LCS: Guide to Hockey
One Man's Opinion: NHL99 for the Playstation
by Howard Fienberg, Correspondent
It's a cool step up on last year's installment, though at first glance it does not look it. The graphics actually seem to have taken a step back. But this is all perception, and first impressions, though important, can be very deceiving. NHL99 is damn fine, and still the closest most of us can get to strapping on a pair of skates and taking a cross-check from Eric Lindros.
As always, when the new edition comes out, the presentation screens change a bit. They are nice, but not why you buy the game, so let's skip that stuff.
Let's get to the nitty gritty.
Coolest improvements: rendered-motion; checking; fighting; player creation; injuries; hot and cold streaks; coaching strategies; announcers; expansion draft.
Worst problems: no limits on expansion draft; the play-by-play commentators; international rosters; fluidity of player movement between international and NHL.
The graphics are now more realistic than ever. The frame rate does not come across as nicely, but player motion and reaction far surpasses previous versions. Players are responsive, and move the way players ought to. Apparently, Electronic Arts modelled the movement after a bunch of Vancouver Canuck players. Why Canucks? Because their summer started midway through last season, that's why.
Players skate like angels when needed, and especially when you use the analog shock controllers, now finally worth the money. So sometimes they vibrate for no reason, or try to make you feel like you have been checked, only ten minutes late. So what? It's fun. You can't see the trouble you are causing when you send Claude Lemieux in to harass the goalie after the whistle sounds - but you can feel it instead.
The checks are better than ever. NHL Breakaway was touted as having "rumble-pack checking." What the heck is that? Answers to Zippy. Rumble-schmumble, the checking on NHL99 rocks. Martin Straka CAN throw a check, and he can hit someone at top speed. But, like in real life, he is more likely to fall down himself, and rarely hurts anyone. Reality is cool like that. And the sounds and graphics to go with it are like budda. I mean butter, cause it's better for you.
Scrapping is only slightly improved. At least we don't have to wallow in the fightless days of bygone editions, and the squeamish can turn it off. Perhaps the best part, aside from levelling Todd Marchant with a big haymaker, is the fighter's AI. A secret trick used to exhaustion is goading the opposition player into a fight and then letting yourself get pounded. Instead of sharing five minutes each, he takes a five-minute major and you get a two-minute minor. Now, the computer will pull it on you from time to time. And nobody does it more than Kasparaitis, that slimy weasel.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Apparently in Howard's neck of the woods, the term "slimy weasel" denotes respect. Because, as we all know, Darius Kasparaitis is the coolest player in the NHL. Thank you.)
Player creation gives you a lot more options. You can choose two different looks for your player. You can decide on the type of player you want - anything from power forward to set-up man, point man to enforcer. Then you assign attributes as needed. I have yet to figure out how the game uses the leadership attribute, but it sounds neat anyhow. And the end result is more likely to be a good player than in the past, where any creation was definite 4th line material, unless he played for Tampa Bay.
Injuries are new and improved - i.e. painful. Your player can get whacked gangsta style, or any number of ways (and the machine will happily replay the incident for your pleasure), and return to the lineup anywhere from five minutes to twenty games later. Injuries also occur more often than in previous editions. Along with the injuries are the return of hot and cold streaks, and the game can automatically juggle your lines to take advantage of them.
Coaching strategies are getting closer to the real thing - you have more control over the aggressiveness of play, and more set plays to choose from (like my favorite, crashing the net like a freight train).
The announcers use more interesting anecdotes about particular players and are better able to describe plays.
The expansion draft option lets you run your own expansion draft for the new Predators, same as in the real league. I love this option - every expansion team needs a Wendel Clark.
Which brings us to the problems. Notable among my draftees besides Clarkie are CuJo, Brett Hull, Benoit Hogue and Mike Richter. So Benoit is not, but you get the picture - free agency has no effect. My Predators went on a 10-game unbeaten streak!
Back to the play-by-play, can't we get some new voices? Where are the Mike Langes, the Brian Engbloms, the Mike Emricks? The voices get stale fast, and I really do not care if there is "plenty of affordable NHL merchandise available in the building." Intermission is not for advertising.
International play - that was cool, that was fun. Nothing compares to putting half the French squad down with injuries. But the rosters plain stink, and they are wholly inflexible. I don't care if Kariya didn't go to Nagano - I want him on my team! Who decided Whine Gretzky was the top-line center for Canada? Why isn't Vladimir Ruzicka on the Czech roster and Ruslan Salei on the Belarus roster? Who put Jaromir Jagr on the Czech second line? How come Ulfie Samuelsson is still eligible to play for Sweden? Where are my socks? These are the questions that perplex me.
Given the limitations, you would think that you could change the rosters and bring in other players. But NOOO... you can make players defect, and send Al "MacDaddy" MacInnis to play for Kazakhstan, but you can't transfer players between the NHL and the international set. What if I wanted Nick Brain from Team England for my Toronto squad (anyone is an improvement) or Jeff Friesen for Team Canada?
Well, we all know the usual story, and hey, it sure isn't changing much. EA's NHL series rules hockey video gaming. This was good with NHL93 and 94, took a nosedive for 95 and 96, and seemed to rebound on NHL98. All the while, no one else comes close. And that is still the way of the world. But good for those other companies for trying, it keeps pressure on EA.
But what on earth happens next season? Secret agent 00NHL? Look forward to some wacky expansion draft fun, as several dozen more talentless minor leaguers join the garage league next season. Until then, happy headhunting.