NHL 97 from EA Sports will bring you closer to the action then you've ever been before. Seasons, playoffs, all-star games, exhibiton and even more options then before. Plus, all the rosters and teams from the 96-97 season. Now, you can here the voice of the Vancouver Canucks, Jim Hughson call the action, with one of the smartest play by play engines ever! This game packs in all the authentic chants and arena noises that go on in the real NHL arenas. Great panning camera angles will get you into this totally authentic game. Also, players actual faces have been put onto their bodies for the ultimate experience. Get ready for some real hockey action.
The first thing you notice about NHL '97 is the amazing amount of work that went into the overall design and user interface. 3-D graphics and cool animations are all over the place. If you've played any of the recent EA games, you know they've got an outstanding game engine (Virtual Stadium), but beginning with the solid metallic thwap when you click the 3-D spinning checkmark to go forward, you know this is a solid game in every other way, too. Killer details abound. The ice gets more scraped up as the period goes on and is then (presumably) Zambonied at the intermission. The players move and tire. The replay feature allows you to review a shot, check, or anything else from any angle you want at any amount of zoom as long as you stay in the arena. And it's not even that easy to win.
I read in the manual that there's a lot of management, trading, and other stats-type stuff you can do, and I know there are a lot of fanatical stat-geeks -- like Haldi, our hoops game critic -- who just love to do all that stuff. But because I only like the action and I don't really care that Gretzky is now with the Rangers and no longer with the Blues, I didn't do any trading. Rest assured, though, if you want to mimic every trade, or you want to create, manage, and play a team of left-handed mutants, you can do it.
There are flaws, of course. I didn't subtract seven points from the review score because I'm the Bulgarian judge and EA is an American gymnast. No, alas, there are a couple of bugs. If you score and then view the replay you can't change your line; you're stuck with whichever line you had before you started the replay. More importantly, there are times when your goalie has the puck in his glove and the stupid ref won't blow the whistle. So eventually you have to throw the puck even if there's someone standing right there waiting for you to bounce it off them and back into your net. Though it's nice to have Brodeur or Fuhr doing their thing without your having to ask, I missed the option I had in my good ol' NHL '94 that let me move my goalie over a larger part of the ice -- especially behind the net. In this version, you have no control over your goalie whatsoever until he has the puck in his glove.
It's hard to say what's smart (for a hockey player), what's stupid (for a hockey player), and what's just a limitation of the AI. Overall, I've found that the computer opponent at the Pro level is okay -- maybe like playing your younger brother who's almost as good as you, but keeps making stupid mistakes and refuses to learn from them (dang computers can't teach themselves!). The most annoying AI play is when it has a potential breakaway at center ice but decides to "dump and chase" or just dump it in for a line change instead of going one-on-one with the goalie.
So I've already mentioned how cool the Virtual Stadium engine is, but it's not just the overall stadium movement that kicks butt. The more subtle graphics, like player movement, are amazing too. If that wimpy-ass Gretzky falls down in front of you, you hop over him very naturally. You don't fly 50 feet in the air and bonk your head on the scoreboard. You don't do a triple back flip. You just gingerly step over him and skate on your way. The crowd, the cameras, the replays ... all the graphics are top-notch. I think the only thing I could ask for is some sort of interpolation during the frame by frame replays (hitting the pause button moves the replay on one frame at a time). While everything flows just great in real time or in slow-motion, when you go frame-by-frame you see what you're really missing.
A lot of time was spent editing the sound bites in this game. There are good and accurate crowd noises: the sound of the puck hitting the post is just as gut-wrenching as in real life; if you've got good speakers, the bass thud you feel when Lindros crunches a little guy actually hurts; the arenas have cool soundtracks (not just Hava-Nagila on the organ); and if your name is Dean you'll really feel in the game, because there's a sound bite that's something like "Hey, Dean!" as in Hey, Dean, pass me the puck! EA made a valiant attempt at coding the play-by-play, and I'd have to say it's the best I've heard of the sports games, but there are still the inevitable: "Brindamour passes to ... Brindamour!" or certain other little words and names just shouted out at random. There's also the occasional missed call: "What a shot! Great shot, Lemieux!" when what really happened was Lemieux shot the puck, my goalie blocked it, and a defender accidentally kicked it in.
NHL '97 is a game not just for hockey fans but for sports fans. It's for people who prefer the intensity of a playoff game to the star-studded flash of an all-star game. It's a game for people who would rather see an overtime than a slam-dunk contest. If you want to jump over the heads of your opponents, do two flips and then jam the stupid ball while holding your hand over your eyes, get NBA Live or its "high flying" automotive equivalent, Destruction Derby 2. If you want to play and feel like you're really playing the game, pick up NHL '97. I just completed my first 25-game season and finished Philadelphia in first place in the Eastern conference at 18-7-0, and the playoffs start in about five minutes.
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