He shoots. He scores. He shoots again. He scores again...
It seems as if the trend of many video game manufactures is to focus all of their attention on the graphics and the details, but to ignore what should be the main focus of the game...the action. It is a rare game that can combine it all. Sadly, Virgin Interactive's NHL PowerPlay '98 is not one of those games. PowerPlay '98 does have some of the most dynamic graphics of any sports game that I've ever seen, but when it comes down to it, they just didn't get the gameplay right.
So here's the scoop on this game: It's too easy to score. If you shoot the puck at the net, chances are it'll go in. I beat the Florida Panthers 18-0 once. And Florida is known for both it's defense and it's goaltending. I've played fifteen games so far in a season with the Flyers, and my record is 15-0. That shouldn't happen. Eric Lindros, my best player, has already scored 41 goals, which is an insane record-setting pace. Hockey fans may remember that Wayne Gretzky scored a record 92 goals in 1981. Lindros is on pace to tally about 240 goals for me. That's just too much.
I really can sympathize with game designers, though. On the one hand, if they make it too easy to score, people say that it's too easy. But if it's too hard, those same people holler that it should be easier. Don't get me wrong - I like to win. But when it's as easy to do as it is in PowerPlay '98, you don't even care. One of the main reasons that I love sports is the uncertainty involved, the fact that any team, on any given day, can beat any other team. But with this game, there's none of that. I know that I'm going to win. Would you really want to watch a sporting event if you knew who was going to win beforehand? With the exception of the Super Bowl, probably not.
Another drawback with PowerPlay '98 is one common to most PC games. Several times, the game froze in mid-action, and I was forced to reboot, losing all of the statistics I'd recorded for that game. That's becoming an inexcusable flaw, especially when there's no way of saving your data during the course of a game. Thankfully, the games don't take that long and it's not as if you've been playing for two hours. But all the same, it's still frustrating when your game cuts off.
It really is a shame about the scoring surplus, because graphically, PowerPlay '98 is among the best. The picture is very clear and the players' movements are fluid and believable. They also did a fine job with the little details. For instance, when you dump the puck into the offensive zone, it'll sometimes roll low around the boards, or other times it'll ricochet high off of the glass. And when players get knocked down on the ice, they don't just stick to the spot of the contact. Remember now, its ice, so it's quite slippery. Players slide for several feet if they get hit hard enough.
Which brings us to another brilliant feature: The body checking! You can flatten your opponents (especially with Lindros). And you don't always use the same kind of check. If an opposing forward is trying to skate past, your defenseman can give him a hip check that will make him a permanent fixture on the boards. And if you're back checking, you can knock your opponent off the puck with a hook or a crosscheck. If the ref doesn't see it, you're okay. But do it too much, and you'll spend two minutes in the penalty box. When a penalty is called in PowerPlay '98, you can view the replay and find the infraction. If the call was elbowing, sure enough, the replay will show your player's elbow buried in the opponent's chin. In most hockey video games, when a penalty is called, the referee will call something random like, "tripping", or "hooking", but upon review, you can't find that specific penalty. That's not a problem with this game.
Replays, however, are a problem. My first gripe here is that when you wish to view a replay, you have to first rewind the play. Why? Think about how silly that is. Shouldn't they assume that you want to see the replay? It seems obvious enough to me that if you've entered the instant replay area, you probably intend to watch it. Don't you think they could have saved you the step and had it ready to go? I don't know if it's an oversight, a careless error, or whatever, but it bothers me.
Also, when you score a goal (which will happen very often), and you want to check out the replay, you need to do it almost immediately following the score. The reason for this is that the replay only goes back 6 or 7 seconds. Sure, that's enough time to see the goal, but what if you forget about the replay for a second or two? I understand that plays in hockey aren't as cut and dry as in football or baseball, due to all of the changes in possession, but give us enough time to check out a cool play. Replays are an integral part of any sports game, and when a game with good graphics doesn't come through in this department, it's disappointing.
In contrast, a successful part of PowerPlay '98 is the array of statistics at your disposal. For instance, if you are in the midst of a season, you are privy to the updated statistics of every player on every team. This is a far cry from most games, where the only stats at your disposal are the league leaders. Being able to see how all of the players are doing adds a nice touch of realism - kind of like looking through the sports page. And if you desire, you are able to view the league leaders as well. PowerPlay '98 will show you the top 25 players in every major category.
Also great is the "General Manager" feature in this game. You can trade players, release them, and sign free agents. As you know, this aspect is absolutely necessary in the era of free agency. These days, players switch teams more frequently than ever, and it's a shame when a good game has stagnant team lineups. Happily, PowerPlay '98 does not fall into this trap.
Virgin Interactive showed a lot of promise with this game. It features some of the best player movements and graphics on the market. But again, where's the competition? I think it's clear that we'd be looking at a different game if the goalies had any clue. We'd be looking at a winner.