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NHL 99 (PC) Review

Publisher: EA Sports

Background Info

EA Sports' NHL '98 was hailed by many as the best sports game of all time on any platform. Now that the '98-'99 hockey season is about to begin, it's time for EA to attempt the daunting task of outdoing itself with NHL '99. Have they succeeded? Read on.

Presentation/Graphics : 95
It's difficult to imagine that the graphics in '98 could possibly be improved upon, but somehow, the wizards at EA have accomplished that feat. The players are so realistic and detailed that you'll have no trouble distinguishing your favorite stars merely by looking at their faces. They have been scaled to their real sizes, and uniforms and helmets are visually perfect right down to the plastic shields protecting their faces.

Arenas look absolutely stunning and boast realistic looking fans in the bleachers, championship banners in the rafters and readable, interactive score boards that show even out-of-town scores. On the ice, players spray ice shards at the walls when they stop suddenly, bone-crunching checks send skaters through the glass, ice conditions deteriorate as the game goes on, and the drab player shadows of years past have been replaced with amazing ice reflections

All told, the graphics are stellar and need to be seen to believed. EA continues to boast the best graphics of any company out there in the sports market, period.

Presentation/Audio : 92
EA was the first to implement the new "dual-commentary" aspect in all of their recent sports titles and once again Jim Hughson and Darryl Reaugh are back calling the action. Most of the banter is the same as last year, but a surprising amount of content has been added. Hughson now chimes in with out-of-town scores, and tidbits about players' careers have been updated. Reaugh is back with his color commentary and he does his job admirably although some of his comments make no sense. For example, once he said that "Joe Sakic was just starting to get used to his new surroundings," even though Sakic has been with the Avalanche since their Quebec years. This doesn't detract from the game, but it is a little strange.

Gone is the annoying rink announcer of years past that showed little to no enthusiasm. Unfortunately, he's been replaced by an equally uninspiring announcer. Ok, maybe he's not that bad, but it's too bad they couldn't have had him get pumped up when announcing home-team goals, but no such luck. I'm getting pretty picky here because even though the announcer is bland, he still sounds better than the announcers in any other hockey game to date.

Rink and crowd effects are top-notch as always. The crowd reacts to tense moments nicely with ooh's and ahh's and such rink effects as slap shots and body checks ring through with incredible clarity.

Interface/Options : 98
The interface in '99 is virtually flawless. When someone thinks of an EA Sports title, they know that the interface will be excellent, but what I'm seeing in NHL '99 is absolutely awe-inspiring. Let's begin with the introduction movie, shall we? A minute-plus of real-life hockey actions leads seamlessly into the glorious NHL '99 logo. Then, once you get to the main menu, your eyes are treated to endless gameplay and management options all decked out with little movies that play as you hover over them with the mouse cursor. Everything from setting up a control configuration to viewing the credits is amazingly simple and intuitive, and you'll marvel at the animations and the lack of significant load-times. Chalk up another wonderful interface in an EA Sports game.

Gameplay : 86
Although flashy intros and player graphics may greatly improve a game, ultimately, they don't actually make or break the title. It all comes down to the gameplay, and, luckily, EA has addressed this issue by not sitting tight on last year's game engine, but by actually improving it immensely. This is evident as soon as the puck is dropped. Smooth animation graces the ice as the players fire slapshots from the blue line or feather it into the boards for a line change. The game runs at an impressive clip and the speed of the game, although possibly a little too fast, gets your mojo running.

Offensively, especially on harder difficulty settings, passing early and often is your best strategy. I learned the hard way that attempting to carry the puck all the way in with one player will get you nothing more than a sore back and a face full of ice shards. Brisk, deliberate passing and a good gameplan will leave you open for some high-percentage shots and scoring on that beautiful give-and-go play is a truly gratifying experience.

On defense, it is important to keep your player from being too offensive minded. Often times, instead of taking a sharp angle and attempting to level the puck handler, it is more prudent to skate backwards in front of him and attempt to block the shot. Success all stems from the type of player you are and your coaching strategies.

Coaching strategies from former Colorado Avalanche head-coach Marc Crawford were initially released in NHL '98. EA has expanded their horizons in this area to include several helpful new additions. There are now even more coaching schemes to choose from for just about every situations imaginable. With all of the available options, players are sure to find a scheme that fits their style of play. While last year, the coaching options didn't seem to work, you'll have to change them accordingly in-game if you're behind or ahead. For example, if you find yourself down a couple goals late in the third period, you may want to switch your strategy to "crash the net" and hope for some rebound opportunities. If you're up a goal or two, you may want to tone-down the aggressiveness of your defense and try to keep the puck out of your zone. Players actually do respond realistically to these settings and managing your team does have a great deal to do with your success.

While the flashy "coaching options" menu offers animated diagrams for each of the coaching schemes showing you how they work, nothing beats practicing them against real opponents. A great new feature this year allows you to do just that. Coaching drills allow you to practice your play in just about any situation. You can practice power-play situations, two- or three-on-one's, and even breakaways if you're so inclined. I actually found these practice sessions to be quite helpful as I kept getting spanked by the computer opponent. You can even try these sessions against any team in the league. Therefore, even though you seem to be having success against a no-name goalie, things might be different against "the Dominator."

As far as moves go, there is an astonishingly long list available, assuming you have the right controller. On offense you can perform regular passes, clearing passes (passes that clear the puck from your own end), speed bursts, dump-ins, one-timers, give-and-go's, drop passes, quick wristers, blistering slap shots, fakes, dekes, and even special moves for star players. Defensively, you can perform poke, hip, and body checks, speed bursts, dives, dropping to your knees to block a shot, hooks, and more. If you have exceptionally good hand-eye coordination, you can also make line-changes on-the-fly, pull or return your goalie, and adjust coaching strategies all in real-time. Just about every move in hockey is just a button press away and you will always feel in total control of your team.

On the options front, NHL '99 offers the full ability to trade and edit players, sign free agents, play through a whole season, edit lines and strategies, and even perform an expansion draft. Yes, the Nashville Predators are included in the game and it allows you to conduct a full draft for them. This feature is handy since their roster hasn't been set in stone yet. Statistics in every imaginable category are kept and from what I've seen so far, they represent the other teams and players very well.

No game is perfect and although EA has come pretty darn close with NHL '99, there are a few quibbles. First and foremost, there are still WAY too many odd-man rushes and breakaways for each team every game. A bona-fide, real-life breakaway may actually happen once a game in the NHL. Here, you can expect a good five to ten breakaways per game for each team. This has always been a flaw in the NHL series, but strangely, this problem seems only to get worse instead of better with each passing year. Also, with all the bells and whistles available, the game can be pretty taxing on your PC. The full install devours a whopping 550 MB of hard drive space and the fact that you did a full install doesn't guarantee smooth gameplay. With my AMD K6-2 300 MHz-based PC with 64 MB RAM and an 8-MB Voodoo2 card, I still had to turn down the detail of both the players and arenas, as well as ditch the lighting effects and reflections to get what I considered to be an acceptable frame rate. The game still ran relatively smoothly with everything jacked up to the highest detail, but I'd trade a little glitz for a few more FPS any day. Another minor qualm is the fact that the goalies are still super-human and make amazing save after amazing save. This isn't so bad though as it balances out the effect of the overabundance of odd-man rushes. As a result, you'd be hard-pressed to score more than four goals a game and that's just where it should be. Fights are still pretty dull and annoying so you'll be turning them off quickly. They happen too frequently and take quite some time to complete. I do, however, turn them on when my team (the Avalanche) takes on the Red Wings so I can bloody Darren McCarty with Claude Lemieux. Hehehe...isn't hockey a great sport? Overall, these few complaints are very minor and the game's good points outweigh the bad points by a large margin.

Difficulty : 72
Being a veteran of the NHL series, (I've bought every game since the initial release of the Sega Genesis was released) there are a couple of negative AI issues that I expect to see in the series. Last year it was the "hold shoot down as you pass in front of the goalie" trick and double-juke goals on breakaways. You won't find a way to score "cheap" goals in NHL '99 and that's the way it should be. Unfortunately after a few games on any difficulty setting above Rookie, you'll wish you could find a way to score - any way. That brings me to the largest downer in NHL '99 - the insane difficulty. No one likes a push-over of a game, but this is utterly ridiculous. I've tried every coaching strategy, every line combination, and every level of aggressiveness but I still get beat by the computer 90% of the time. Slap shots are completely ineffective - you may as well be firing at a brick wall. One timers look nice but are equally worthless. The only way to score in NHL '99 is to get a lucky rebound or deflection, or perform an amazing juke-job on a breakaway. This is all-the-more frustrating considering the computer scores on weak slapshots from the blue line or when they dump the puck in to change lines, and the puck, not traveling more than 5 MPH, squirts through your goalie's legs. It's too bad that such a stellar game could be brought down by the AI, but that is the case here. You had better either be an NHL-series expert (which I thought I was before playing this game), or have a very large amount of patience to beat the computer AI on a regular basis.

Overall : 84
EA Sports has the makings of another winner on their hands with NHL '99. Everything about the game is top-notch and fans of the series will not be disappointed. Unfortunately, the frustration level and the inability to win or even score really brings this title down.

By: Tim Maxwell 10/3/98

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