Sony Sports has produced some top quality games over the past year, from the still impressive NBA Shootout '97 to the more recent beauty MLB '98. In fact, last years NHL Faceoff '97 was one of the best sports titles of the whole season. While EA Sports is still the king of sports video gaming, Sony is slowly providing the single greatest threat to that dominance. Which is why I'm quite surprised with the uninspired gameplay of NHL Faceoff '98.
Hockey is actually one of the easier sports to simulate. The players are well spread out and rarely clump themselves on one side of the rink (as opposed to basketball, where all 10 players are swarming over one half of the court at all times). Now that hockey has received more support from the media, game companies are scrambling to create the most realistic and simple rendition of this complex game. In the case of NHL Faceoff '98, suave graphics and a user friendly interface can't compensate for subpar gameplay, poor control, and the most annoying announcer this side of Dick Vitale.
The first thing you'll notice about the game (past the flashy intro sequence) is the amazingly quick load time. While many hockey games take forever to navigate through, NHL Faceoff '98 is instantly gratifying. You pop in the CD and are facing off in no time.
The simple layout of the pre-play screens help with this load time superiority. You can choose to play as any of the 26 teams of the current season (including the Carolina Hurricanes) in Practice mode, Exhibition, and Full Season. Of course, full stat tracking, trading, and player creation is offered - standard fare these days. You can modify period length, rules, and even game speed.
The graphics are exceptional. The players are fully polygonal and the animations are right on. Much like Shootout, the light sourcing and minor realistic touches make the rink look great. The boards even reverberate after a nasty check. On the down side, I was surprised to find that there are only 5 different camera angles to choose from (as opposed to the 8 in NHL '98), and of these only the two vertical views are adequately playable. Also, the crowd is a flat sprite pancake (goes well with syrup but a sore spot for the eyes).
Back once again is Sony's patented Icon Passing system. For those unfamiliar, Icon Passing involves assigning PSX controller icons (O, X, , and /) to different players. This supposedly makes passing easier because you don't make errant passes based on slight D-pad goofs. While this worked well in Shootout, I found it really difficult in Faceoff '98. The players are moving around so rapidly that it becomes quite a trial trying to keep your eyes on everything. Between the puck, the two clambering wing men, the dashing Steve Yzerman, and the 250 pounds of a pissed off Ray Bourque trying to turn you into Canadian bacon, the icons get all but lost in the action. Thankfully, Icon Passing is only an option, so you can decide for yourself if you want to pass to Claude Lemiuex or "Triangle."
The biggest letdown in this game is in the control. While the players move with tremendous grace and realism, the control is loose and difficult to master. One timers are easy to pull off, but one on one shots (such as Penalty shots) are poorly done and leave much to be desired. Nine times out of ten you end up careening into the goalie for an interference call. Unlike Faceoff '97, checking on defense is not crisp. You don't hear that crunch of stick meeting bone or that get slight dizzy feeling after smashing a scrawny forward into the boards. It feels lifeless and dull - the puck just sort of changes hands without any real feeling. This could have been helped by the sound, but...
The sound is equally unimpressive. While the background crowd noises and checks are well done, there is simply too much silence going on. If you've ever been to a hockey game, you'll know that the crowd, music, and smashing bodies can create quite a din (except in San Jose :)). So why do I feel like I'm playing in a church? It must not have anything to do with the announcer, who by all accounts has the most irritating voice in any sports game to date. He doesn't do any play by play; only penalties and goals are worth mentioning. Unfortunately, he seems to enjoy screaming every time a home player scores. I guess this is what really happens, but it just doesn't fit in with the silence. "Goal by number 99, WWWWWAAAAHHHHHHHHHAAAYYYNE GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRETTTTTTZZZZKKKKAAAAAHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!! Yeesh. Take a vallium.
The balance of gameplay difficulty is not good. I won one game by the score 11-1, with all of my goals scored by Sergei Fedorov (he's good, but THAT good?). I then lost the next game by the score 2-10, with all of Pittsburgh's goals coming from Jaromir Jagr (he's good, but THAT good?). This just doesn't seem right. Also, players get injured too often. I once lost my entire First Scoring line in the first period. Must have been the fish.
Hockey isn't complete without the fighting, and thankfully you can get down and dirty when things get too hot. I actually like the fighting in Faceoff more than in NHL '98 - it's just easier to control.
What's the biggest gripe of reviewers these days? Higher wages? Better dental plans? More free pony rides? Nope, nope, and nope (critics + horses = saddle sore geeks. Yechhh). We are sick and tired of flashy graphics and subpar gameplay, the penchant for designers to go for brawn over brains. Games with high polygon counts but no replay value have become the bane of the game reviewer, and unfortunately NHL Faceoff '98 falls apart a bit under the pressure. Fans of Sony's other sports titles might enjoy this one, but die-hard hockey gamers should check out a more complete game in NHL '98. Better luck next year...