fake used to trick a defender or goalie) your opponent. This may seem a little weird, but if you can't adjust to it, just tapping the button will do an "auto-deke." Unlike in NHL 2002, players and more importantly goalies will actually bite on these fakes, making scoring chances more prevalent.
Also new this year is the gamebreaker. Replacing the (sometimes pain in the neck) momentum meter is a gamebreaker meter. Making dekes, winning fights, scoring goals, and big hits all slowly fill the meter to the top. However instead of giving your entire team a small advantage (like last years' momentum meter), once full it will let you press a button to turn on the gamebreaker view. This is a few seconds long, slowed down, close up of your player (much like the breakaway camera) that supposedly lets you fake and shoot a little easier. I haven't found it to be beneficial yet, but maybe with a little playing around you can find some tricks to it. Just don't use it in your own end thinking something great will happen, often times you'll just lose the puck and watch your opponent skate around during your hard earned gamebreaker time. This feature may take some time to master but supposedly is very valuable.
Overall NHL 2003 is a good sequel to the franchise, not only giving it a facelift, but also adding new game options. The graphics, sound, music and commentaries are all very solid. A must-have for any hockey fan and most sports games fans!