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NHL 99 (PSX) Hands-on Preview

Publisher: EA Sports

EA Sports are just about set to drop the puck on a new hockey season with the release of NHL 99, the follow-up to the phenomenally popular NHL 98. Many video hockey fans consider NHL 98 to be the best console sports game ever made, and have not so secretly wished that EA will tweak rather than overhaul it for '99. It looks as though that wish may be about to come true.

The key elements of the game in the alpha preview copy that I looked at are only 60-75% complete, but it's already apparent that all that was good about NHL 98 has been retained or improved. In addition, EA have included a raft of new features, many of which are sure to appeal to hardcore fans of the previous game.

The player and arena graphics, while only 75% complete, already look nearly as good as last year's. The animations have even further to go, but you wouldn't know it from playing this preview. There are some new goalie animations (diving saves, etc.) that really stand out. EA have also added their trademark stadium fly-ins to enhance presentation.

NHL 99 features analog control and is shock compatible. The control feels a little loose, not unlike NHL 98, but is overall quite good. It's hard to believe that it's only 60% tuned. Analog control is a very welcome addition but, while the shock function is there, it clearly still has a ways to go in terms of making it more context specific.

At this point, the game plays very much like NHL 98, not only in terms of control, but speed as well. Fortunately, your players no longer crumple to the ice when you crash them into the boards. Shot totals are still unrealistically high though thanks to the constant up and down nature of the play.

It's obvious that EA have invested serious effort in tweaking NHL 99's AI. This is evident throughout the game and, again, EA claim the preview version is only 60% of the way there. The CPU is already way harder to score upon and much more lethal offensively as well. Goaltenders are much stingier with rebounds, and that leads to fewer cheap goals. CPU controlled players are far more agressive and quick to jump on defensive lapses for scores. Defensemen are more alert in keeping the puck in the offensive zone, making it now possible to control the play and set up one-time shots from the point. It's still a little difficult to run an NHL-style powerplay and sustain pressure, but there's definitely been some improvement in this area. Hopefully, EA will tune this aspect of the game even further as they come down the stretch. The smarter AI also results in slightly quicker games as CPU players make a noticeable effort to stay onside resulting in fewer stoppages in play.

Apart from some lax AI, the bug that caused lines to reset after an injury was the most glaring fault of NHL 98. I'm pleased to report that EA have taken heed and corrected the "injury bug." You're also now informed of the duration of a player's injury, but it appears only once. After that initial notification you're only able to check the nature and date of the injury, not the length of time it will keep the player out of action (at least I couldn't find it). I hope EA correct this oversight prior to final release. Injuries are now listed as part of game summaries, as are players on hot/cold streaks and suspensions. All of this is summarized in a "News" section.

Another annoying aspect of NHL 98, the frequency of goalie interference calls, has been corrected. In over 150 minutes of play, I didn't draw one call despite some pretty agressive play. EA are including the "in the crease" rule in NHL 99, and it will be possible for a referee's call to be overruled by a video goal judge (though I didn't witness this in the preview).

Other new gameplay elements that are readily apparent are centermen being thrown out of the circle for jumping the gun on a face-off, and a far livelier puck in terms of bounces and deflections. The ability to flip the puck, missing in NHL 98, has also been brought back from previous editions of the series.

In addition to the expected 1997-98 roster updates and the inclusion of the expansion Nashville Predators, some of the more notable new features of NHL 99 are:

Ice texture that degrades over the course of the game and affects play (not apparent from the preview version)

A "speed game" option that eliminates delays after stoppages in play

Coaching Drills - essentially a practice mode that allows you to work on elements of your game such as one-on-ones

Auto Coaching--the CPU will automatically select the most appropriate strategy for the game situation for players not interested in selecting strategies on their own

International size ice surfaces (not apparent in preview version) and the option to resolve tie games by shoot out

Goalie Fights--These occur far too frequently (several times per game) in the preview and cannot be turned off independent from regular fights. Hopefully EA will either add this option or reduce the frequency of goalie fights dramatically prior to release.

On the audio side, NHL 99 looks to continue the standard set by NHL 98, if not exceed it. Jim Hughson and Daryl Reaugh return to do the commentary and, though it's not yet finished, there are plenty of new phrases that have been added to their repertoire and seem to be even more context-specific than last year. The music throughout is of similar style and quality to NHL 98.

All in all, NHL 99 is shaping up to be a more than worthy successor to NHL 98. It looks as though fans of last year's game really have something to look forward to. I know I am.

By: Pete Anderson

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