Puck Rock

Rating: NNNNNHL 2K2 for Sega Dreamcast. $60. Rating: NNNNYou could have cut the tensionSunday at 3 pm with a butter.

Rating: NNNN

NHL 2K2 for Sega Dreamcast. $60. Rating: NNNN

You could have cut the tensionSunday at 3 pm with a butter knife.Big game looming, incredibly high stakes and a one-match, winner-take-all set-up meaning there was no time for half efforts.

So why were hundreds or thousands of hockey fans disturbingly confident about the outcome? They’d already played the Canada/U.S. game on PlayStation 2.

You know sports simulators are a big deal when you’re watching Olympic hockey and friends are talking about how easy the game was that morning when they played at home. For those who can’t get out onto the big ice, setting up a big match on the living-room TV is as close as you can get.

It’s hard to imagine hockey games getting much better than EA Sports’s standard-bearer NHL 2002, where, if you push your buttons correctly, you can become Mats Sundin or a member of the Barenaked Ladies. NHL 2K2 comes close, though.

The smooth gameplay, characters that look like the real players and other now-expected parts of the game are all there. What sets NHL 2K2 just slightly ahead are the little things.

Rather than generic talk about hockey, there’s play-by-play commentary that uses the player’s names and actually describes the action. The ice surface is particularly impressive, gradually losing its gloss as the game goes on and getting hacked up where the players have skated.

The line between video games and TV broadcasts is also increasingly blurred, particularly on the rebound. The net cam makes an overdue video-game appearance here, providing goal’s-eye replays of big saves and crucial scores.

NHL 2K2 is not massively different from the heavy hockey hitters, but it comes through when it counts.

It’s also a lot more fun than waiting another four years to hammer the Yanks. mattg@nowtoronto.com

GRAPHICS: As sharp as Iginla’s skates.
ADDICTIVENESS: When it’s back to the grind of the Leafs versus the Carolina Hurricanes, this will seem like gold.
ANTI-SOCIAL FACTOR: Invite your American friends over and let the sparks fly.
PROXIMITY TO THE REAL THING: The good guys always win.

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