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COMPUTING

NHL 99: The hottest game on cyberice

NHL 99's excellent gameplay and new features make it even more enjoyable than its previous incarnations.

December 4, 1998
Web posted at: 5:00 PM EST

by Michael E. Ryan

From...

(IDG) -- Sid Meier's Civilization notwithstanding, there's simply no other computer game or series that keeps me coming back more often than EA Sports' NHL titles. And as good as these have been in the past, this year's version, NHL 99, is bigger, better, and more enjoyable in almost every way.

NHL 99 offers exhibition, season, and playoff modes, as well as shoot-outs and coaching drills (for honing your skills). The game includes all 27 NHL teams along with 18 international teams.

Gameplay is basically the same, with several new features that help improve the overall quality of each game. Shot deflections are much more prevalent this year, for starters. Shoot a puck and any teammate between you and the goal will automatically try to get a stick on it. Because of this feature, I saw a dramatic increase in goal scoring at both ends of the ice. In fact, through two full 26-game seasons (at Pro and All-Star levels), I managed to win only four games via shutout.

Rebounds are still a great way to score, though straight one-timers (without a deflection) are an exercise in futility. Breakaways are pretty tough also, but only for your team-the computer seems to score at will when it gets a breakaway.

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Some of the game's other notable new features include the ability to force your goalie to cover up the puck, a video-goal judge feature that checks questionable goals, and a ref that will toss your center out of a face-off if you get too anxious with the pass button. Also, this year the AI will actually retaliate for those after-the-whistle chucks, and the ref will call penalties. The fighting option can be fun at first, but it gets pretty repetitive after a few games.

The Voodoo II-enhanced graphics are superb, but the other graphic modes are pretty good, too. Using a RIVA 128ZX-based card on a P233 MMX delivered respectable image quality and performance, and the software renderer looked decent and moved along nicely on the same machine.

Difficulty levels are fairly well stepped, but the difference between Pro and All-Star has more to do with the number of hits than anything else. On All-Star, you will be hard-pressed to hold the puck for more than a second or two before a computer player clobbers you.

EA claims that the game supports up to 12 players over IPX, TCP/IP, and modem links. Because I didn't even know half that many people who actually had the game at the time of this review, however, I was unable to test that claim. The game's remote-league feature is a neat idea, but accessing it over modem or Internet links is a slow, clunky process.

The game has a few other flaws, including the fact that you can't change difficulty levels or period lengths during the course of a season-simply ludicrous. Shot totals are still way too high, and the game still computes the goals-against-average statistic incorrectly when you play 5- or 10-minute periods. Finally, the play-by-play this year seems pretty sloppy and is often just downright bad: commentary is rife with random, mistimed, mixed-up, and factually incorrect quips from Jim Hughson and Daryl Reaugh.

Still, these shortcomings detract little from NHL 99's overall quality. Its excellent gameplay and new features make it even more enjoyable than its previous incarnations.

Summary:

PC hockey nearing perfection.

Tips:

  • If you can nail a one-timer from the point during offensive face-offs, chances are that one of you wingers will deflect the puck onto and/or into the net.

  • Shoot, shoot, shoot-rebounds are still the best way to score in this game, so fire that puck every chance you get. Also, if you see some teammates near the net, shoot low. (Low shots typically generate better rebounds.)

  • If you're having trouble scoring, try the Funnel offense with the pressure setting at 100 percent. The Crash the Net offense works fairly well, too.

  • If a computer player gets a breakaway, do everything you can to take him down before he shoots. The AI is much more likely to score on a breakaway than on a penalty shot.

Ratings:

  • Overall: A-
  • Gameplay: A-
  • Getting Started: B-
  • Multiplayer: C+
  • Sound Check: B-

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