Electronic Arts' hockey series returns to PC with new motion-captured animations from actual NHL athletes, a beginner's difficulty setting, on-the-fly play calling strategies, player hot and cold streaks, and revamped goalie artificial intelligence. Play an exhibition game, embark on a full season, jump to the playoffs, enter a tournament, or test your agility in a shootout. You can also work on perfecting your skills during Marc Crawford's coaching drills. Twenty-seven NHL teams, including the Nashville Predators, are in the game, along with 3D arenas sporting such details as banners, retired jerseys, and luxury boxes. Eighteen international teams, with their distinct rink sizes and rules of play, are also available. Jim Hughson and Daryl Reaugh reprise their play-by-play and color commentary duties from NHL 98. Up to four players can compete via LAN or Internet, and NHL 99 includes support for 3Dfx, All Rage Pro, and Direct 3D acceleration options.
Electronic Arts is famous for its line of sports titles that have set the standards for sports games for several years. The most prestigious title from EA sports is its NHL 9X line of games which can be counted on to deliver state of the art graphics, gameplay and sound along with plenty of extras, which some skeptics may regard as fluff. The NHL series is so well made that even people who do not enjoy watching NHL much (myself included) adore playing this game (it even made me a fan of hockey: not an easy task). Many game players and critics see the release of new sports games every year as a ploy by game companies to increase profits by merely adding new rosters and a few engine tweaks, and unfortunately there is a large element of truth in this. Luckily this year's Hockey entry by EA sports, NHL 99, continues the trend of the series and introduces plenty of new options, gameplay refinements and graphics to make it a worthy sequel to NHL 98.
The graphics in NHL 99 are unparalleled by any hockey game so far; hell, they are unparalleled by any sports game, even blowing NHL 98 off the ice. Support for Voodoo and Voodoo2 processors as well as most other 3D accelerators is built into the game. NHL 99 employs such effects as dynamic lighting, rink reflections, anti-aliasing, 16-bit colour, support for resolutions of 1024x768 and much more. The polygon players are much more realistic compared to NHL 98's, with faces looking less plastered and body movements being more fluid. In fact, I found the game much more fun to play using the "classic camera" which shows a close up view of the action. For those who saw the pre-release screenshot of the goalie through the back of the net and said, "this can't be a real in-game shot, it must be doctored", well it is real, and it looks even better in action. There is the occasional moment where a player moves his neck in a most unnatural manner, which I find much too annoying and ridiculous. EA could have at least realized how stupid it looks and fixed it, but it's a minor detail and overall it's unimportant. The other graphical flaw I noticed was the large amount of clipping that occurred in replay shots. Come on guys, learn to move your cameras properly; you've been doing this for years! Despite these two faults, NHL 99 has the most unbelievable graphics of any sports game I've seen and If they disappoint you I'll give you a free Voodoo2 card (Well I won't really, but it's fun to say).
Electronic Arts is known for its superb sound effects in its EA Sports line of games, and NHL 99 does not fall short in this category. Sound effects, such as skates moving across the ice, slap shots blasting past the goalie and fans roaring in approval are more realistic than ever and are rendered in full stereo (and pro-logic if you have speakers which support this). I wish that there was support for A3D sound, since I have a card with the Vortex chipset, but alas there is none. This is not a big problem however and the pro-logic is done well. Play by play is again too good to be true following the tradition of NHL 98 with its unheard of PBP and commentary. EA Sports has even added a replay camera in which the commentators go over the goal and how it was scored, which is mighty nifty, but it does get a little repetitive at the end of a full season of play. The videos in EA Sports titles are usually amazing, and NHL 99 boasts one of the coolest intros to a sports game that I have ever seen (only matched by FIFA 98) and the rest of the videos (stadium showcases and mini videos within the menu) are very professional and never run dry. The sound and video is thus almost perfect with the lack of A3D support and the repetition of the phrases in the goal replay videos lowering the score from "perfect" to "pretty damn good" which is really not much difference if you ask me.
Hockey is a fast, furious, hard hitting and enthralling game fought on a rink much too small for twelve men to coexist comfortably together. With the exception of Ultimate Fighting, no sport is faster than hockey and thus properly simulating it can be a difficult task. NHL 99 takes this task, spits in its face, and shows you how hockey should be played (on a computer that is). The interface is nearly flawless, both in-game and out as well as being as sleek as FKrueger's hair (our fearless, so what if he's a little greasy, leader). After the "holy shit EA is good" intro video you will be brought to the main setup screen where you choose the type of game you want to play: exhibition, tournament, season, playoffs, coaching drills, or a shootout. You also have the option to view saved highlights, which can be fun to watch and view from different angles. The options menu is straightforward with a simple menu layout that is very easy to understand.
Exhibition, Season and Playoff modes are all related in that you get to use the NHL teams, including the new expansion team from Nashville. In exhibition you choose two teams to compete in a single game which is customizable in most aspects including difficulty (which I'll get into later), period length, penalties, starting lines, offensive and defensive plays as well as which camera angle will be used, which can be changed during play. Season mode lets you take control of one or more teams and be the general manager, coach and player in the quest for the Stanley Cup. All aspects of the team are accessible and customizable, such as lines, drafts, trading, plays and much more. Playoff play allows you to choose which teams will compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs and who they will play against. You can take control of any game of course or simulate any game as has become the standard in EA sports titles. Another cool little addition I noticed was that players can get on hot and cold streaks, which the computer calculates for you, and they will play better or worse according to this (of course you can change this around by taking control of them yourself).
Now to the tournament mode which adds a lot to the game, in my humble opinion. Tournament mode allows you to play international hockey against other countries and attempt to take the tournament title. The rosters are all authentic to the national teams as of a few months ago. Personally, I loved taking control of my home team, Team Canada, and whooping some Russian and American ass (last count was a tie between me and the U.S.) and I'm sure that many other patriots, be them American, Canadian, Swedish, Russian or whatever, will find the tournament mode allowing for some great and classic matches between the world's best and worst hockey nations. Of course there is also the option to include NHL teams, but it's not as fun that way, plus you can't prove how good your country really is ("because we all know that the outcome of a hockey game will determine the future of the world" - FKrueger).
The shootout allows for a hockey fix, without taking 30 minutes to an hour of your time, and hell it's pretty fun just to take shots. Again, all of the NHL teams are available as well as the national teams and all-star teams, which can make for some exciting matches.
The last type of game, which really isn't a game, is the coaching drills section which allows one to perfect their hockey skills in almost any way imaginable. You can practice plays and 2 on 1, 1 on 1 etc. setups, which is important to master on the pro and all star levels of difficulty. I thought that the addition of this option was very cool on EA's part and that it should make the higher difficulty levels more playable.
The difficulty levels have a learning curve that is designed so that beginners and veterans can jump in at the appropriate level and learn how to play more effectively without being bored or overwhelmed. The beginner level is just that, for beginners and I must warn that most players will find this level much too easy. For the average gamer, rookie will be the optimum level that will allow for a challenge but also some wins. Pro and All-Star are recommended only for experienced players because of the professional manner in which the AI uses its players. The control that is allowed over your players is simple and yet allows for all complex plays and shots to be executed. Aiming is as simple as using either the cursors or the directional pad to point the shot in the correct direction. A new feature of NHL 99 is the shot power meter, which is very much welcomed, that allows for fine-tuning of shot power. Defensive and skating control are very smooth and you can even adjust your stance (offensive/defensive) in real time during play. You may also call on specific plays to be carried out and make line changes manually or have the computer do them automatically for you (it does a fairly good job). The camera views are all very cool and run silky smooth, but I find the classic view the best for playing in as you are able to see what the player sees, which is better for passing and setting up shots. In summary, gameplay is unbelievable, get it, love it, play it again.
Multiplayer Play has two major aspects to examine: same computer play/LAN and TCP/IP. Playing on the same computer with multiple gamepads and/or keyboard is very fun and can support up to 4 people, which should work out to two on each team (yes, some people call me a genius). It may get a little crowded, but that's what makes it much more exciting to bash your friend into the boards, literally. LAN play is pretty smooth as in most games, but I only got to try it with two computers connected so I can't say much more about it. TCP/IP is a major downfall however and it's no wonder why EA tried to hide this feature: if you wish to use TCP/IP in an exhibition game you must go to "exit NHL 99" choose "credits" then choose "programmers" and then type "eaonline" to enable it. Getting setup and connected was a nightmare in itself. It took over an hour just to figure out how to setup the game properly, and frankly I could be doing much better things with my time such as, ummm, well never mind that part. The lag over modems is quite bad, but over cablemodems the lag is very acceptable and the gameplay was much more action-packed than with a computer. Therefore, I'm giving this section a lower rating because, frankly, most people don't have cablemodems.
NHL 99 is the quintessential hockey game and no hockey fan should go without it. It has a few minor faults, namely multiplay, which lower its rating, but overall this title is unbeatable.
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