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The Console Hockey Wars

It's that time of year again...the time when many sports video game players, some already engaged in figuring out the new football offerings (and waging heated war over their relative merits), begin looking forward to the new crop of console video titles. For many people who have never laced up a pair of skates or even stickhandled in the streets or a driveway, video hockey is still exciting. After all, two franchises helped make the Sega Genesis the choice of many sports video players--EA's Madden and NHL series.

Well, the 16-bit days have come and gone (although some people continue to go on about the wonders of NHL 94--I'm not quite that enthusiastic). And so have the days of the Saturn (although only two games from that system deserve positive comments--the original NHL Powerplay '96 and its ill-disguised successor, NHL All Star Hockey 98--Sega Sports' effort to make us forget the original NHL All Star Hockey). And it is not clear whether hockey has a future on the N64--so far only Konami has announced a title for the upcoming season. Yes, I've seen the pretty screenshots for Sega's first hockey game for the Dreamcast, but we've all been duped by pretty pictures before--no sense in wasting breath on something still unproven. That leaves the venerable Playstation, where no less than four titles are announced for this coming year--NHL 2000 (Electronic Arts), NHL FaceOff 2000 (989 Sports), NHL Championship 2000 (Fox Sports Interactive), and NHL Blades of Steel 2000 (Konami).

The new season marks an improvement on its predecessor, when only EA and 989 released PSX hockey games. Konami backed away for the moment; Acclaim decided to restrict its Breakaway series to the N64; ESPN and Fox abandoned plans (the ESPN game was being developed by Radical Entertainment, who brought you the Powerplay series--and will bring you NHL Championship 2000). And yet one wonders whether this is the beginning of the end for Playstation pucks. The emergence of new systems will attract design and development energies; although EA put out NHL 97 and 98 for 16-bit systems, they were no longer the centerpiece of attention. History suggests that same process will repeat itself in the next couple of years, especially when new console prices start to decline. Thus this moment in time offers us a good opportunity to take a look back at Playstation hockey before looking forward with an eye on how to evaluate the upcoming crop.

Sony Sports, the predecessor of 989 Sports, led the way in 1995 with the original FaceOff. The roots of that game were to be found in ESPN's National Hockey Night for 16-bit systems. Upgraded player and rink graphics, better sound, and game speed improved upon its 16-bit counterparts, and Electronic Arts shelved plans for its 32-bit game (although I believe that had it issued a game much like the PC version of NHL 96, all would have been well). Mind you, FaceOff had its problems, and some parts of it were simply clumsy: both in its strengths and weaknesses, it epitomized first-generation games for the PSX. If it looked great (especially when compared to Sega's NHL All Star Hockey) and felt smooth, there were also bugs and omissions galore (freaky simulated stats and playoff setups; no saved lines; AI). Radical followed with NHL Powerplay 96, which had polygonal figures, but most players preferred the Saturn version of that title.

Starting with the 1996-97 season, things heated up. EA brought out NHL 97, a game featuring polygonal figures (in marked contrast to the Madden series). Some people were enamored with it; others complained it froze too much; it is safe to say that it was not an unqualified success. Sure, the players were polygonal, but they were blocky; the player control was iffy; the game lacked the gameplay qualities of its 16-bit predecessors. Sony countered with FaceOff 97. While it still relied on sprite-based players, it was a much more complete game than its predecessor, and it played (at least at All Star level) much like the real thing. Indeed, one may argue that in many ways it remains superior to its FO successors in providing a challenging experience that calls on players to think like hockey players and coaches. It had coaching options, icon passing (which some people swear by, although I don't), better roster management, and on the whole was a superior game to NHL 97.

The next year four games hit the store shelves. Acclaim's NHL Breakaway 98 looked pretty good--but it did not play very well. Somehow the people at Acclaim could not learn how assists are awarded in the NHL; they made up for this by making goal scoring pretty easy and formulaic. The alternative was to crank up the goalie's ability level so high that players fired away in frustration. However, new to the game was a season mode that involved developing (untradeable) prospects, hiring coaches, and operating a trainer's room by spending points earned over the course of a season. You even risked losing equipment as the result of a hard hit. This experiment proved to have a lifespan of a single year, for Acclaim decided to release Breakaway 99 only for the N64. Too bad--there were some useful ideas present in the game.

EA and Sony Sports went back to the drawing board. FaceOff 98 featured polygon players, richer animations, additional coaching strategies, cute graphics tricks (including the flying water bottle) and so on--but it forgot to include a fair and competitive game. CPU teams became deadly on faceoffs and in shooting accuracy at the higher difficulty levels; somewhere the play balance that was present in FaceOff 97 at All Star level disappeared. EA's NHL 98 had a complete overhaul in terms of graphics, audio, and gameplay; it featured an announcing team (Jim Hughson and Daryl Reaugh), changing coaching strategies during play, and on the whole offered a better, more stimulating playing environment--the reaction to scoring at home was great. Unfortunately, EA failed to lavish the same attention on gameplay, especially player control; CPU-controlled players behaved in erratic fashion; teams did not play solid defense or offense. The result was a game that featured end-to-end rushes and breakouts in which players hit the speed burst button to get around defenders, who in turn used the same button to issue hard checks. It all made for a great arcade experience--especially for those people who mistake highlight films featuring breakaways and hard hitting for complete game films--but it was not really a good simulation of professional ice hockey.

The best hockey game as hockey game award for the 1997-98 season went to NHL Powerplay 98. Oh, the graphics could have been sharper, the players could have moved a tad faster (although their speeds were better scaled to the rink and the action), and the rink was a little small, but in terms of gameplay, this game was great. Like its predecessor, Powerplay allowed coaches to change defense pairs as well as forward lines (the same was true for Breakaway); player movement was more realistic (even if the animations were sometimes lacking); the CPU AI was much better (and fairer). It was not a perfect game: it suffered from long load times, an awkward pause menu for shuffling lines and changing strategies, and it failed to preserve end-of-season stats through the playoffs. But it was a hockey game.

And there was something else that stood out in all four games. International teams had been included in some NHL video games (for example, Powerplay 96), but they now appeared in force. Powerplay 98 and NHL 98 allowed you to create new players for these teams, making a good thing even better. But the international game still looked like its NHL counterpart in too many ways, and the tourney setups did not offer all the various international options available.

Thus the 1997-98 slate of offerings gave gameplayers hope for the coming year. Surely Acclaim would build on its initial offering; surely EA and Sony (now 989 Sports) would take gameplay and realism to another level; perhaps Radical, backed by ESPN/Disney money, might gain the resources that would allow it to compete on the same rink. Other companies wanted in. It looked good for Playstation hockey as the 1998-99 season approached.

What happened last year was not quite what one had been led to expect. Acclaim closed down its PSX line (which might not have been much of a loss, for the N64 version of Breakaway was a slight and unimpressive revision of its predecessor). Konami decided against issuing an announced Playstation version of NHL Blades of Steel, and reviews of the N64 version were mixed. Fox Sports dropped its announced hockey title; ESPN did the same with Radical's game. It was left to the two mainstays of sports video games to battle it out on the Playstation.

FaceOff 99 looked great. It had gone to the trouble of creating distinctive rinks that resembled each team's home arena (although there were mistakes and alterations; moreover, Mrs. Webb's third graders took one heck of a field trip, visiting every NHL arena--I wish I'd gone to that school). Players' faces were distinct and visible; the animations were improved; perhaps the only thing wrong was that it was hard to pick up the puck, especially when it was near the bottom of the screen in from of the near net (for those of us using the end cameras). The game also sounded pretty good--especially the announcing team of Mike Emrick and Darren Pang. Yet something didn't feel quite right. It was a joke to play the game on rookie, where you could hold the opposition to a handful of shots on goal; once more, as in FaceOff 98, veteran and All Star went a little too far in the other direction, as supergoalies stopped shot after shot while one's one goalie became sloppy, misplayed pucks, and wandered around too often. Yes, there was a crease camera for disputed goals, prefaced by an official who looked as if he was in real trouble as he tried to skate about (didn't anyone in d&d catch this?), and, as in real life, the calls were not consistent. But it was clear that FaceOff had lost something in the gameplay department. It could still offer an exciting contest, but it didn't quite feel like hockey.

In contrast, one of the first reactions people had when they popped EA's NHL 99 into the Playstation and fired it up was that the players were not quite as sharp as their predecessors. True; but they moved better and were much easier to control. Indeed, if FaceOff 99 bore more than a passing resemblance to NHL 98, then NHL 99 played a bit like...Powerplay 98. Teams worked better together; you could work shots from the point off the faceoff; the AI was better (although there were a few glowing exceptions that led to easy scoring opportunities, especially passes off the faceoff to a forward in the slot); goalies gave up real rebounds; checking was better. A welcome addition was automatic shot aim, which divorced aiming one's shot from the direction in which one was skating, and led to all sorts of nifty animations. In short, NHL 99 was a solid game. The difficulty levels offered a more realistic challenge scaled to player abilities (including the ability to invest sufficient time to master the game). It did feel like a hockey game, much as Powerplay did.

And so we come to the 1999-2000 season. EA, 989 Sports, and the people who are doing Fox Sports NHL Championship Hockey have each been singled out above for producing the best game in one year; they are joined by Konami, who should benefit from their experience with NHL Blades of Steel 99 in developing their Playstation entry. What should we look for this year? How should we judge the competition? Let me share with you some of my expectations and criteria (and a few off-the wall comments):

1. Gaming environment (graphical appearance, animation, and audio): I want motion-captured players who move smoothly and are skillfully animated--both during play and play stoppages. Goalies should react to puck movement realistically--neither too slow or at the speed of light. Uniforms should be sharp; rinks should reflect home-town ambiance; announcing teams should react to what's going on. Cameras should offer a good view of play and of the location of one's teammates.

2. Interface: I want to be able to control my players so that I'm battling the opposition and not the controller. Passing accuracy and skill should actually mean something; so should shot control and accuracy. It would be great if we could dedicate different buttons to wrist and slap shots, and set up screens and deflections; someday someone might actually use the right analog stick to aim and shoot. In coaching, one should be able to rotate (independently) three defense pairs and four lines of forwards at equal strength; even better, one should have last change as home coach after learning what the opposition is doing. It would be great if in the dying moments of the game one could instruct the goalie to leave the net once his team gained control of the puck in the offensive zone--without hitting a pause button. Off the ice, one should be able to create players for NHL, All Star, and international teams, with an ample number of free agent slots to handle trades during the season (this is not always the case); we'll see how proposed dynasty modes work in practice.

3. Artificial Intelligence and Game Difficulty: It's important for teams to play as teams, with solid positional play (and that goes for the user-controlled players, too); one should be able to set up shots off the faceoff, work the points on the powerplay, move the puck along the boards (note the lack of stoppages of play for pucks frozen against the boards) and read and react on defense. Even at the easiest levels CPU-controlled teams should be able to put up a battle and take advantage of sloppy play to punish user-controlled teams; even at the hardest levels solid playmaking and shooting should be rewarded, as should sound defensive play. CPU goalies should not range from rag dolls to supermen, depending on difficulty level; what ought to count for something is the skill of the CPU team in thwarting user-controlled teams' offensive and defensive schemes and scoring opportunities. Make sure there is a difficulty level for those people who want to play a fairly competitive game where the outcome depends on some level of proficient gameplay and skill without calling on them to make a tremendous commitment in time and energy to solving the game at higher difficulty levels.

4. Fighting: Some people love it, some people hate it. That fact is that not since NHL 93 did it mean much (you could injure an opposing player). Indeed, against the CPU in NHL 98 and 99 you may be able to dupe the CPU into stupid mistakes (although the same is true of CPU-controlled fighters in NHL 99). If you enjoy mashing buttons, fine. But please realize that a cheap boxing game is not worth much. Issues of injury, intimidation, and momentum are.

5. Bells and Whistles: Where have all the hats gone? What about the post-game celebrations, handshake lines, and skating around with the Cup (or conference trophies)? If you stop hard, do you throw up some ice shavings? Will the game say the name of your created player if it is one of those stored in a bank of names (as in NCAA, Madden, and Gameday)? And I confess that I miss the "around the league" feature in the old EA games--"We now take you to Nassau Coliseum, where, much to our astonishment, the Islanders are making a bid to climb out of last place . . . "

6. Game management issues: Let's hope that everyone follows EA and 989 in making saving and loading straightforward. EA allows you to save rosters separately (and the NHL series is far superior to its Madden counterpart when it comes to memory card management). Let's also hope that we can see a complete set of regular season final stats before going on to the playoffs (again, kudos to EA and 989; shame on Powerplay 98). And at least EA has in the past offered players a way (sometimes a roundabout one) of editing player uniform numbers. I'd also love it if the CPU-controller teams offered to trade with me (Hey, Mike Milbury, got some stars you want to dump?). Finally, we in Phoenix will be disappointed if a game does not allow star players to hold out for bigger salaries, even when they are still under contract, and if it doesn't include general managers who sometimes confuse being stubborn with being intelligent.

7. Stats and Bugs: Although NHL 93 had stat-tracking bugs (most players could tally only 63 goals, for example), it was NHL 95 that introduced the famed 127-point bug (a team earning more than 127 points found out that its total returned to zero). The same sort of bug appears on some stat-tracking packages for plus/minus (FaceOff 99, for example): exceed +126, and you go to -126. Oops! Learn how to award assists; don't litter leader boards with backup goalies (least goals against). Let's see if companies have actually played (not simmed) their games through entire seasons to see what crops up.

Over the next six weeks we'll see what happens. Drop the puck!

Brooks Simpson 8/31/99

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