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NHL 2K (Dreamcast)
MSRP: $44.99
Number of Players: 1-4
Developer: BlackBox
Publisher: Sega of America

Rating:
***1/2
out of
*****

Sports games have been a part of videogaming since the days of the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. In fact, good sports games are a key to any console's success in this day and age. Sega knew this when they introduced the Dreamcast. They unleashed NFL 2K and NBA 2K and gave the system (and themselves) a reputation for having some outstanding sports games. At the same time, they put pressure on any other sports titles they were to release. NHL 2K is the first title from Sega Sports to have to live up to that reputation.

Let me say, right off, that this game certainly looks the part of a next-generation console hockey game. The graphics are top-notch in almost every aspect. From the detailed, texture-mapped faces of the players (that actually move their mouths and show emotion) to the "Made in Canada" inscription on the puck, NHL 2K certainly does not lack in the graphics department. Players will spray a cloud of ice crystals when they make a sharp turn or abrupt stop. The protective glass on the boards shatters realistically when a puck hits with a little too much force. The ice gets continually marked up as the game progresses. Graphically, there is little to complain about and a lot to admire.

Controlling the game is NOT an issue. The Dreamcast's' analog stick makes controlling the players' on-ice actions a breeze. It took about an hour or so for me to get comfortable with the game's control scheme but, once I did, I was moving around the ice without much problem at all.

The game's camera angles are a bit disappointing. The "on-ice" (default) angle is the best, but it's still not without faults. An angle that's slightly higher would have worked better. There is a three-quarters perspective camera, but it's a little too far away. The other angles, including a side angle, an "action" angle and an overhead angle, are curiosities at best. They might be useful to watch the computer play by itself, but they don't work at all when a human player is added into the mix.

The audio commentary, delivered by Harry Neale and Bob Cole, is good but a little stiff. It sounds as if some of their reactions are coming from cue cards rather than the on-ice action. Still, the commentary does an admirable job of keeping pace with the game-in-progress. The other sounds in the game are fantastic, giving the game additional atmosphere on top of the great graphics. If nothing else, this game has the looks and sounds of a hockey arena down pat.

NHL 2K may alienate some hockey gamers by having more of a simulation feel than an arcade feel. Games played on NHL 2K tend to be low-scoring affairs with a lot of puck-freezing and face-offs. The goal-tending, when performed by the program's AI, is one notch below "Superman." Actually, some goalies may have had magnets implanted in their bodies because the puck seems oddly attracted to them. So much so that, during replays, one can watch the puck alter its course and end up in a goalie's glove when it was clearly headed to the back of the net. During regular speed gameplay, this "magnetic goalie syndrome" isn't apparent. Only during instant replays can one see this odd display of physics in action. The goalies aren't always "magnetic." They do allow you to score on them, you just have to learn some skills that other hockey games don't necessarily require you to learn, like perfecting one-timers, passing precision, and actual teamwork. Breakaways don't mean instant scoring in NHL 2K.

Actually, this reviewer didn't really mind that the puck's physics sometimes seemed altered. Most of the time, I admired the realism of the puck deflecting off objects and heading in another direction. Several goals were scored in this manner, just as in a real game. One thing I did mind, though, was the game's relative lack of fighting. Not that I subscribe to the old "I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out" school of thought, but fighting is a part of the real sport. Much more so than it is in NHL 2K. I played the game for several days before I saw my first fight. I wasn't expecting Soul Calibur when I bought the game, but there's no way to increase the frequency of the fights to make them happen more often. The setting is either "fighting on" or "fighting off." There's no way to adjust the frequency of penalty calling or injuries either.

That brings up the relative lack of options in the game. Unfortunately, the game lacks some basics, like the option to play a shortened season. The player ratings do include many rankings including leadership, balance, thoroughness, acceleration, and stick handling but the game loses any points earned for that by not having any jump pack support. Wouldn't that be a given in a game that includes bone-jarring action?

In other words, the game looks and feels a bit rushed. It's as if BlackBox spent a great deal of loving care on the graphics and then began working on the actual gameplay as an afterthought. That's not to say the gameplay isn't any good. Thankfully, they were able to complete enough to make NHL 2K a playable hockey game (and, in fact, quite an enjoyable one), but not enough to deliver the "mother of all hockey games." NHL 2K can shame many a console hockey game, but it is not the best one ever made.

If you've got a Dreamcast and you've been itching to play hockey, you could do a lot worse than to buy this game. You may want to rent it first to see if any of the many small problems overshadows the average gameplay and the excellent graphics in your mind. I recommend this game to the casual hockey player, but I realize it might not be enough for the hard-core hockey fan. Maybe next year.

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