Windows - 1998
Description of NHL 99 Windows
Another season of NHL hockey has started and EA Sports is right on time with NHL99, the latest incarnation of the long-running NHL line. And for those who need fast answers because they really want to run out and buy it: tough, you'll have to wait a minute and read along. As is usual with this series, you can't run to an easy judgment. Although the graphics and major aspects of the gameplay are very well done compared to NHL98, there are some enormously annoying new gameplay problems. But wait, my dear editor wouldn't want to jump on the weakness only, I will try my best to let you have it all.
I was very impressed by my first few looks at NHL 99 -- the video intro is very well done, and the interface is strong and very easy to use. All the features we've come to expect from EA Sports are present, meaning that the game translates the NHL feeling very, very well. I played the first couple of games on rookie level with five minute periods and scored some nice goals. The skill move was particularly impressive. You don't know exactly what you're going to get, but it generally allows your star players to perform spin-o-ramas and highlight reel dekes. It only works with the upper echelon players, however, so don't expect to see the likes of Tie Domi and Donald Brashear celebrating many picture-perfect tallies.
You have four difficulty settings -- beginner, rookie, pro, and all-star -- which can be adjusted by assigning up to three advantage points to a team for easier scoring. As is usual with EA Sports' titles, the lower levels are ridiculously easy. Pro and all-star are much more challenging (more on that later), with all-star featuring maxed-out players (everyone plays with top scores in all attributes). Once you've chosen your skill setting, you can play out exhibition games, a full blown NHL season, NHL playoffs, or an international tournament with a squad of your choice. A nice detail in tourney mode is the ability to adjust the ice surface to either the larger international size or the smaller NHL standard. You can also tinker with the strictness of the penalty calling, and how to proceed after a tie in regulation (overtime, limited overtime, or penalty shootout are the options).
Options are also prevalent in regards to your hardware. As long as you've got a reasonable system by current standards (meaning a fairly fast Pentium or equivalent), you'll be able to get NHL 99 purring. The game makes strong use of 3D hardware acceleration. My buddy and I have tested it on a K6-2 and on a P133 and the difference in speed and level of detail was marginal as long as we had our Voodoo 1 cards installed. If you want to enjoy a better screen resolution and full details, you should have something in the Voodoo 2 or Riva TNT department. While a 3D graphics accelerator is not required, it is strongly advised. You'll need an extremely powerful machine to run this game in software mode, and even then things will be jerkier than you'd prefer.
Player controls are the best in the NHL lineup thus far. That's not saying much considering the problems in years past, but I had no problems playing with both a Gravis Grip pad and the keyboard. Player responsiveness is excellent, and for the first time in the history of this series, a fast-skating player can literally put on his brakes, causing ice particles to be thrown up in the air. It's a nice visual effect, and it's much appreciated from the gamepad side of things as well.
EA Sports has done a nice job with the play-by-play since NHL 97, and I am still quite fond of it in this version. Color commentator Daryl Reaugh seems to have lost a few marbles in the past twelve months, though. After a successful penalty shot he'll often complain that the goalie was left alone by his team mates. Yeah, sure thing. Where Daryl gave you background on the teams last year, calling the players by their nicknames and so on, this time he simply makes bad jokes and ignores the actual teams. Commentary during replays is similarly unconvincing. Connect on a 2-1 situation and he says eventually: "It starts with a pass into the offensive zone, he let a wrist-shot go and beat the goalie."
Let's look at the gameplay
Broadly speaking, the gameplay can be divided into defense, offense, and goal scoring. Most of all, the offense has been significantly improved. Yes folks, I like what I see in terms of passing, formations, and tactics. There are teams out there that, most of the time, can interact skilfully. For example, you can actually set up a proper power-play or pass to the slot for a one-timer. Fast passing is usually the best bet in this game, and you can actually outplay a weaker opponent or the CPU pretty impressively.
After NHL 98 's disappointing coaching features, I was particularly impressed by the work in that department. The crash-the-net setting, together with 80% offensive pressure generally affords you the best, most realistic attempts on net. On the power play, it makes a big difference whether you play with the shoot formation, designed to fire from the point (not that I ever actually scored from there), or the umbrella, which is set up to allow stickhandling your way to the net. The coaching is one of the most improved areas but it still falls short compared to NHL Powerplay 98 because I still prefer coaching option like 'protect the lead' over '60% defense pressure.' Still, the best single feature in NHL 99 is the coaching clinic. There you can not only try all the different coaching options in practice, but also play 2-on-2 plus goalies or practice 2-on-1 situations, shootouts, and so on. It really helps getting newbies into the game and it helps you improve in particular situations.
Eric Lindros has a hard time scoring with a slap shot, but at least Saku Koivu's lookin' good! While playing defense in NHL 99, one has to keep in mind the fact that this game is no true simulation. Realistically, we can expect a close resemblance to real world hockey without the clutch and grab of today's lesser lights in the NHL. Sadly, the game has an unbalanced offensive bias because the defense is simply not up to the task. You still get too many rebounds, you can still enter the attacking zone without much harassment, and you can still outplay and outpass the defense pretty easily. A quality forward can carry the puck from his own net, rush up the ice, and get off a good shot much of the time.
Attacking is where the fun is in this game. Passing is simple and functionally well done, even though hockey enthusiasts miss the flip or drop pass particularly in 2-on-1 situations. The shooting is okay but like the passing it is done via one single button. A short press will lead to a wrist shot while a longer press will result in a slap shot. Naturally, you hardly ever get away a well aimed slap shot because they require too much time. Another feature which is very interesting is that you can lock a controller to a certain position. That's particularly good fun in multi-player when your two buddies play the wingers and you center a true Legion of Doom!
Goalies I: they really did clone the Dominator
And then we have the scoring department. The rookie mode is fairly balanced and ideal for multi-player, as you can score on breakaways, one-timers, 2-on-1s, and even the odd slapshot. The shot clock and the scores tend to be totally unrealistic because of the absent team defense but then again who would want to have only five goals per hour of playing time? Anyway, going against the CPU on this level will soon turn into a constant goal-fest. So you turn up things a notch to pro. The gameplay itself gets more difficult but you expect that. The passing is less reliable and the computer plays much better overall. That's okay so far and I think it's an improvement over previous versions of this game. No longer does higher difficulty settings mean just faster gameplay.
The problem this year, however, is that scoring gets nearly impossible on pro and all-star because of the super-goalies. They turn in Dominator-like performances in almost every game. You can more or less forget about scoring on breakaways or in 2-on-1 situations because the goalie is simply standing on his head. Your winger can stand at the far post for a nice tip-in only to see the goalie skate across the crease and make the save. I see the problem of making the game tough without changing too much of the gameplay, but it gets incredibly frustrating when you constantly outplay and outgun your opponent without ever scoring. Most of the goals come on rebounds and on the powerplay. Actually, this is interesting: you can score one-timers with the man advantage which would never go in during a five-on-five situation. That brings up the idea that pre-programmed things have an influence on the outcome of the games and that these things are out of reach for the player.
That suspicion gets downright disturbing when you realise that only one of the two goalies is the Dominator. After watching the opposing netminder play the game of his life, It's as if the other goalie is a first team all-star while you're stuck with some loser from Junior C. People in the newsgroups have discussed this feature intensively and some claim to have found that editing the goalie attributes does nothing to change that. Others, of course, say that everything is cool and that you can adjust the level of goalies through an editor. Anyway, they say that you can score plenty of goals by shooting high to the glove hand. Personally, I have yet to find ways of scoring in pro and above, and I refuse to use 'the move' for sure goals because it ruins the game eventually.
Anyway, speaking of my experience, something beyond control has an influence on the outcome of the games! The computer can score realistic goals on one-timers, slap-shots, and so on, but I can't. Of course I can score one and sometimes two goals per 30 minute game on average. Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose, but I always outshoot the computer by a huge margin and would expect to win handily. Interestingly, every once in a while I get easy goals as if the computer wanted me to win. You can be sure to lose the next game because the computer's mercy ends eventually and he will bury some easy shots. As a side note, the designers included a neat feature called goalie fatigue. If your starting goalie has played all the games he starts to get fatigued after a while; the funny thing is that it takes him at least four or five games as a backup until he gets better. Some people in the newsgroup say that they have both goalies fatigued out.
Goalies II: everybody's got a Bulin Wall
I could live with super-goalies because they simply ask me to improve and adjust my game. Newsgroup opinion is divided because rumor goes that after strong practising you find ways of scoring other than garbage goals. In my opinion, that still doesn't change the frustration of having career minor leaguers in your own goal. But what makes matters immensely worse is the fact that the computer cheats. Yes, the computer is cheating. I started to get suspicious after one-too-many good chances, so I took up checking the replays from close up. Sure enough, an invisible wall often prevents the puck from going in. The goalie is down and out, the shot is clearly headed for twine...only to bounce back as if it had hit something.
As soon as I discovered this, the fun was over. Why play a sports game in which not your ability or disability decides the game but the willingness of the computer to allow or prevent goals? Here is my theory: the puck physics are screwed. If you watch a game replay closely you will notice odd things happening. More often than not, there is no physical contact between a stickblade and the puck. The latter is obviously held in place by magnetic force and sometimes, the puck would clearly go by a players stick but stops on free ice, turns around and you find it to be suddenly attached to the blade. And that is exactly what I think is happening with the goalies. The catching glove, for example, must have a 'magnetic field' surrounding it which makes many saves. I don't know why, but the human team's goalie somehow ends up with a smaller cushion, I guess.
At first, I thought they might address this through a patch, but now I am fairly convinced that EA Sportswill refuse because of the work involved in correcting this. If you don't believe what I am writing, then go read the discussions in the newsgroup and check the game out for yourself. Buy it in a shop with a return policy, play a little while, and check the replays with a close up on the puck. You will notice soon enough that the physics provide a puck movement which is not from this planet.
Another goofy thing that I have to mention is the horrible implementation of fighting. It's the first time in all these NHL years that I have turned the option off. And playing against the computer, both players get the five-minute penalty for fighting, but my player eternally receives an additional two-minute penalty plus game misconduct for instigating a fight. That would be cool if I could actually do this, but you don't have control over the fights. Another bizarre touch is that the majority of the fights break out between defensemen, when we all know that third line wingers are be the prime combatants in real life. By the way, penalties as a whole usually come only when you check everybody in sight. More often than not, though, it's your computer controlled teammate and not you who has to go to the sin bin. I've witnessed brutal cross-checks away from the puck seemingly get called -- only to watch the referee haul somebody else off for two. Once I had Craig Rivet called for interference while he was skating in his own end, harassing nobody but his own netminder.
Hell, I'd have settled for the 'Next One'
There is no question that this is the best looking hockey game on the PC so far. For the first time in years, EA Sports has found the formula of integrating hockey gameplay, fun action elements, and state-of-the-art graphics. Sure thing, the defense is still too weak, but many things are well done in NHL99. It's a very promising game in many ways -- which makes all the more frustrated by the super-goalies and the blatant cheating by the PC.
Overall, it is a sad thing that EA Sports still can't find a way to make a semi-realistic hockey game. Team defense is almost completely absence at times, allowing you to pepper the computer goalie with shots, but this is meaningless in the presence of god-like netminders and their invisible walls. Unless the company comes up with a real fix, I suggest you play other games. All we hockey fans can do is hope that somebody decides to publish Radical's almost completed hockey game (titled ESPN National Hockey Night before the company lost the ESPN license). We all want to play a smart, real game of hockey -- which includes the opportunity to score nice goals and win fair and square -- and in its current state, NHL 99 is a waste of time.
Review By GamesDomain
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