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NHL Breakaway 99 (N64) Review

Publisher: Acclaim Sports

Background Info

Acclaim's initial entry into the world of professional ice hockey, Breakaway 98, received mixed reviews when it appeared for the Playstation; however, the Nintendo 64 version received more praise. After all, the only competition for N64 hockey was Williams/Midway's Wayne Gretzky series: players grew angry when they discovered that the second edition of the game and a special Olympic version were little more than warmed-over versions of their predecessor. Moreover, Electronics Arts had yet to release a hockey game for the N64. So Acclaim had the rink virtually to itself when it came to N64 hockey sims. Sure, EA would soon join the fray, but surely Acclaim would learn from its inaugural effort (and Williams/Midway's error) and put out a worthy second edition, right? Wrong.

Presentation/Graphics : 70/font>
Okay, so now it's Steve Yzerman, not Keith Tkachuk, who adorns the box cover. And the interface graphics have been overhauled. But it doesn't take long to discover that little else has changed. The players retain their Breakaway 98 appearance, limbs all akimbo as they move down the ice; their generic appearance includes face shields for everyone. The animations appear basically unchanged. Same goes for the generic rinks, although some of the on-ice graphics have been updated. Gee, isn't this the same company that gushes over the appearance of its Quarterback Club series? The game's graphics were acceptable last year; now, in light of EA's NHL 99's graphics, Breakaway 99 comes in a clear second.

Presentation/Audio : 50/font>
Once more a N64 game falls down when it comes to game audio, although it is worth noting that not all of the shortcomings are due to the limitations imposed by carts. Especially irritating is the in-game music. Don't the developers, designers, and playtesters know that when the puck is in play, the music is off? Nor are there rink-specific tunes and chants. Generic, generic, generic. There is no play-by-play announcer, and the PA announcer has a limited number of names to utter. Games sounds are uninspired at best.

Is there anything new in these observations that was not made about Breakwaway 98? No. Did Acclaim ponder making changes to Breakaway 98? Evidently not.

Interface/Options : 80/font>
The menus have been subjected to a face-lift, but nothing about them has changed (and this is nearly true of the rule book as well). Players can choose to participate in a practice, shootout, exhibition contest, season (choose from 82, 40, or 26 games), playoffs (variable lengths from one to a best of seven series), and international tourney play. This same flexibility is incorporated in game rules (period length, difficulty, goalie difficulty, overtime, line changes, fatigue, injuries, goalie control, penalties, offsides, icing, fighting, referee disposition, and so on; players can also set the volume for various effects, game speed, and visual enhancements for players who have trouble following the puck (hello, Fox!). Players may choose to control one skater or the puckhandler at all times. In short, the opportunities for customization are ample, and the separate difficulty levels for skaters and goalies is an added bonus.

Although there has been some tinkering with button assignments, especially for icon passing, the default controller layout remains much the same. Players can reassign the majority of functions. Although the game makes use of the rumble pack, the result does not add much to the player's experience. Memory card management also retains its rather straightforward approach and file sizes, allowing you to save settings, seasons, rosters, and user records.

While Breakaway 99, like its predecessor, offers users the opportunity to create players and manage rosters (trades, signings, releases), it has also retained (but not improved on) the options to draft and develop prospects and hire a coaching staff based upon the expenditure of bonus points earned during the course of a season. This is the only way to develop well-rounded created players with superstar ratings in most categories. Also reappearing is the next-to-useless "game event" option, in which users expend points to "buy" events (such as a promise of rough play, bearing down on defense, and so on). The impact of such purchases is often not readily apparent during gameplay. However, created players and prospects are not available to international teams, unlike the EA series--a shortcoming that Acclaim had ample opportunity to rectify. And there are a few minor roster goofs--for example, Jeremy Roenick of the Phoenix Coyotes wears number 97, not 96, on his back. Moreover, roster transactions can result in two players wearing the same jersey number for the same team--a problem with last year's game. Finally, as with other video hockey games, there are no classic teams--an omission that has gone on for too long.

Stat tracking is deep, and the game displays lengthy lists of league leaders; however, user-controlled players tend to have a rather lopsided ratio of goals to assists, for reasons explained below. There is also the usual assortment of season-ending awards.

On the whole, the game's interface options are welcome, but it is disappointing that Acclaim did not ponder new features or remedy shortcomings. Even the codes are the same.

Gameplay : 70
Again, nothing new to report here. The designers may have tweaked a few areas, but the game still plays as if it were Breakaway 98. The result is an adequate representation of a hockey game, with a few glaring exceptions. The CPU AI rarely mounts a sustained attack; balance is achieved by making CPU goalies into brick walls, compelling users to pepper the net with shots. One-timers can be particularly deadly. Game designers/developers have something to learn when it comes to assists, for it forgets to award them in most cases, such as the long lead passes that set up breakaways and 2-on-1 attacks--the best way to secure credit for an assist is to set up a one-timer. Too many contests between a human player and the CPU become run-and-gun contests in which the user time and again sets up the same combinations. At faster game speeds all sense of a real hockey game is lost; although users have a limited number of strategic options to employ, the net impact on gameplay is minimal. Icon passing is not essential, but it is useful. In short, although the game bears more than a passing resemblance to the real thing, it is not clear that the elaborate coaching and strategic options amount to much.

Difficulty : 70
There are multiple levels of difficulty, speed, and goalie skill, allowing players to tailor the game to their own preferences (but not allowing for handicapping a contest). However, the CPU does not offer the sort of compelling challenge found in a real game by playing hard on offense or defense; goalie skill is far more critical. Perhaps Dominick Hasek should be on the cover next year.

Overall : 70/font>
Although video game sports designers have now embraced the notion of annual editions of their games, it is only fair to judge each game in a series on its own merits, instead of looking at change for change's sake and mistaking that for improvement. Using that criteria Breakaway 99 offers players an interesting if flawed representation of hockey. However, Acclaim clearly blew an opportunity afforded by its early entry into the N64 hockey wars to improve upon Breakaway 98. Most players who own that game should think long and hard about spending their money on this one. Only those players who really want updated rosters and teams (remember that NHL expansion and realignment will continue, so you're going to be on the hook again next year) or who can't wait to play as or against the Nashville Predators and those players who passed on Breakaway 98 (which is now available at fairly low prices) may want to consider it. To date it has not been a good year for hockey on the N64, for EA's NHL 99 is a warmed-over version of the previous year's Playstation version (and also incorporates the flaws of that edition in its N64 release). Whether that situation will change before next season--if then--is far from clear.

By: Brooks Simpson 1/11/99

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