Windows - 1997
Also available on: Genesis
Description of NHL 98
If it's in the game...
Pundits may say that hockey is now a "world game", but Canadians know that it's still their game at heart. EA Sports knows that too, and has developed the NHL series of games exclusively at EA Canada since its inception oh so many years ago. Unfortunately, for both Canadian hockey fans and PC sports game fans, the homegrown product has been more than a little disappointing of late. On the ice last fall, Team Canada lost the inaugural World Cup (didn't the soccer people have some kind of claim on that one, Mr. Bettman?). At the same time, on the screen, EA Canada released NHL 97, an eye-candy showpiece that was all style, no substance, and jam-packed with just about every sort of bug known to man. Coincidence? I think not.
But now it's one year later. Team Canada's the early favourite to take the gold medal at the Nagano Olympics, and EA's released the supposedly "smarter" and more "realistic" NHL 98. The jury will be out on Team Canada until February, but NHL 98 's been on the shelves in North America for a few weeks now, so we won't have to wait on that one. We know the call now, and there's no need to go upstairs, Ref.
It's a goal!
In short, NHL 98 has single-handedly resurrected the EA Sports name for me. It's exciting, action-packed, graphically gorgeous, and, most-importantly, intelligent. They weren't lying when they bragged about all the time that was spent upgrading the pathetic AI of NHL 97. And even when they were doing this, they still managed to raise the bar for all sports games when it comes to graphics and sound. To their credit, the producers managed to give the game the feel of both playing in the various NHL rinks and watching a game on TV. It's very immersive and entertaining.
Right after the killer video intro - great new title theme and compilation of clips from last season contests - you get the new interface screen. It's kind of a command central, where everything from the available modes of play to changing lines and detail settings can be activated with a minimum of effort. No guesswork is involved here; you know where you are and what you're doing at all times. Take that, Front Page Sports!
And as for the aforementioned modes of play, there are five of them, all pretty self-explanatory: Exhibition, Season, Tournament, Stanley Cup Playoff, and Shootout. Three levels of difficulty are present: Rookie, Pro, and All-Star. Speed and the skill of your netminders seems to be the big difference between these levels. At Rookie, the pace is slowed down, and even the likes of Dominek Hasek and Martin Brodeur will see their GAAs leap above 4.00. Everything is stepped up at Pro, while at All-Star the computer AI is very aggressive and the stoppers well-nigh unbeatable.
Almost everything about this game can be customized. Virtually all of the gameplay options can be changed. Offsides, two-line passes, etc. can be toggled on and off with ease, and the number of penalties called can be toggled from zero to 100%. The detail settings can also be turned down (or off), a necessity for many since NHL 98 demands a top-flight system to achieve the best performance. The only exception to this is the 3Dfx mode, which does not permit the detail settings to be changed. Of course, anyone running a Voodoo wouldn't consider turning anything off, so consider the question moot.
The configuration options even extend to the creation of players. Like in NHLs past, you can add hot new rookies or even yourself and your friends to the roster of any team in the game. A nifty addition to this feature is the ability to put a face on your creation. Choices are limited, but varied enough for most. There are also two customizable teams as well, which can be added to tournament modes.
Once configured to your wishes, this game runs like a dream. My Orchid Righteous 3D was picked up immediately on installation, the game activating the 3D option on the Options menu without any prompting from me. The card then clicked in as soon as NHL 98 began loading my first actual game (as the menu screens are done in 2D, like in most games). No fuss, no muss.
And that first game was an amazing experience - although I have to admit that I still find my jaw dropping at some of the graphical touches weeks into playing NHL 98 regularly. The rinks are incredible, incorporating many features from the real-life 'barns' around the league. Visit historic Maple Leaf Gardens, or the showy new Molson Centre and you're overwhelmed by the Stanley Cup banners and retired jersey numbers that hang from the rafters. The centre video scoreboards also vary from arena to arena, with the extremely accurate touch of McNichols Sports Arena in Denver not having one at all. What's more, these scoreboards aren't just eye candy, they actually display the actual game clock, score, and penalty times. They also occasionally flash messages to people in the virtual crowd. It's just basic stuff like "Dr. Thayer, please come to the courtesy phone", but it's a neat touch.
Mini-scoreboards also surround the ice surface mid-way up, just below the glow of the TVs in the luxury boxes. The on-ice and dasher board ads are also subject to this heightened realism, EA giving us ads for Powerade and Dodge instead of the fake ones of NHLs past. Each rink also has its own music, although there seems to be a lot of overlapping here. A lot of the time you'll hear the same familiar quasi-disco tune whether you've just scored in Anaheim or Ottawa. There are also six different anthem singers included, providing some variety here as well (we even get "O Canada" in French before games in Montreal - nice touch, although it might have been even more realistic to hear it in English with the usual boos).
As you might expect, these frills extend to the on-ice action as well. Wimps, er, I mean "gentlemanly players" who sport visors (face shields) in real life now wear them in the game as well. After whistles, players skate with a more relaxed style that is very natural and true to life. They'll also take advantage of these breaks in the action to inspect their stick blades, tap their shin pads, and even lean forward to catch their breath. About the only thing that EAmissed was the now traditional post-whistle scrum.
All of this is presented in TV format, complete with Jim Hughson's play-by-play and Daryl Reaugh's colour commentary. Hughson is serviceable, and keeps up with the play very well, but Reaugh becomes annoying by the second faceoff. The entire script EA provided is just a succession of clichés, so he's limited to such gems as "You've got to think team first" and "Coaches can live with initiating penalties, not retaliating." The TV effect is heightened with graphical blurbs and factoids about the players and teams involved in the current game. We might be told, for example, Doug Weight's career points in one break, and the Oilers' record on Saturday nights last year in another.
The above features are available in both 3D and unaccelerated modes, although there is a certain (understandable) flatness to the 2D. The 2D version of the game also seems slower and definitely has a different pace to it than the 3Dfx one. Although having a Voodoo card is not an NHL 98 requirement, you'd have to be a fool to believe that EA Canada didn't intend for the game to be played this way.
Of course, all of these touches would amount to nothing if NHL 98 played like, well, NHL 97. Thankfully, it doesn't. The feel of playing hockey is back. And actually, it may not just be back, it may be the best ever. It blows the doors off NHL s 97 and 96, Virgin's Powerplay 96, and lesser lights such as Solid Ice. I would even rate NHL 98 higher than the venerable Wayne Gretzky Hockey, simply because it gives you the rush of stepping on to the ice better than WGH 's press-box view ever could.
First of all, the NHL series finally supports gamepads with more than two buttons. All together now: IT'S ABOUT TIME! Four buttons are the minimum now, and those blessed with Sidewinder pads or Gravis Grips can configure their 'extra' buttons. The added features take some getting used to at first, but very soon become old hat.
Secondly, the gameplay problems with NHL 97 have pretty much all been fixed. No more 60% passing success rate. No more defenseman positioning themselves outside the line on power plays. No more auto-goalies only. No more lack of a save game feature. And most importantly, no more 'deke' move that allowed you to light the lamp 15 or 20 times a game. All of these rather embarrassing problems have been rectified with NHL 98.
Now, you can not only set up a proper power play or penalty kill, you can specify what type you want. In fact, you can change all of your offensive and defensive plays thanks to the new Strategies feature. Want an all-out aggressive forecheck? Slide the Offensive Pressure toggle to 100% and get into the zone! Prefer caution? Knock it back to 20% or 40% and watch your forwards clog up the neutral zone. You can also change your positioning to reflect the type of offensive and defensive pressure you want to use. Combine 'Funnel' with an 80% or 100% Offensive Pressure rating and your forwards will start crashing the slot. Same goes for defense, where you can have your blue-liners pressure your opponents and play 'Man-to-Man', or sit back a little and shift into zone coverage.
The neatest thing about all of these features is that they really work. The computer AI has improved a great deal, and changing your coaching strategies has a major affect on gameplay. EA has also made sure that each team's default strategies reflect the real NHL. So when you go into New Jersey to play Jacques Lemaire's Devils, expect a very conservative offense and tough 'D'. In the same way, the speedy Edmonton Oilers play the exact opposite, relying on a quick forecheck to generate offense and a gambling defensive corps. This also works with powerplay setup and kill strategies, with teams like Detroit playing an aggressive large box, while Pittsburgh and other clubs play the passive small box or diamond.
Players are generally a lot smarter in reacting to situations as well. Defensive coverage is a lot more aggressive than before. Breakaways, both yours and the computer's, are few and far between now. Forwards will also come back and cover if a defenseman gets caught deep. Goalies now come out and play the puck in very smart fashion. In a recent game against the Oilers, Curtis Joseph even left the crease to freeze the puck against the back of the net during a scramble!
One problem with gameplay that must be mentioned is the number of shots per game. If you want to, you can run your total up to around 100 or more in 20-minute period games. In a recent game as New Jersey, with all the strategy options toggled to full, I shot as often as possible and managed to outshoot Edmonton 83-29. The goalies are awfully good, though, and the game ended in a 3-3 tie.
Major problem? For some, sure. People have been complaining about this little 'feature' in the NHL series since 1994. But it doesn't really bother me, because I found that you really have to push it to crank the shots up so high. By 'pushing it', I mean shooting from everywhere, all the time. And if you've ever watched an NHL game - or any hockey game for that matter - players don't do that in real life. They work the puck into the offensive zone and generally don't shoot until they're in good position for a scoring attempt. So instead of collecting 60-plus low-percentage shots a game, teams average around 30 higher-percentage ones.
In NHL 98, if you want to play this way you can. Thinking strategically, only shooting when I got into good shooting position, I average anywhere from 30-45 shots a game, with the computer hovering around the same. I've even been outshot a few times by the faster teams like the Oilers and Avs.
This is very acceptable to me in terms of realism. It's also interesting to note that scores don't change with fewer shots on goal. Whether I'd shoot 80 times or 30, only the 'good' chances touched the twine.
Aside from this, there are two fairly major flaws. The biggest involves the just praised computer goalie, which often comes out and plays the puck on icings. It keeps the play moving, but cheats the PC of 200-feet of ice and chances to score. The other is a large number of double-minors, usually for cross-checking. You'll see four or five of these every game at times, when the NHL average would be one every game and a half or so. Fortunately, this problem doesn't come up in every game, or even most games. With me, it seems to occur about every six games, so it's not a big deal. I do think that both of these problems should be addressed in a patch, though.
Still, with all of the garbage in NHL 97, such minor problems are actually almost good to see. The bug epidemic of last year has been almost completely stamped out. Two weeks of solid play so far and no crashes. I didn't get through two days of NHL 97 last year without a data-destroying crash that caused the corruption of my league files and necessitated a complete re-install.
Around the NHL
Extended play features have also been touched up for NHL 98. Where the inclusion of national teams in NHL 97 was really just a last-minute thing to compete with PowerPlay 96, this year some thought has been put into the whole idea. With the Olympics in mind, EA included 18 of these clubs in addition to a round-robin tournament mode so you can guide your country to the gold medal.
Season play is pretty much the same as always, with the limited option of playing a 25 or 82-game schedule. There is no customizing of the sked allowed, although EA's finally put in the upcoming league schedule (1997-98) rather than last year's. The same goes for team rosters, which are complete right up to the Jozef Stumpel for Dimitri Kristich trade made around the start of September. Unfortunately, in the rush to be so current, a number of teams have lines with defensemen playing forward positions and vice versa. Furthermore, and this one really boggles my mind, they took out the minor league roster spots each team had in NHL 97. Now, we're back to the 25-man roster limit for each club and a limited free agent list, meaning that a lot of players didn't make the final cut. This inevitably leads to problems for those trying to stay current with the NHL rosters. With any luck, EA will start providing up-to-date rosters for downloading.
One interesting addition to the season features is the 'NHL This Week' section. It allows you to check up on all the recent happenings, including injuries, scores, and standings. It's not quite highlights in-between periods, but at least now you don't feel like you're in a vacuum when playing a full season.
Stat results for season play are also quite realistic. I simmed two seasons, allowing the computer to handle everything, and found the results surprisingly accurate. In season one, New Jersey downed the Phoenix Coyotes 4-1 in the Stanley Cup final, ruining excellent seasons from Keith Tkachuk (103 pts., including 62 goals) and Jeremy Roenick (93 pts.). Petr Sykora won the Conn Smythe, oddly enough. There were no real surprises among the playoff contenders aside from the Coyotes, who edged out the Colorado Avalanche 4-3 in the Western final - although you could consider the first-round-losing Calgary Flames a shock, qualifying with a sixth place finish.
No real surprises during the regular season, either, with the Philadelphia Flyers winning the President's Trophy for first overall. Paul Kariya dominated on the ice, winning the Hart, Ross (58-55-113 and an incredible +69!), Byng, Masterton, Pearson, and EA Sports Trophies. Christian Dube of the New York Rangers won the Calder, while his teammate Bryan Leetch was awarded the Norris, and Florida's John Vanbiesbrouck took home the Vezina. Scoring stats were also plausible, with Kariya heading a top ten list that included Eric Lindros, Teemu Selanne, and Jaromir Jagr. The only real aberration here was Steve Rucchin's 98 points, pretty much impossible in the real world even though he is Kariya's centre.
In season two, the favourites stole the show. Colorado edged Philly 4-3 to take the Cup. Joe Sakic won the Conn Smythe. Chicago was the real surprise here, though, making it all the way to the Western final before the Avs dropped them 4-2. The Devils were handled easily by the Flyers in the Eastern final, Jacques Lemaire's crew being swept 4-0.
Kariya again cruised during the regular season (65-60-126 and a +79 this time), winning all the major awards. The Avs Patrick Roy won the Vezina, and Doug Weight of the Edmonton Oilers captured the Lady Byng. The Buffalo Sabres' Richard Smehlik won the Norris as top defenceman, kind of a Bizarro World choice, but hey, he's supposed to be an up-and-comer so who knows. Steve Sullivan's winning of the Calder as top rookie is completely impossible, though, as he played too many games in 96-7 to qualify. A forgivable mistake, in my view.
Wait a minute, they're going upstairs...
I can't really hesitate at recommending this game, but I know that it will disappoint some people who want perfection after the disaster that was NHL 97. Still, though, I'm as big a hockey fan as anyone (says so right on that Canadian birth certificate), and I'm hooked. NHL 98 is exciting, fast-moving, and a lot of fun. Players generally perform as they should, as do teams, in individual games. Stats addicts may want to stay clear, although for me, the hockey feel is there, and that's more than enough to make this a must-buy. It may not be the ultimate hockey sim, but it is one hell of a hockey game.
Review By GamesDomain
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