" . . .Goal!!! A hat trick for. . . Sony! "
Sony came back smokin' on this amazing sequel to follow up last year's hit NHL Faceoff, a game which, as I stated, had a few holes that needed to be patched up. The only question was, was Sony up to the task? The answer--an overemphatic YES! It's been a long time since I've seen a company make such a progressive leap in EVERYTHING in just one year, at least for a sports game. If any of you other old timers remember, it's sort of like the magic that changed Tecmo Bowl into Super Tecmo Bowl, back in 'the good, ol' days' (ahhh.....).
Sony is really doing a number with these sports games, staying continuously head to head with EA Sports, and actually keeping them on their toes quite a bit. They are forcing EA Sports to continuously raise their standard just to stay competitive. And who does this benefit in the long run? (I'll give you 3 guesses and the first two don't count. . .). Ultimately, this means better quality games for us, and a lot more to choose from. I am now anxiously awaiting NFL Gameday '97, and NBA Shootout '97. As long Sony acts like it has something to fight for and DOES NOT get complacent (hint,hint), it might possibly overtake EA soon in the near future. I advise EA to pay close attention. . .
Back to the game, though. What Sony has done here is not truly innovative, its just good solid game design. They have filled in almost all the holes in their previous hockey game. It is complete. And it is little differences like this that take a good game, like Faceoff was and turn it into a great one.
From the top, this game has excellent graphics, which are still very crisp and sharp despite the fact that Sony has decided to use sprite players instead of the more popular polygonal figures: sacrificing graphic fluidity for speed and gameplay. The rinks are detailed to the snowflake, and are beautiful. All the players animations, from shot fakes to booty checks (that's what I call them) are very good. I only wish, personally, that you could see your name and number on the back of your jersey (I heard NBA Live '97 has them. . .[hint again]), but when a sports game so good I have to take time to nit-pick like this... I think you get the point.
The speed of game and the noticeable speed differences between the players are big factors that add to the game's overall gameplay. My only complaint is that all the different kinds of checks are still hard to get used to because there is one for every different skating position. With 6 different checks to master, the learning curve is steep, but that can be another bonus to a game like this. It makes you take time to master techniques (keeps you from taking back every new sports game you buy before a week's time is up) and helps to separate the talented gamers from the lucky novices.
The announcer in the game is not just good, he, along with the crowd is off the hook. He really draws you into the game with his exaggerated antics: 'Pittsburgh, GOAL!!!!!, hat trick for Number 66 for the Penguins, MAAARRRRIOOOO LEEMMIIIEEEUUUX !!!!!!', and the crowd goes nuts. For the road team he's just the opposite, as if someone is holding a knife to his throat and making him (reluctantly) say: "Goal for the Rangers scored by, Mark Messier." The play by play is very precise, and enjoyable. I look forward to hearing this loudmouth every time I score.
Of all the new features, the improved gameplay really caught my eye the most. Faceoff '97 didn't have to completely retool what was already a pretty good engine, but they made it better by giving it everything it didn't have before. There is now backward skating, a now-noticeable exclusion from the first Faceoff, which makes a bigger difference than I would have guessed. There is also an option to slide in front of a pass or shot and try to deflect it. The ability to direct your shot is also a huge difference between this game and the first one, although breakaways and slappers are a bit too easy even on the All-Star difficulty mode.
The AI has been tweaked enough so that hard isn't really too hard (as it was before) and easy not too easy (but still too easy, if you get what I'm saying. . .). Although not perfect, it does work much better than before, and gives you something to look for in the '98 version. The new additions to the gameplay make this game special because it brings out one of the few things that hockey games have been missing for years: strategy. This makes the game much more realistic, and feels a lot more like the real thing.
There are 5 offenses to choose from, each with it's own focus depending on the type of team you use and the type of game you play. There are also 3 defensive strategies including Zone-D, a long-awaited addition to the hockey gameworld, and a 3 forechecking options. You can even 'one player' the focus of your offense so that he hovers and finds the most scoring opportunities. This lets the Eric Lindroses dominate like Eric Lindros, and is a really smart innovative feature, making the realism jump out you.
There are more moves and types of shots that reflect real plays, like the give and go, and the redirected shot. This is an shot that is to hockey games, what the alley-oop is to basketball: you could live without, but you much rather not. Fake shots have finally been included, and all the regulars are also there, with one-timers, slapshots, drop passes, the whole kit-and-kaboodle.
The improvement in the management's part is as equally impressive as the improvement in gameplay. In the first version, a lot of these options were there, but incomplete. They had an immense group of stats on the first version, but they didn't even display them after games, much less compile them. During season play, you could only use one team, and only play one loooong 82 game season with, no stats, awards or anything. Of the most annoying feature in NHL Faceoff was that you could only create a player for one game. After that, your mystical player would disappear to dimension X. In Faceoff '97, you not only create a player (with a lifetime guarantee, thank goodness), but he performs based on his ratings even when the computer plays him. A forward with the rating 99 will likely lead the league in scoring, and most centers with a 99 in passing ability will exceed 100 assists.
You can trade and edit teams based on real life transactions, and the rosters are already very current. The season option really was really impressive, with the ability to play as one-team, or in multi-team season play. In the Multi-team season play, you can play the games in any order you choose, a seemingly small, but great feature I haven't seen grace the sports scene since College Football National Championships for the Genesis. All the awards are present, and this is becoming a very welcome trend in sports gaming. They have included records for everything, even fastest goal scored from faceoff.. Faceoff '97 saves very in-depth stats, more than the regular goals/assists/points thing of previous versions. They include additional stats like shot percentage, and penalty minutes, which gets compiled in addition to team stats. I suppose they could've added even a few more, but I won't push it.
All in all, this is excellent edition of Faceoff I recommend buying with no considerations, and no matter how good the much-anticipated NHL '97 is. This is by far, my favorite hockey game, with the polished gameplay and options pushing it a couple of notches above NHL Powerplay '96. It puts everything together, and proves, once again, that brains are better than brawn, (and that tired cliches are best saved for Shakespeare.)