The card system started in EA's Madden is also featured in NHL 2003. The system allows you to purchase packs of player cards using points earned by performing special tasks like getting a hat trick or racking up five hits in a game with a single player. These player cards can then be used to enhance or weaken that particular player's skills, depending on whether they're on your team or not. It can obviously change a game's outcome against Detroit if you use a gold card on Curtis Joseph to put him on a cold streak for all three periods. You can also get cards that will give a random player the flu, forcing him to sit out of the game, as well as cards that will unlock bonus items and new celebration animations for your players.
Unfortunately, problems from previous installments in the series also crop up in NHL 2003. Sometimes a player will skate right by a puck without scooping it up. This is extremely frustrating for newcomers who haven't mastered the nuances of the control scheme. You'll likely find yourself pulling your hair out as you watch the computer repeatedly grab loose pucks and then take shots at your net because your defenders chose to run into the boards rather than clear the puck. Your AI teammates will also inadvertently go offside sometimes, so you'll have to wait behind the blue line until they decide to come back. It's better just to leave this rule turned off in most cases. Additionally, some of the game's options seem fairly worthless. It has always seemed that the NHL games throw in one obligatory fight every game. NHL 2003 does not seem to vary from this rule of thumb, even if you have put fighting to its maximum. The fights themselves are a ridiculous and easily forgettable button-mashing contest. You'll also find that penalties aren't called very often, even when you have set the penalty meter to its maximum level. Additionally, the computer in the franchise mode occasionally makes some laughable managerial decisions. It will typically reject fair trades you offer, yet will attempt to ask you for a star player in return for a mediocre player.
Graphically, NHL 2003 looks only marginally better than last year's version. That's until you factor in player animations, however. The players look and act more realistic on the ice, and the goalies flop every which way to prevent the opponent from scoring. New animations are included for after play has stopped, and these animations often reflect the current game situation. If you have a player near the goalie when a whistle is blown, the animation may show that player getting checked over the hunched-over body of the goalie, who then stands up and complains to the referee. They all remind you of moments that occur in real hockey games.
Players on a budget may want to skip this year's version because it doesn't really add much to the series.
The audio meets the high expectations set by previous games in the series. Everything from big hits to blades scraping the ice sounds authentic. The ping after the puck hits the goalie post is as heart-wrenching as it is a real game. Like other recent EA offerings, the game is filled with licensed music. Music by bands such as Jimmy Eat World accompanies the menus and play stoppages. The commentary may get old after a while, though. You'll eventually hear every line by Jim Hughson and Don Taylor, and it gets irritating real fast. The GameCube version also seems to have fewer lines and than the other versions. If you get bored with the commentators, you can use the player cards to unlock deep and high-pitched versions of the commentators' voices, which helps spice things up.
Ultimately, NHL 2003 is what you expect from EA Sports. It's a great simulation of hockey for all platforms. It looks good on all systems and controls just as well. Despite the AI issues that continue to plague the series, NHL 2003 is a fun and realistic hockey game that's easy for both newcomers and die-hard fans to pick up. Players on a budget may want to skip this year's version because it doesn't really add much to the series, but everyone else is encouraged to pick up NHL 2003.