DOS - 1996
Also available on: Genesis
Description of NHL 97
Slap-shots and fights
Judging from past EA Sports titles, I had high hopes for NHL '97 . The first NHL Hockey was a hugely popular game on the Sega Megadrive and was converted some months later to the PC. This was around three years ago and it featured one almost top-down forced perspective viewpoint and VGA graphics. It was said at the time by some that the PC version was inferior in gameplay terms to the Megadrive original. As I only ever played the PC version I can't comment definitively, but I spent many enjoyable hours playing it, despite at the time having never really seen ice hockey being played or really knowing the rules. The manual was somewhat lacking on this subject and I don't think I was ever certain what icing was until reading the NHL '97 manual!
NHL '97 comes with both MS-DOS and Windows 95 (DirectX) versions on one CD. DirectX and Windows 95 seem to have something against ice hockey games - witness the problems with Virgin's NHL Powerplay '96. As it was this took a lot of persuading before it ran in Windows 95, needing the latest Matrox drivers, yet at least six other DirectX games have worked without problems with my previous drivers. Thankfully, I had no such problems with good old DOS, and as ever my nice standard PC at work with it's ubiquitous Soundblaster 16 worked fine in Windows 95. Anyway, I digress, the installation program is up to EA's usual slick standards and proceeded without a hitch, I chose the middle of three installation options ranging from 25 to 80-something megabytes.
The game starts with a pre-rendered sequence of some basketballs being melted down to make pucks and goalie masks. This is followed by a rapidly changing montage of action video clips. Then, there is a brief wait while some loading is done and then it's straight into a demo exhibition match. EA know all too well that the first impression that the game-player gets is a visual one and this is certainly very impressive. When EA introduced their Virtual Stadium technology for the '96 range NHL '96 was the first to be released and as such was less polished than it could have been, although nonetheless very good. The first generation Virtual Stadium titles used motion-captured sprites, but second time around it's all polygons with the 3d models built from data obtained using enhanced motion-capture techniques. Additionally, a new technique trade-marked as Motion-Blending has been introduced. As I understand it this improves the problem of switching from a skating animation to a shooting animation smoothly, by, I would guess, interpolating between vertex co-ordinates in the two animations to "morph" from one into the other. Sound has taken big steps forward since the first NHL as well, now, in addition to the rink announcer and link man (the guy who introduces the games) we now have play-by-play commentary, which whilst lacking the variety and humour of FIFA '96 's Motson, makes up for it by being much more accurately synced to the action, unlike Motson who often says things like "oh and that was inches wide (of the goal)" when in fact it was closer to the corner flag than the net.
Hopefully this new improved technology will make the transition to FIFA '97.
The usual spread of options are available, choose from a quick exhibition game, take the in-depth option of a full season with anything from 25 to 82 games, followed by the playoffs. Or, jump straight into the playoffs for the Stanley Cup, choosing 1, 3, 5 or 7 games for each round. If you only have the one machine but plenty of players then up to four can play at one time although this means using the keyboard, mouse and two joysticks or gamepads, or alternatively, the Gravis Grip system. If you have more than one machine available, network, serial link or modem play is also supported with up to eight players on a network, although when you read the small print you discover this means four players on each of two machines. However, only two buttons are supported on whichever control system you use, even if more are available. This leads to having to press combinations of buttons to perform some of the more exotic actions, like one-timers. Despite this, the gameplay is very intuitive, the players skate across the ice beautifully, leaning in to swooping turns and slamming into the opposition. You get a very satisfying feeling when you get a break-away and one-on-one with the goalie, you skate towards his left, then turn at the last moment and flip the puck past him for a goal.
Graphics and sound are all configurable as well as the usual options for turning certain rules on or off and changing the length of the periods. Statistics are heavily featured, with team stats, history, player comparisons and even a video clip here and there, although the manual is a little creative in this area, implying that there was more video than I could find. I managed to find about six player interviews and none of the team videos, only one covering the NHLPA as a whole. The presentation of the front-end is very good on the whole, although there are a couple of rough edges here and there. In particular, when progressing through the front-end you spend 10 seconds or more looking at a very ordinary looking progress bar, while the game loads data immediately prior to starting a game. Interestingly, the Windows 95 version seems faster here than the DOS version but it could be my imagination. Also, from a usability point of view it leaves a little to be desired - the pop-up menus and scrolling selectors are clunky to use and is something that EA need to improve on.
In game, there are eight camera angles, each of which can be reversed and the replay system is excellent, allowing almost infinite camera angles, slow motion and the ability to save the best ones to disk. This last feature in particular is one that I missed in FIFA '96 and I hope that it makes the transition. Different teams were responsible for NHL '97 and FIFA '97 but I hope they were and will continue to collaborate, as it can only improve the quality of both games. The 3D player models are on the whole, excellent, despite being made up of relatively few polygons, relying on the textures to make them look good. The polygons are most noticeable in close-up, particularly when the camera pans to a goal-minder whilst the teams are changing up their lines before a face-off. Conversely, close-ups allow you to see the quality of the texturing, some of the better-known players actually have their faces mapped on the head of the 3D model representing them. The rest have generic faces, but all the faces change their expression at appropriate moments, blinking occasionally and wincing after being checked into the glass. The players' names are on the backs of their shirts and you can read the brand names on the hockey sticks. There are some good animations, too, like when players get penalised and end up in the sin bin. They sit down, then wave their fists and sticks at the referee, bash their stick on the ground, or just glare at the referee as he skates away. The attention to animation detail is good, too, for example, the players actually climb over the barrier when changing lines. Previously they would simply move to the edge of the rink, disappear and their replacements appear in their places, as if by magic. The rink starts out as a fresh, unblemished sheet of ice, then as the game progresses it becomes criss-crossed with the cuts of the players' skates.
At the end of each game, If you manage to skate away with the Stanley Cup a celebration follows, with the whole squad on the ice, parading around with the trophy to the sound of fireworks (where these are in an indoor stadium, I don't know). Bizarrely, your team's bench is still full of motionless players!!
After a long season, does NHL '97 pick up the Stanley Cup?
The gameplay in the original NHL was very good to start with, so all EA really need to do is spruce up the graphics and audio, make a few tweaks, add a couple of new features and watch the money roll in. I'm not entirely certain where the gameplay could be improved, but I'm sure it could, it's just one of those elusive elements of a game which is very difficult to pin down. But this is a minor criticism.
A question going through the mind of NHL '96 owners is probably "Is it worth upgrading ?" and I have to admit I don't know. I don't own NHL '96 so I can't compare them directly, but I do have the original and I know that this is better than that by a long way in graphics, sound and features, but I'm not certain that that much has been added in gameplay.... Other than that, it is an undeniably excellent game.
All things considered, in the opinion of your humble scribe, NHL '97 is not only the best ice hockey game on the PC but in the wider sense, one of the best sports games. It certainly shows Virginwhat they need to aim for if they produce a follow-up to the disappointingly lack-lustre Powerplay '96.EA Sports always manage to get something wrong somewhere, something which doesn't gel, but there's always next year, which seems to imply a cunning plan on the part of EA to get you to buy NHL '98 in a year's time in the hope that they have produced the perfect ice hockey game, whilst meantime getting you to buy this year's version as it's better than the last one. Perfection hasn't happened this year, but it's getting closer.
Review By GamesDomain
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