2 video games deliver puck

Realism: With exciting graphics and players that are eerily life-like, EA Sports and Sony produce some gems for the hockey fan in your home.

March 05, 2001|By Jason Forrest and Patricia Fanning

The hiss of the skates, and the thwack of the sticks. The glare off the ice and the din of the crowd.

If you long for the sights, sounds and action of hockey in a big-league arena, why wait for the next home game? It's possible to experience the same prolonged adrenalin rush that builds over three periods of fast-paced hockey by loading a game into your PlayStation 2.

The big contenders this year are EA Sports' "NHL 2001" and 989 Sports' "NHL FaceOff 2001." Each sells for $50. The games' developers have brought their old franchises onto a new system, carrying with them a tradition of quality NHL simulation games.

But EA decks Sony's 989 label with superb graphics.

Both NHL-licensed games offer the basics: capacity for one to two players without a multi-tap adapter (but up to eight with the adapter), force feedback through the dual shock controller, analog control and memory card. Both provide choices for gameplay such as full or partial seasons or tournaments.

If you're feeling homesick for a favorite arena, both games offer a psuedo visit. NHL 200l relies mostly on its exterior photos, FaceOff on its simulation within. For instance, the interior of Reunion Arena in Dallas looks very much like the real thing.

For front-office or coaching wannabes, both games allow editing lines, trading players and drafting. If you can't find the ideal player on last season's NHL rosters, create one. Pick international teams if you prefer.

Twitchy-fingered veterans and novices alike can adapt either game to their playing styles through the options menus. Pick the pro level for a puck-blurring pace. But choose the fighting option only if you want a break and a big laugh -- the figures might as well be mimes mimicking a punchout except for the hokey thump-thump sound effects.

If you're playing "FaceOff," you need go no further than the unadorned options mentioned before suspecting the sad truth -- the game is essentially an upgrade of the original PlayStation game with little improvement.

The quick start mode is the simplest option.

Or you can select among six types of play including exhibition, practice, season, playoffs, tournament, and shootout.

The interface in all modes is boring.

In exhibition mode, you can select your teams but not uniform styles. One thing "FaceOff" has over "NHL 2001" is a legends squad filled with past and present greats. Otherwise, the tournament, playoff, and shootout modes are executed as expected.

Among the few features that make play interesting is a snappy passing system, using icons under the players to represent buttons on the controller.

On the ice, though, "FaceOff" comes up short as choppy animation chills the in-game experience. Players appear to be a bunch of stiff-jointed robots blundering around a rink.

By contrast, prepare to be blown away by the graphics-intense opening of "NHL 2001," which is eerily realistic.

Players empty out of the tunnel and skate on the ice looking so lifelike that it seems like a TV broadcast.

The in-game analysis by Jim Houston and Bill Clement sounds real and helps you keep track. When the action starts, the pace is far quicker than anything on TV.

As soon as the referee drops the puck, you welcome the play-by-play comments, the easy-to-read player labeling and visual guides that help stay abreast.

Rapid and relentless, the game play holds true to hockey's nonstop momentum.

Keep the puck too long, and your player will be checked.

After a hit, expect your man to land face-first on the ice.

Tripping produces a dramatic flip. Pucks ricochet.

A goal scored is a thrill with a repeat, as the camera swoops for automatic replay.

The simulation is so far-reaching, the players behave like humans -- chatting on the bench, arguing with the refs, sulking in the penalty box, and getting yelled at by the coach after a bonehead play.

And they wield their sticks correctly. Yes, the Washington Capitals' Peter Bondra shoots lefthanded.

"NHL 2001" makes the most of its dazzling graphics as early as the setup process.

A rocking demo features music by Collective Soul, and even the menu gets you pumped.

This is the game for the tweak freak.

Among the never-ending choices is a locker room full of jerseys: home, away, alternate, and original. Forget Dallas and dress your Stars in their 1992-93 Minnesota uniforms.

The deep options menu even lets you tinker with the physics of puck friction. Management decision-making is detailed, too.

And you can toy with a custom team-making option that assembles any 18 players and two goalies.

Of course you're reliving last year because the rosters and well-displayed stats are true to the 1999-2000 season. A healthy Brian Skrudland hasn't yet retired from the Stars. And defenseman Sylvain Cote is still playing for them instead of the Caps.

When the Stars' line of Mike Modano, Brett Hull and Jere Lehtinen skates against the Devils' line of Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora, New Jersey tends to rule.

It's like Stanley Cup action all over again.

Who could argue with that?

Patricia Fanning, a Sun assistant sports editor, was introduced to hockey in the 1960s by the Chicago Blackhawks rocking their cavernous old arena. Her son, Jason Forrest, 17, is a lifelong gamer whose shelf of hockey titles reaches back to Sega Genesis from the mid-1990s. The reviewers were aided by Jason's older brother, Brent Forrest, who played recreation league hockey for two decades.

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