Just over a year ago NHL 98 took the PC HQ by storm, and rightly so. It proved to be the fastest, most visually stunning and downright playable ice hockey sim on the PC. Undoubtedly, the large doses of in-game violence played a part in securing its popularity with the gaming community in general and the Neanderthals lurking inside our office in particular. However, EA were always going to have their work cut out improving it -balancing the addition of enhancements with retaining the atmosphere and playability of the original. Fans wouldn't settle for just updated team rosters and a superficial lick of paint to the graphics.
Initially, playing NHL 99 will prove slightly anti-climactic for NHL 98 veterans, because on the surface it has an alarmingly similar look and feel, which can leave your rampant expectations slightly deflated. But, as time progresses, you'll realise that the feelings of deja vu are in fact a testament to the brilliance of NHL 98, rather than a slur on this sequel. It's the subtle game mechanics that have been overhauled, and as such it's a while before the enhancements shine through.
The fun starts, in typical EA fashion, with an explosive FMV introduction and a faultless, easy to navigate front end. The first significant change is that all the team and player stats have undergone their yearly update. Undoubtedly this will only be of interest to Yanks and ardent hockey anoraks, but you can't argue with thoroughness, and EA no doubt paid bucketloads for the privilege of using all the names, facts and figures. Among the usual plethora of options there's a handy practice mode which takes the stress out of learning puck control and gives the opportunity to rattle in a few penalties. Folk familiar with the previous incarnation will feel at home with the quick start, playoff, league, network and Internet tournament options, which serve to add much-needed variety to the basic game. Sim-heads will revel in adjusting the mountain of in-game features available, such as half length, player fatigue, injuries, fighting, fouls, shot aim -the list is as comprehensive as it is customisable. The rules can be tweaked too, by toggling offsides, icing, two-line passing and the crease rule. Those not familiar with the technicalities of the sport will no doubt pick things up as they go along, and ignorance by no means spoils the fun as the gameplay proves entirely intuitive (passing, shooting, stealing and blocking are all achievable by a simple button press).
Here's Looking At You
The player graphics have been tweaked and refined, with motion-capture enhancing their appearance and movement, and making them more fluid and seamless than ever. The pucks have had surgery too, and move more gracefully, reacting to deflections in a subtle and appropriate manner - a case of grace and refinement rather than manic pinball, this time round.
The game engine continues to amaze and wooed me for hours, before I realised that I had 3Dfx support switched off. In accelerated mode the game loses its occasional tendency to jerk when things get hectic, improves the ringside graphics, and smoothes out the players a touch. The minor nature of these improvements is the best advert for EA's software engine and renderer; it recreates the frantic nature of the sport effortlessly, with alarming speed and from a myriad of diverse and genuinely useful camera angles.
There will no doubt be extended debate as to the usefulness of the various cameras, but because of the sheer speed of the action, a midrange view proves the most practical tor normal play, while a tighter, more in your face camera is better for set plays and punch-ups. Yes, the violence is back, but not in gratuitous proportions. There are some splendid, weil-choreographed moments to be had barging and tripping the opposition, but try as I might, I couldn't readily initiate a decent punch-up, or an all-out fracas - which is a pity, because scrapping always provides a welcome diversion from the main action.
When The Going Gets Tough
The most rewarding enhancement is with the computer Al. The main criticism that was levelled at NHL 98 was that the outfield action was too easy against all but the sternest opposibon. Indeed, the glory of carving out openings against dumb-ass teams was the game's main attraction, but ultimately players were repeatedly frustrated by the telepathic, and near infallible computer goalies. Thankfully the situation has been somewhat reversed. Outfield computer players are now noticeably more aggressive, they play the angles better and pass intelligently, thus increasing the challenge and leaving you less goal scoring opportunities. Their goalies are fallible this time round - not that they've gone soft, but they're error-prone enough to give even fledgling players hope. So although you're presented with fewer goal scoring opportunities, you should find yourself getting a better shot-to-goal ratio. This goes a long way to easing those previous frustrations and leads to tighter and more tension-filled matches, the atmosphere of which is enhanced by the free-flowing commentary. It is, in the main, as good as ever and keeps pace with the action well, proving both informative and relevant.
The negatives are few and minor: having scored, it would be nice for the commentator to acknowledge the fact instantly rather than leaving your team to celebrate in momentary silence. The puck's easy to lose in the heat of battle too, but that's a flaw inherent with the sport, not just the computer's interpretation of it. And the game should run with 3D support switched on by default. But, minor niggles aside, we're left with the most polished, playable and robust representation of ice hockey on the PC, and to miss out on it would be nigh on criminal.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode