Playoffs are here and so are three NHL video games

Monday, April 30th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

Is there a sport that Electronic Arts hasn't turned into a great video game?

They somehow avoided curling, synchronized swimming and badminton, but they have whipped up an excellent hockey game.

``NHL 2001'' from EA Sports for the PlayStation 2 is the best of three games on our plate today.

The graphics are stunning. Think back to what passed for humans in video games a few years ago and compare that to the smooth, almost-real figures racing across the ice. Faces look like faces, arms and legs move fluidly and shots are so real you feel like ducking.

Controls are simple to learn, intuitive and don't require every finger on your hand and a few loaners.

Even the sound is fantastic, with the best announcers, the best crowd noise and the best tunes, pegged to what you might hear in that specific arena. Find a few multi-taps and up to eight people can play.

There are a few flaws. There's a little slowdown when center ice gets crowded, and there is no career or franchise play options _ a standard feature for most sports games.

In second place is ``National Hockey Night'' from Konami. The graphics are pretty good and the controls, while not as smooth as EA's, work with reasonable ease and speed. Sound effects aren't bad, and Gary Thorne and Steve Levy do a decent job with the announcing.

The players are oddly shaped and don't look up to taking more than one solid check before breaking in half. They also need time to get rolling. It looks like they are spinning their wheels for a second until they start moving, and their speed is never realistic.

I found the goalies a bit slow to react, although they are great at catching the puck instead of simply blocking it.

The fights look totally lame, and you don't even get to throw a punch yourself.

Our third-place entry is 989's ``NHL FaceOff 2001.'' Here that clank? That's 989 taking a slapshot and hitting the post. No goal for you.

The graphics in ``Faceoff 2001'' are just bad, with chunky, clunky players devoid of expression. The goalies are weak and let a lot of shots get by that they should be stopping.

Controls work well, but they are more complex than EA's and far less intuitive. Sound effects are poor. The commentary, what there is of it, is ridiculous.

Checking is one part of the game I really liked. The hip checks are great, but you can't spend the whole game smashing your opponents into the boards.

``NHL 2001'' is the clear winner. It's an excellent choice if you enjoy hockey and want a realistic experience. ``National Hockey Night'' is an acceptable substitute, but why take second choice if the better game is available? ``NHL FaceOff 2001'' is simply a bad game; hold out for next year's version if you're a 989 fan, and hope they fix the problems.

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