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NHL Faceoff 99 (PSX) Review

Publisher: 989 Sports
Release Date: November 1998

Background Info

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery then, like most of the rest of us, it appears that the good folk over at 989 Studios were mighty impressed with NHL 98. While not the first game to employ two man commentary and TV-style presentation, few would argue that NHL 98 took it to another level. Not to be outdone, 989 have taken a shot at replicating NHL 98's wonderful atmosphere. But did they remember to include a hockey game?

Presentation/Graphics : 82
Faceoff 99's graphics are easily one of its strongest suits: bright, colorful, and eye-pleasing. From the moment you enter the arena, greeted by the closing strains of the national anthem, you can't help but notice how much the look and presentation resembles NHL 98. That said, I was not immediately taken with the graphics in Faceoff. I've grown to like them more but, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, I still prefer the overall graphical look of NHL 98. However, anyone who's played NHL 99 will immediately notice that Faceoff's graphics run faster and smoother. Moreover, Faceoff 99 includes authentic recreations of all NHL arenas, something neither NHL 98 nor 99 can claim. Other little touches include working scoreboards with video display, ice surfaces that reflect arena lighting, and glass that shakes as players crash into the boards (though a little unrealistically to my eye). In another nod to the presentation of NHL 98, the camera will provide a shot of the arena during stoppages in play. Occasionally, there is a delay while the CPU loads the next shot, causing the screen to go blank. It's a little disconcerting when it happens and makes you wonder whether the game has frozen.

The polygonal players look quite good, if a little on the blocky side. There are some good animations on display here, but they're somewhat limited in variety. EA continues to hold an edge in the area of motion capture. One of the revelations for me in NHL 98 was that, for the first time in a sports game, the players seemed alive; always moving or fidgeting in some way. The way the players animate in Faceoff is not quite as convincing. In fact, there are times when players don't move at all. This is particularly noticeable with the goalies. When a goalie takes possession of the puck in the crease, he just stands there, frozen like a statue. If you've ever played an older table top hockey game, the type with the flat metal players, picture the goalie. That's exactly what Faceoff's goalie looks like in that situation. What's more, he remains frozen even when moving him from side to side, making him look even more like that table top goalie. The resemblance is uncanny.

Faceoff 99 can be played from several views. The default, while a little close, is quite good; as is the next higher view. While others are available, most gamers should be well satisfied with either one of these two.

Presentation/Audio : 80
Faceoff 99's audio package is really a mixed bag. Again, it is very similar to NHL 98's in most respects, but not as good in any. Commentary is provided by play-by-play man Mike Emrick and color commentator Darren Pang. If not for NHL 98, these guys may have sounded better. As it is, they sound neither as natural nor as seamless as their NHL 98 counterparts (who don't sound as good as themselves in NHL 99, so go figure). Emrick and Pang do have their moments though. When a player has a great scoring chance in tight, Emrick's voice rises in anticipation as he calls the player's name. Cool! Pang does a great job of summarizing the play after a goal and describing the replay. Other times though, the commentary sounds either stilted or way out of context. For example, in one of my early games on Rookie level, I built a 7-1 lead. Several times over the space of a few minutes Pang came out with "They're starting to dominate a bit." Starting?! A bit?! There are also periodic glitches in the commentary where it will skip a little or, more amusing, will be treated to a little of the reverb normally reserved for the PA announcer. The PA guy himself does a good job, but for some reason doesn't announce every goal. Why not?

Crowd sounds are very quiet until the home team scores then they perk up momentarily before dying back down. There is a specific chant for every team but it sounds more like a chorus performed by a dozen drunks at the local sports bar than a crowd of 20,000.

Sound effects aren't bad as long as they don't involve the puck. The sound of a stick hitting the puck is a tick as opposed to a thwack. The same sound effect is used when the puck bounces off the boards. It sounds more like a game of crokinole than hockey. On the plus side, skating, and hits sound good, as does ringing a shot off the post.

Music, both menu and in-game, is very good. In terms of the music played during stoppages, think NHL 98. I know it's different, but man it sure sounds similar.

Interface/Options : 87
Typical of 989's sports games, Faceoff 99 features a very fast, efficient, and logically arranged menu interface. However, it has none of the visual panache of, say, MLB 99. Faceoff's menus are among the most visually boring you're likely ever to lay eyes on. Still, it's what's under the hood that counts, and here the game shines. It's bing, bang, boom, and you're ready to start a game.

Faceoff 99 is fairly limited in terms of depth and options when compared to its rival, NHL 99. Game modes include the expected Exhibition Game, Season, and Playoffs. A nice inclusion is 'Multi-Team,' which allows more than one team to be controlled in the same season. However, if you're looking to play a tournament with world teams, you won't find it here.

The usual trade/release/sign player functions are here, along with a decent create player option (though it doesn't match the depth of the one in NHL 99). Game length can only be set in 5, 10 and 20 minute periods, and the game can be tailored by turning fights, injuries, and various rules on or off. When a player is injured you are notified immediately how long he will be out. A most welcome feature.

Faceoff 99 provides the option to tune game speed on a scale of 0-100. Very nice. This feature should be standard equipment in all sports games. The default speed of 50 (duh!) felt quite good to me, but I'm sure many gamers will prefer it either faster or slower.

Once into a game, you can speed things along by hitting the triangle button after the end of a play. Doing so will bypass the look at the arena during stoppages and take you directly to the ensuing Faceoff. A nice touch indeed.

Fans of the NHL series will feel right at home with the control layout in Faceoff 99: it's virtually identical. Unlike the NHL games, however, you aren't prompted to change lines during stoppages in play. In order to call up the line change menu, it's necessary to press and hold the R2 button. This is unfortunate because, with no reminder, it's very easy to forget to change lines during a stoppage and get caught with a tired line on the ice. Lines are selected in the same manner as NHL, with each line being associated to a controller button. It's a good system but poorly executed in this case because, about half the time, it just doesn't work. You'll press R2 and select your line, but for some unknown reason, it doesn't take. Since there's no visual or aural confirmation of the line change, there's no way of knowing this until you Faceoff. Very frustrating.

Icon passing has been included for those gamers who wish to take advantage of it, and it works well. How much this adds to the game will be a matter of personal taste. I find that directional passing works very well and is far more intuitive and simple than the icon-based scheme.

Stat tracking seems good overall, but there are too many occasions where goals are credited as unassisted and the replay clearly shows that at least one assist should have been awarded.

Gameplay : 65
It's in the critical area of gameplay that Faceoff 99 begins to show some serious warts. While NHL 99 has moved more towards being a simulation (albeit with mixed results), Faceoff makes a noble effort to balance simulation elements with arcade-style fun, much as NHL 98 did. While it was clear from the outset that Faceoff is no NHL 98 in terms of gameplay, it put a smile on my face when I first started playing as I roared up and down the ice against the relaxed AI of Rookie level, learning how to blast slapshots, and generally having fun; in spite of the obviously loose control. As I mastered Rookie level and moved up to Veteran, with its uncompromising AI, Faceoff's control became more problematic. Anyone who has ever skated will know that, as fast as a sharp metal blade is capable of moving on ice, there's still resistance. In Faceoff, this isn't modeled properly. While skating forward and back feels fine, moving laterally doesn't. At all. Your players are capable of covering great distances in a hurry when controlling them from side to side. It's almost as though they're floating. This makes it very easy to take a well positioned defender right out of a play when moving to take out a rushing winger, and very difficult to regain possession of the puck under opposition pressure in your own end. The control isn't nearly as precise as it needs to be.

Shooting works well once you become accustomed to how long to hold the shot button for either a wrist or slap shot. Checking is a little dicier, especially as you move up in difficulty, but this is more an issue of AI than control.

Fights break out with predictable regularity, but look kind of foolish. Thankfully they're over in a hurry, with the victorious combatant raising an arm in triumph. What drove me to turn them off though, is that it always seems to be the guys least likely to fight in real life that decide they want to tangle in the game. Ugh! And what about garden-variety penalties? Where the heck are they? Any hockey fan knows that powerplays are an important part of the game. Not in Faceoff 99. I went a stretch of 6 or 7 games with a grand total of two penalties called (okay, one was a double-minor). That's total, as in both teams. And I was playing 20 minute periods. I played a game the other night where four penalties were called (two a side). That's happened once and is still far below what you'd expect in a real game. It's nothing to play a 20 min. period game and not witness a single minor penalty call. A monumental oversight.

Another significant oversight is the fact that your team is composed of only three lines. What team in the NHL plays an entire season with three lines? It's great that you have a roster of over 20 players, but it sure would be nice to make use of them. On the upside, and speaking of rosters, props to 989 for including some rookies. How nice it was to see Marian Hossa on the Senators roster.

Video reviews of questionable goals have been included, but on closer review via replay, the judgments seem more random than anything. I saw one goal where the player was standing fully in the crease when he scored, and no review was called. Fair enough. Another time, a review was called when a guy's skate brushed the crease. No goal. Colorado's Valeri Kamensky scored a goal on me the other night and it went to review. The goal was disallowed. The replay showed that Kamensky had a toe in the crease. It also showed that Ottawa's Wade Redden scored the goal!

A word about the game clock - it moves fast. This has the benefit of making it possible to play a game in short order, especially when using the triangle button to eliminate delays during stoppages in play. It does have its downsides though. Pulling your goalie with a minute to go is scarcely enough time to get the puck into the opposing zone let alone mount an attack, and powerplays (what few there are) are over before you know it. This also affects the energy of your lines. No sooner do you get your line on the ice before its energy bar is drained. Short shifts indeed. The fast clock also serves to mask just how askew the game stats are. If it's possible to get off 100 shots on goal (and it is - see Difficulty) when the clock moves this quickly, imagine how many you might take in real time. This points to just how wide open Faceoff 99 really is.

Difficulty : 50
Faceoff 99 offers three difficulty settings: Rookie, Veteran, and All-Star. I tried them all, playing games as the Senators using 20 min. periods, and observing changes in AI and statistics.

After a couple of games on Rookie level to get acclimated to the control, I broke through in my third game, winning 14-2. It was in that game that I realized by moving your player laterally through the slot and letting fire, you can score virtually at will. I outshot my opponent in that game 132-13. I played one more game on Rookie to compare, this time against Montreal. The results were similar - a 15-1 win and shot advantage of 138-8 (including an astounding 44-0 in the 1st period). Time to move up to Veteran.

A whole different can of worms up on Veteran level, let me tell you. Let's take a look at a couple of games against Colorado to illustrate. In the first, a 5-0 loss, the Avalanche outshot me 99-35 and outchecked me by almost identical numbers. At least three of those goals were directly attributable to deplorable goalie AI (which I'll discuss in a minute). Replaying the same game, this time a 9-1 loss (featuring, count 'em, six goals by Peter Forsberg), produced similar numbers in terms of shots, checks, and gaffes by my goalie. On closer examination the stats tell you that, despite the miscues, the goalie maintained a very realistic save percentage in the 90-95% range but, by virtue of the unrealistic shot count, the games were lopsided. Move up to All-Star and the shot and check totals remain the same, but your goalie's save percentage drops. So, why are the shot counts so high? Because the other team is pounding you into the ice literally 100 times a game. Unfortunately, try as you may, it's not possible to return the favor. That's what passes for difficulty in Faceoff 99. The other culprit is AI or, more specifically, lack thereof.

One of the things that becomes evident very early on in Faceoff 99 is that the goalies refuse to stay in their net. They play every puck regardless of situation. The other team will ice the puck and your goalie will chase it down in the corner, negating the call. The opposition, on a rare powerplay, will dump the puck into the corner where two penalty-killers await and the goalie will dash out of the crease and into the corner to play the puck. I saw Patrick Roy, more than once, play a puck in the middle of the Faceoff circle. Typical goalie behaviour on surrendering a rebound is to vacate the crease area immediately, leaving the shooter with a gaping net. These guys simply will not remain between the pipes. What's worse is that once they get the puck, they have no idea what to do with it. Trying to pass the puck with the goalie in this game is an exercise in exasperation. What happens then when your goalie makes a save in the crease and you want to clear it to keep the play moving? More often than not it winds up on an opposing player's stick and, ultimately, in your net. So, to avoid this, you sit on it. Again and again. I must have had 15 such stoppages in a single period of a game against Colorado on Veteran level the other night. They had me hemmed in my own end, would get a shot, the goalie would make the save, sit on it, and force a Faceoff. It happened time after time. Some fun.

The AI of the rest of your players is better, but not by a whole lot. The defencemen in particular are unpredictable in your own zone. They can be in good position at the beginning of a rush and out in left field by the time you want to grab control of one. Likewise, a backchecking forward will be in a position to make a defensive play only to skate right on by a man in the slot leaving him an open shot or clear path to the net.

Overall : 73
Faceoff 99 does several things right. The graphics and sound, despite some flaws, are very good. Same goes for the interface. However, the near total absence of penalties, imprecise control, and horrid AI render the game almost unplayable, at least for this reviewer. Still, I think there's room in the market for the kind of hockey game that Faceoff 99 is trying to be. The success of NHL 98 is testament to that. With EA moving further into simulation territory with NHL 99, 989 Sports has an opportunity to fill the void and become as competitive in the hockey wars as their Gameday series is in football. It will take a similar effort to what they've invested in Gameday before that's likely to happen though, and Faceoff 99 isn't it.

By: Pete Anderson 10/24/98

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