Since EA Sports first began the NHL franchise, their hockey games have always been considered the best of the best. This year's NHL 2002 is certainly no disappointment and continues EA's tradition for ice hockey excellence. After an impressive NHL 2001, which improved many different aspects of the game, this year's game adds many new features and improvements to the lineup. Although EA has been criticized in the past for doing the same things with their games over and over again, you can't criticize how realistic and smooth their final products have turned out. As the old saying goes, why fix what isn't broken?

One of the main reasons, EA games are the fan favorites is all of they're games can be customized in nearly every different aspect. The AI sliders are a perfect example of this, as they allow you to control different things such as the level of aggressiveness, the speed and accuracy of passes and shots, and even the fine little details like the amount of puck friction and elasticity. This ensures a different game every time you adjust these levels, and they add more variables and difficulty to your game, as you get better.

This year's new features are also very customizable, as you are able to turn many of them off and on to your liking. This year's color commentary with Don Taylor is unfortunately one of the features many gamers want to turn off. Taylor's antics, although funny at times, defeat the whole purpose of a serious hockey simulation as he refers to the snack bar more than he refers to the game. The arena's PA announcer has also given up seriousness and tends to blurt out comic lines during breaks in the action. Although funnier than Taylor, the non-stop humor still has no place in a serious hockey title like NHL 2002. Still, the game's other aspects more than make up for this.

Other new features this year include the new breakaway cam. When it's just you in the goalie, time will slow and your vision will change to that of a fish-eye lens. Although this is somewhat distracting, it adds more intensity and excitement to the game, and sometimes will make your heart skip a beat or two. Also new this year are the EA Sports game story lines. Score a hat trick, or completely crush your opposition, and you will see story lines on the screen such as, "Hat Trick," "Total Domination," or "Possible Shutout." This makes the game look more like it would if you were watching it on television and it adds to the excitement that makes NHL 2002 a keeper.

The game also features an entirely different aspect to the hockey game, a trading card game mode, which unlocks many hidden features. When completing many different tasks as simple as scoring a hat trick and as difficult as beating Team Canada with Team Japan, points are awarded to by a pack of virtual trading cards which include players and secret codes. The player cards give the selected play a hot streak for as short as one period to as long as three, giving your team an extra advantage in the game. The secret code cards unlock many different cheats and goal celebrations.

The game's AI is also improved this season. The game's goalies are enhanced and they better read what you are trying to do. In other words, unlike the previous titles, the same kind of shot doesn't score over and over again. The players also send and receive passes more realistically, although sometimes the players not highlighted stand still and let a loose puck sail right by. This year's AI even reacts to the crowd. Get the crowd pumped up and reacting to the game and your team will react with them, making big plays and often scoring big points against your opponent. The quieter the crowd gets however, the stronger the other team plays against you, and the tougher time you have keeping up your rhythm and making the big plays. The AI can be adjusted with four different difficulty settings, beginner, easy, medium, and difficult. The beginner and easy settings are great for starting out but after a few games you find yourself ahead eight to null, just at the end of the first period. Certainly not the way ice hockey was meant to be played and the medium and difficult settings make the game more challenging for all the hardcore players out there.

One of the interesting features of NHL 2002 is the fact that it's fairly easy to tell how much control the players have over the puck. Unlike the previous titles where you are just guessing how easy it is to steal the puck away from the other team, the colored circles under the players do this for you. When the circles are light, the players don't have a whole lot of puck control and they're fairly easy to bump off, but when the circles are dark, as they usually are with players by the names of Lemieux, Roenick and Forsberg, the puck is hard to steal away.

As with EA's other titles, NHL 2002's graphics are stunning as expected. The highly detailed players look almost life-like as they battle in the game's detailed arenas. The player's facial complexions look almost identical to their real-life counterparts and they clearly show emotion to how the game is going. The goalies are also very realistic and they have been given a wide variety of animations, allowing them to move exactly as they would in real life. The game runs much more smoothly though if you have a computer at least over 500 MHz, as it begins to get a little choppy the lower you go. With a decent computer however, the game runs fluid-like and frame rates aren't an issue.

The game's sound is also enhanced. When sending a lightning fast slapshot or delivering a crushing body check, the sound effects echo across the arena, sometimes, almost making your hair stand up on end. The title also features plenty of in game music, which makes the battles as you would see them in real life. EA Sports also has a downloadable "ditty importer," which allows you to upload your own choice of songs into the in game lineup. As I mentioned before the color commentary is kind of a let down, but the rest of the game's sound is nearly flawless.

Like many other games EA offers great multiplayer support for the gamers who just can't get enough out of playing the AI. The game allows up to 12 players to play in one game in EA's LAN lobby and many different leagues simulate the NHL season, with real life gamers. Other online game modes include playing with a Direct Internet Connection, which allows you to play by directly connecting to your opponent's computer. You can also duke it out with 11 players over a modem, or go directly to the matchmaker service and see how you fair against other NHL gamers around the world on the new Matchup Ladderboard. Cable and DSL Internet services are recommended for online play, as connection lag pretty much ruins any games played with a dialup connection.

All in all, NHL 2002 includes more features than expected from EA Sports games lately. Although similar to 2001, NHL 2002 improves many aspects of its predecessor and adds enough new features to keep you busy until next year's game. Many arcade features have been added to this year's game, however the hardcore hockey simmers still can find plenty to do, especially with the game's multiple season mode and the multiplayer service. Overall NHL 2002, is a fully customizable game, and is a worthy addition to any sports fan's hard drive.