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NHL 99 (PSX) Review

Publisher: EA Sports

Background Info

With the release of last year's NHL 98, EA Sports delivered what many sports gamers considered to be the best video hockey game ever. Improving on the venerable NHL Hockey series in every way imaginable, NHL 98 combined dazzling TV-style presentation, unparalleled sound and commentary, and gameplay that deftly straddled the line between arcade and realism. Its broad appeal easily won it widespread acclaim as not only the best hockey game of the year but, perhaps, the best sports game ever. Thanks to the resounding success of NHL 98, NHL 99 has been one of the most hotly anticipated sports titles the Playstation has ever seen. As good as NHL 98 was, it also had its share of faults, most notably some spotty defensive AI and a nasty injury bug that caused customized lines to reset. So, has EA merely tweaked what was wrong with NHL 98, or have they coughed up the puck in their own end? The answer lies somewhere in between.

Presentation/Graphics : 80
Let's get this out of the way right off the top: NHL 99's framerate is choppy, no two ways about. Now, is this a game-killer? For some it most certainly will be, others will have little difficulty adjusting. For my part, while I wish the game ran as fast and smooth as its predecessor, I don't find that the framerate interferes with playability. Still, it's a problem that should have been addressed and corrected before the game was released.

The graphical look of NHL 99 is similar to NHL 98 in most ways, but the presentation has changed. Each game is now preceded by a video fly-in sequence, but the pre-game presentation (anthem, goalie introductions, commentary) remains the same. It's between plays where the biggest difference becomes noticeable. The camera pans to a shot of the arena and that's it. The innovative camera work of NHL 98 which provided player close-ups, ice level shots of the players hopping over the boards, and so on, is missing in action. Everything is viewed from a little farther away in NHL 99, and that serves to distance you from the action. In addition, the transition between cameras can be quite jerky at times, and that lends a disjointed feel to the proceedings.

NHL 99 offers a similar assortment of camera views to NHL 98. However, for some inexplicable reason, EA chose to pan the popular Ice Cam further back this year. It's still quite playable (especially with Auto-Zoom on), but why change it in the first place? It's indicative of the approach that EA took with NHL 99 and is but one of many changes that are likely to confound fans of NHL 98.

NHL 99 also looks a little drab in comparison to NHL 98. I think this is attributable to the textured ice surface that EA have used this year. Gone are the player shadows and lighting reflections of last year's version. I could be wrong here, but I strongly suspect that the marked up ice surface contributes to bogging down the framerate.

The players are pretty much indistinguishable from those of NHL 98 in that they still look a little blocky. How nice it would be to see players as smooth and substantial as those of Madden 99 created for NHL 2000. Dare to dream. One significant change in player appearance is that they no longer all look like Paul Coffey. Instead they look like, well, no one really. You never see the players' faces close enough to be able to quite make them out, even by zooming in on a replay. Animations continue to be a strong point of the series, with several new goalie moves (including kick saves and sliding stops) standing out.

Presentation/Audio : 87
NHL 98's audio package set a new standard in sports game sound and NHL 99 largely continues the tradition. Sound effects are every bit as good if not better than last year with every hit, shot, and swish of a skate blade nicely localized in surround sound. Music is also much the same, featuring a rambunctious soundtrack over the menus and many of the same tunes as last year during gameplay. However, consistent with the scaled back presentation in other areas, you'll hear a little less of it throughout the course of a game.

Jim Hughson and Daryl Reaugh return to handle commentary, and much of what they have to say will sound familiar to gamers who played any amount of NHL 98. Jim Hughson will now point out when you've left a line on the ice a little too long (which is handy), and Daryl Reaugh describes replays of goals (in a manner which quickly becomes repetitive). Other than that, not much is new. In fact, the commentary has regressed in some ways. It no longer sounds as seamless and natural as it did the first time, and there are far fewer comments about individual players and teams. Still, it's better than just about any other sports game out there.

Interface/Options : 95
Anyone familiar with NHL 98 will feel quite comfortable with NHL 99's interface, both at the front end and in-game. It's still slowish in terms of load times, but quite intuitive considering the depth of options on tap. In addition to Exhibition, Season, Tournament (including national teams), and Shootout modes, NHL 99 adds Coaching Drills to the mix allowing you to work on specific aspects of your game. Roster management is as deep as ever with options to select and adjust coaching strategy, stock the Nashville Predators through an expansion draft, edit lines, trade and release players, and sign free agents. NHL 99 also features one of the better create player options I've seen in any sports game.

NHL 99 is every bit as feature-rich as NHL 98, and then some. For example, it's now possible to reconfigure controller functions. Included here is an undocumented 'slow down' function that provides slower but far more precise player control, and is very useful when setting up on the powerplay (with thanks to Dave D. for bringing this option to my attention). Other goodies include a speed game option to eliminate delays after stoppages, a shot meter that visually measures the force of a shot based on the players windup, and a very cool news page which tracks player injuries, hot and cold streaks, and suspensions. And, yes, the injury bug has been fixed! While it's now easy to tell who is injured, and when the injury occurred, there's still no indication of duration (at least not that I've been able to track down).

Gameplay : 82
NHL 99 plays very much like NHL 98 in most respects. The play moves a little slower (though still a little quick compared to the real thing), and control remains very good. Controller functions have been thankfully left alone, however the ability to poke check (other than with your goalie) has inexplicably been removed. The game now supports analog control and, as with most sports games, it's a big improvement over digital. Other improvements include players that don't wilt to the ice when you unintentionally run them into the boards, and far fewer goalie interference calls. Also, centermen will be now be tossed from the faceoff circle if they get too aggressive (though this happens a little too often). Referees will call for a video review if they think a player may have been in the crease when a goal was scored, and the resulting calls are usually right on the money based on what you can see for yourself from the replay. There are also a wider and more realistic variety of penalties called. I've even seen a couple of game misconducts assessed (fight instigator and spearing). These are all relatively minor enhancements but, together, they add to the realism of NHL 99.

Fighting is one aspect of the game that remains unrealistic. There are simply far too many of them. I averaged three per game in 10 minute periods. Fights seem to be limited to your two most aggressive players. This is an improvement over last year in that you don't have to worry about your skill players doing five minute stints in the penalty box; unless you're a Flyers fan that is. Based on the one game that I played against them, Eric Lindros and Chris Gratton were the two guys always looking to rumble. Aside from the unrealistic frequency with which fights break out, they don't look very good either. The players completely overlap one another before they square off and the animation isn't all that great once they start to go at it. All things considered, most gamers will likely prefer to turn fighting off.

Checking is another facet of the game that's unrealistically represented in NHL 99. Statistically speaking, checks are down from the abnormally high counts in NHL 98; trouble is, it actually feels like there are more of them. The problem lies with the fact that almost every hit knocks the player being checked off his feet. Unlike last year, far fewer hits result in a player losing the puck while keeping his feet, and momentum checks are much less effective. In NHL 99, bodies are constantly flying in every which direction. On several occasions, I've seen one player knock down two opponents at once. Not only does this bear little resemblance to reality, but it really disrupts the flow of the game and takes away from the fun.

Shooting has been improved thanks to the new manual aim option. This allows for more precise shot targeting, but also makes hitting the net less certain. However, it does have the benefit of keeping shot counts well below last year's inflated levels. Shot velocity has also been improved, making it possible to score on hard slapshots from the point or high slot area. The ability for your defensemen to score on a laser beam shot from just inside the blueline is one of the most welcome improvements in NHL 99. The puck has also been livened up considerably and is more prone to deflection. I've yet to score off of a deflection, but the puck does carom off the boards and glass realistically, and it's harder for defensemen to clear the puck out of the offensive zone without it being blocked by another player.

Stat tracking is deep and, for the most part, accurate. One exception is that, when playing 5 or 10 minute periods, games between CPU controlled teams will be simulated based on the same length. Given that 10 minute periods yield the most realistic scores and statistics in NHL 99, this results in unrealistically low player statistics for every team but your own. There is a workaround for this (and kudos to Steve Pallone for figuring it out), but it shouldn't be required. After all these years of sports games, you would have thought that EA would have recognized the problem and programmed around it.

Difficulty : 75
NHL 99 now offers four difficulty levels, the newest addition being a beginner level. However, most experienced players of the NHL series are likely to head straight to Pro level. It's here where you'll find the most balanced challenge, and it's here where I spent most of my time.

The first thing that many players are likely to notice about NHL 99 is that scoring is up - WAY up. I started by playing two games using 20 minute periods as Ottawa versus Colorado. I lost the first game 8-5, and the second 10-5; needless to say, not very realistic. Having played an alpha preview version of NHL 99 several weeks ago I found this odd because I remembered scoring as being more difficult than in NHL 98. I decided to replay the same game with the same settings using the preview copy to compare. The result? The Avs won 4-2 with their last goal into an empty net with :10 left. I also noticed that checking was far more realistic than in the final version.

NHL 99 seems to have been designed to be played using 10 minute periods. I played the first several games of the Senators season this way, and it's at this length that the most realistic scores are generated. I averaged just under 3 goals per game, and shots netted out at 26 aside. Sounds about perfect, right? Well, not quite - I gave up an average of 5.6 goals per game. If I were giving up a lot of shots that would be one thing, but I was playing pretty tight defense. The culprit seems to be goalie AI, specifically in terms of save percentage. Among NHL goalies who played 40 or more games last year, save percentages ranged between .880 and .920 (Hasek excepted). In the NHL 99 games I played, opposition goalies collectively maintained a save % of .890 - right on average. My goalie, on the other hand, could only manage a .785; almost 100 points below last year's worst NHL goalie.

Goalies notwithstanding, there have been some notable improvements in AI elsewhere, most significantly on the powerplay. It's now far easier to control the puck in the offensive zone and set up plays with the man advantage. Excellent! Also, CPU goalies are much smarter and less susceptible to giving up rebounds for easy scores. Although they seem to have a common weakness to high shots to their left, it's still difficult enough to exploit it with any consistency. Defensemen now stay in position to defend the oncoming rush as opposed to overcommitting like they did last year. They do have a tendency to get caught flat-footed at both blue lines though. They just don't react quickly enough to opposition breakouts and this often results in a quality scoring chance. The problem is compounded by the fact that breakaways and odd-man rushes are far too frequent. It also feels like CPU players are uncheckable at times, most often in the defensive zone. A defenseman can be perfectly positioned to make a play but, no matter what you do, the opposing player can't be taken out. What's worse is that trying to make the check often takes your player right out of the play and leaves the opposition with an even better scoring chance. Unfortunately, this doesn't cut both ways. The CPU players check like banshees at all times.

Overall : 84
As with every other game in the NHL series, I was stoked about the release of NHL 99. All NHL 98 needed was updated rosters, some fine tuning in AI, and the injury bug fixed. How disappointing, then, that EA chose to take a more radical approach to NHL 99. It's almost as though they ran out of time to finish what they set out to do, and NHL 99's lack of polish indeed makes it feel unfinished in many ways. However, while it lacks the glitz of NHL 98, at its core is a quite playable hockey game. The improvements in AI and several other features have enhanced realism, and this will undoubtedly appeal to the simulation crowd. Even as a simulation, though, NHL 99 falls short thanks to unrealistic scoring and checking. If you can get by this, and don't mind playing 10 minute periods with skewed stats, then you're likely to find lots to like about NHL 99. If the graphics, presentation, and wide-open play of NHL 98 were what turned you on, then chances are you won't. Either way, rent first, ask questions later.

By: Pete Anderson 10/26/98

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