NHL 98 (PSX) Review
Publisher: EA Sports
By: Cory McDonall
NHL 98 is the highly anticipated addition to the famous NHL
Hockey series from EA Sports. As a traditional sequel, it does not break any
barriers. It does, however, improve upon an already solid series of games.
During your first load of the game, the rocking opening and great clips of NHL
action really get you into the game.
Presentation/Graphics : 80
The improved polygon-driven graphics engine is the strongest
graphical selling point of the game. True, the graphics excel, but the game's
setup dampens the enjoyment the "3D" splendor. Almost every camera angle
showcasing the graphics screws up playability. The angles just aren't well
thought out, and I found myself always switching to the overhead views (usually
the "ice" camera). The "ice" camera is the same basic camera angle which has
been used by EA Sports since NHL Hockey 92 for the Genesis. In other words,
the smooth-looking polygon players end up looking like 2D sprites. "Auto Zoom," which
zooms in on the action in the slot and in the crease, is a good idea, but I
found it distracting at times. It just needs a little refinement. On the
plus side, the polygons vastly improve the replays, and the 3D modeled arenas
and the in-game close-ups of players lend a sense of realism to the game.
It's cool to see Curtis Joseph stretching in the crease, or Brendan Shanahan
pounding on the glass after being tossed in the "sin-bin."
Presentation/Audio : 88
As usual with the Playstation, the sound is excellent. The sounds of
skates scraping the ice, shots rebounding off the glass and pucks ringing off
the post are all authentic, even to a serious hockey fan like myself.
Bodychecks sound like they hurt, and the grunts of penalized players are
funny, and reflect the sentiments that a banished hockey player would feel
(believe me, I know). The music is typical video game rock, nothing ingenious
or interesting, but it doesn't detract from the game. One of the more
interesting sound issues is the play-by-play. The idea of accurate p/p
entices any sports fan, but EA Sports does not pull it off properly. Jim
Hughson, Vancouver Canucks p/p man (being a Canucks fan, I'm appreciative of
his work) and Dallas Stars color man Daryl Reaugh are an interesting pair, and
would be quite entertaining in real life. Unfortunately, Jim is chronically
behind the play, saying "Bure passes the puck!" 2 seconds after the pass was
made, and sometimes making the wrong call, resulting in confusion as to why
Bure would "pass" the puck to an opposing defenseman, when he just lost
control of it. The worst aspect of the play-by-play is the little, offhand
"conversations" that Jim and Daryl have. Often, these little talks are,
unintentionally, the funniest moments in the game. While Jim and Daryl's lame
jokes fall on the wayside, the multiple mistakes are enough to keep the play-
by-play turned to "on." These quotes might only make sense to an NHL diehard,
but hearing a "TV" color man say "When he gets hot, he's almost unstoppable"
about Craig Berube, or "You'll sure win some games with a GAA THAT GOOD!"
about Guy Hebert, when his GAA (because of faulty stats keeping) is a
staggering 23.87, are enough to give even the most casual hockey fan a laugh.
The play-by-play attempt was valiant however, and not enough to lower the
quality of the audio.
Interface/Options : 81
Designers improved the game menu over NHL 97. It is easy to use,
well laid out, and utilizes a "help" button if you get confused. Saving
games, rosters and user files is easy and fast, as is loading. One problem I
had (before I got the hang of it) was loading the roster and the season files
before play, which would completely changes my lines and roster in my season.
After redoing my lines numerous times, I finally (after much head scratching)
realized that the whole season file contains rosters and the actual
season...my bad :) Load times are not excessive, but can get annoying if you
play multiple games. The in-game interface, which is second to none, gives the ability
to change lines, defensive and offensive strategies and camera angles, all
with the press of an "L" or "R" button. This adds a new dimension to a hockey
game, as you can decide, mid-shift, to play the dreaded neutral-zone trap, or
to get more aggressive on the forecheck. One of the stranger aspects of the
game, which I suspect is memory-card related, is the poor statistics keeping.
How many goaltenders would be playing in the NHL with a career Goals Against
Average of 23.87? According to NHL 98, most goalies, which compounds the
often hilarious play-by-play (see Audio).
Gameplay : 92
EA games usually shine at gameplay, and NHL 98 holds to that
standard. The controls are tight, especially with the top skating players.
This is the first NHL Hockey game where I felt in control of what area of the
net my shot would go if I aimed it. Deking is still the money play,
particularly deking to the backhand. Passing also seems to be more intuitive,
but would be improved with the addition of an icon-passing system, proven
effective in the NHL Faceoff series of games. A few complaints... It seems
you get punished for being fast around the net. What does it say when Donald
Brashear has a better or equal chance of scoring from 10-15 feet out than
Pavel Bure does? Of course, speed gets you (with unfortunate regularity) many
2 on 1 breakaways, and 1 on 1's, which usually become low-down breakaways.
The problem with speed down low comes from having to jam on the speed burst
button causing you to lose control of a fast player as he approaches the net.
Bodychecking is also a pet peeve. The checks are just too insane, and players
recover too quickly from MASSIVE hits. A guy will go through the glass and hop
back over the boards 1 second later to take the faceoff. I've often finished
games with 70 bodychecks attributed to my team, while an average NHL game has
no more than 20-30 hard checks between both teams. Goalie control is,
disappointingly, as simple as ever. Save is 1 button push, and you don't even
have to press the d-pad to whatever side the shot is on: it is automatic.
Goalie control is beneficial for stopping icings and making breakout passes,
but not much else.
Difficulty : 75
This has been, and probably always will be, my main problem with
the NHL series. Anyone who has played an NHL game knows, that when you get it
home, you lose a couple of games because your old tricks don't work anymore.
However, the learning curve isn't too steep, and after 5-10 games, on All-star, I was
giving Team Russia 9-2 ass-whuppings courtesy of Team England (tip: Nick
Brain is the UK's "go to" man). This really hurts the replay value and the
season mode. Who really wants to play a season of 82 games, when after the
10th game, the challenge is lost? The main solution I see to this, one that
will probably never happen, is adding an in-game Ratings Editor, allowing you
to alter player ratings to your liking, much like the PC version (with a 3rd
party ratings editor). The argument against a ratings editor is cheating to
make the game easier. To that I say, "Let them." If a certain number of
players want to spoil the challenge of a $60 game, so be it. I, and most
players I know, would use a ratings editor to make the game harder. An
example is what I did to my PC version of NHL 98. Once it got too easy, I
made every goalie in the league (aside from mine) really good. When that
still didn't stop huge scores, I made every player in the league (except mine)
100's in Offensive and Defensive Awareness, checking, size, intensity, endurance. This
added a couple of extra months of fun, challenging gameplay, which would have
been lost without a ratings editor. Once again, to get real fun out of a
sports game...2 player is the only way to go.
Overall : 83
The graphics, while not spectacular, are smooth and detailed (except
for that one unshaven guy's face. How much more work would it have been to
add actual player faces, like the PC version?) The interface and menu systems
are solid, and don't detract from the game. Gameplay is great, typical of EA
Sports, though it could be tweaked just a little. The audio, with the
music, sfx and play-by-play, adds to the atmosphere of the game. The biggest
disappointment in NHL 98 is the difficulty, or lack thereof; a simple ratings
editor could remedy this. In the meantime, play the game with a buddy if you
want to experience the real enjoyment.
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