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Sean Pettibone






989 Sports hits the ice with their pro-hockey simulator NHL Face Off 2003 for the PS2. Featuring redesigned player models, improved controls with a new juke move and several cool modes of play including a brand-new GM mode, Face Off 2003 is a comprehensive simulation. With fast action, a bevy of options and modes plus lots of depth, this looks like a serious contender but is it enough to compete with the big guns? The Laser laces up our skates and finds out whether these improvements make this Stanley Cup worthy.

Even though the NHL isn't the biggest pro-sports league, the sport has a devoted fan-base addicted to the fast action, especially in the Northern US and Canada. Sony is once again on the prowl trying to win the hearts of these fans with the latest installment in their long running Face Off series. While 2003 has some important changes under the hood, the biggest and most immediate change comes in the graphics, which have been greatly improved. Featuring improved player models, the movements seem much more realistic than in previous games. Players will also find that the presentation has been taken up a notch thanks to the improved TV style approach with instant replays, zoom-ins and making for a much improved presentation. NHL Face Off 2003 also implements excellent play-by-play commentary in the background further enhances the television-style appearance. The players look fantastic thanks to the much larger number of motion-captured animations which makes playing less predictable. The presentation is further enhanced by the Arena models themselves, which are faithful to their real world counterparts. The biggest problem is in the camera system, which was always focused to the north. This makes it difficult to see what was going on at the bottom of the screen at the other goal, which is really awkward. This was really annoying and hurt the game's otherwise exemplary presentation.

As you'd expect, Face Off 2003 offers several modes of play including a practice mode where you can master your skills, single game exhibitions where you can select any teams to battle it out. There is also a tournament mode where you can jump right to the playoffs. NHL Face Off also includes a Face Off mode, where you can go one-on-one as either a shooter or a goalie, though the controls in this mode aren't as simple as they would seem to be. The expected full-season mode is included where you can play through an entire season and try for the Stanley Cup. NHL Face Off 2003's other big improvement is the addition of a new and extensive General Manager mode where you can control the destiny of your team from the front office. You will be able to manage the team's payroll, draft new players, sign free agents, trade players with other teams, create your own custom players, and release players who aren't performing. This mode is cool, and like the other GM modes included with this year's 989 Sports titles, allows players who like sim aspects to deal with a lot of the behind the scenes work. You can play as the GM for ten years, so you can build a team up from the dredges to championship status year by year and create a dynasty. The General Manager mode is loads of fun and adds a lot of depth an opening up the individual games to become more important.

Other options include the ability to set the game style to either an arcade style match with few rules, or a more traditional approach where the icing, penalties, off-sides and two-line shot rules are enforced. You can also customize the length of each period. You can also turn fighting on and off, if you don't want the game to become to violent. In addition, NHL Face Off 2003 supports either one or two players at once, and you can turn player fatigue on and off, make the halo around the puck go on or off, and adjust the sound levels to your liking and turn the commentary on and off. Finally, you can select from several different camera angles giving you either a close-up action angle, or a broader view where you can see more of the ice. This is an option-rich title and this should help it's appeal though unfortunately, this year's installment doesn't support online play, which is disappointing.

Players familiar with the series will find that the action is faster and more challenging, yet has been simplified to improve the flow and better capture the frenetic pace of real hockey. Aiming your shots is a lot easier, thanks to the better camera system which gives you a better sense of the action. The control system has been tweaked to make them easier to understand, allowing you to skate, turn, shoot pass and drop passes with little effort. Switching between offensive and defensive roles isn't too terribly difficult since similar moves are mapped to the same buttons. Players should be able to check, fly and pass with ease because the game uses the PS2 controller intelligently. The buttons are mapped so that passing and shooting allotted to the face-buttons while switching players and positions is set on the shift buttons. The interface is excellent and allows you to focus on the action without fussing with the controls. We found the controls easy to understand and use.

Overall, while there are some imperfections, NHL Face Off 2003 is an excellent game that captures the speed and excitement of real-world hockey. The improved presentation is immediately apparent and makes the game all the more realistic, especially the character models which are showcased in new close-ups where you can see the lights glistening off their helmets. Visually, it looks great and the game play has been tweaked to make for a more enjoyable experience. It's faster than in previous games, making it feel much more like real hockey. The game's controls are excellent making for an intuitive experience where you can concentrate on the puck, not the controller. Add in the excellent GM mode and you have a title that shows a lot of growth from the sometimes substandard installments of previous years. The added depth is impressive and with its many improvements, NHL FaceOff 2003 rival the polish and challenge of other sports titles on the market and should be a solid purchase for hockey fans.

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