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E3 showcases a big year for sports video games

By CNN Interactive Producer Dave Ragals

(CNN) -- The sports market traditionally has been one of the most fiercely competitive sectors in the video game industry. And you might think that with a handful of titles available in each sport, there wouldn't be room for many more.

Apparently, there is. Or at least ESPN and Fox Sports hope there is. Both companies are betting their experience with broadcasting games will lead to success in publishing PlayStation and PC versions of them.

With all this competition, expect to see some new features, as each game maker looks to offer something the others don't. EA Sports and ESPN are featuring optional one- and two-button controls, so both the casual gamer and you can not only enjoy the game, but also compete head-to-head -- fairly. And while Midway is trying to capture arcade-style fans with "Blitz" football, almost everyone else is reworking their AI to create the most realistic simulations.

It should all add up to quite a dizzying selection. So, let's take a look at what you can expect to see. There's a lot to cover.

Virtual gridirons

NFL Xtreme
Go Ahead. Rub it in. "NFL Extreme" is the first title that lets you trash-talk   

The first new football title of the year will be "NFL Xtreme," a five-on-five no-holds-barred game that releases in July. It has no out of bounds and no penalties, so if you want to see late hits, trash-talking and fancy end-zone celebrations, this is the game for you.

As for the more traditional football titles, Sony's "NFL GameDay," EA Sports' "Madden" and Acclaim's "NFL Quarterback Club" are all back and touting major improvements.

Sony re-worked "GameDay," with a new game engine and a lot of motion-captured animation. Not to be outdone by EA's use of John Madden and Pat Summerall, "GameDay '99" employs the voices of Dick Enberg and Phil Simms.

"Madden '99," which now uses polygon players instead of sprites, looks very sharp. It also includes new moves, a play editor and an opened-up running game. Perhaps the biggest change is a one-button gameplay option that lets a novice gamer make the players on the field perform all their moves with the same button control. The game determines what that move will be -- pass, catch, spin, tackle, etc. -- depending on the situation.

Quarterback Club
"Quarterback Club '99" features sharp polygon graphics   

"Quarterback Club's" graphics could be the best of the bunch, perhaps because it's only available on the Nintendo 64 and PC -- there's no PlayStation version this year. Like the others, it has a new gameplay engine. In fact, it's the same one used for Acclaim's baseball and basketball titles. The AI was redesigned with the help of Jets offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Unfortunately, the Jets finished 22nd in total offense last season.

They shoot, you score

Both ESPN and Fox Sports are introducing new hockey titles this year. The idea is to attract non-gaming sports fans. Both are going for TV-style presentation with the same graphics packages and commentators used on-air. You'll probably feel the same way about their games as you do about their on-air coverage.

Fox focuses more on flash, like glow-pucks and slapshot trailers, while ESPN pays more attention to analysis, with its "Breakdown" game summaries and "Did You Know?" trivia. One great feature of ESPN's "National Hockey Night" is its PC version will push ESPN's score ticker across the bottom of your screen with actual NHL scores. The PlayStation version will show scores from other games in your "virtual" league.

EA Sports and Sony are both back, of course, with the '99 versions of their "NHL" and "NHL FaceOff" titles, respectively. Both boast new graphics and motion-captured animations, plus detailed arenas and in-game commentary. Neither will likely sway fans of the other to switch allegiances, but both should make gamers a lot happier with noticeably improved realism. "NHL" is the only one of that will be available for the Nintendo 64.

Console hardcourts

NBA Tonight
ESPN's new video games look a lot like ESPN's on-air broadcasts   

ESPN is also introducing "NBA Tonight," which like its hockey cousin, will have a broadcast feel. One major difference from other basketball titles is that instead of the user calling plays, the game's artificial intelligence moves players into position based on the situation. This makes it less confusing for gamers but isn't quite as realistic. If you don't normally use play-calling in basketball titles, you may like this better.

Acclaim's "NBA Jam '99" is feature-rich, with dozens of motion-captured animations, three announcers and seemingly countless moves. Iguana Entertainment, which is designing the game, promises it will still be simple enough to control. The graphics don't seem as strong as other games, but that could be offset with strong gameplay. It will be available for both PlayStation and N64.

Get your kicks

With all the companies publishing sports titles today, even sports that haven't been traditionally well-represented are now getting a bit crowded. In addition to the recently-released "World Cup '98" from EA Sports, Konami is publishing a sequel to its "International Superstar Soccer" for the PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Game Boy this summer.

Fox Sports is also releasing a soccer title this summer for PlayStation and PC. "Fox Sports Soccer '99" could be the best of Fox's line-up. It has great graphics and very smooth gameplay. It's a little more arcade-style than other titles, but it looks very good.

Tiger Woods '99
"Tiger Woods '99"   

There will also be no fewer than three new golf titles. EA Sports' "Tiger Woods '99" and Nintendo's "Waialae Country Club" both have great graphics and offer a simulation-style game. Fox Sports' "Golf '99" takes a different approach, with much less complicated gameplay. Of course, that translates into less realistic. Fox says it's going for the arm-chair golfer, which means if you're an avid golfer, this is probably not going to be the game for you.

There's still so much more to choose from this year, like tennis and college basketball from Fox, "Knockout Kings" boxing from EA Sports and "Power Boat Racing" from Sony, all of which look good. It promises to be a great year for console sports fans. No matter what your favorite sport is, you'll find it in video stores soon. In fact, you may see more choices than you ever thought possible.


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