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NHL 98 (PSX) Review

Publisher: EA Sports

Background Info

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 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.

By: Cory McDonall

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