Flat on its face.
I'm going to come right out and say that ice hockey is the best sports game to play, period. I've found that the best hockey games are the ones that flow - the ones that let you forget about the outside world as you become hypnotized by the rhythm of the game. I've played a lot over the years, from Nintendo's original Ice Hockey all the way through the intense simulations that have come out in recent years, so I've seen a lot of what video hockey has to offer.
When I first saw the screen shots for 989 Sports NHL Faceoff '99, I must admit I was a bit excited. The polygonal graphics looked awesome, and the endless array of features and details described in the press release had my heart racing. As I watched the opening videos (cool, but nothing special these days) I could hardly wait to make that first bone crunching check of the season.
But when I finally got to the faceoff circle, something terrible happened - I realized that this game sucks! Unfortunately, the good folks over at 989 Studios forgot the cardinal rule of video hockey - THE GAME MUST FLOW! NHL Faceoff '99 flows about as well as a frat party without beer - it just doesn't feel right.
Lets start with how the players move. When skating forward, players (which are graphically impressive) occasionally may have what appears to be a leg spasm, but other than that they show no signs of life other than the fact that they are standing up. Skating backwards or sideways is even more ridiculous - the players' limbs don't move at all, their bodies just sort of float around the ice. Even Blades of Steel did better than that.
The checking isn't much better. There are no bone crunching sounds, no bloodshed, and, in the end, no excitement. Basically, it looks like the two players accidentally bumped into each other, and one lost his balance and fell down. It looks so civil and incidental that I kept expecting to hear the players apologize to each other.
My personal favorite, however, is the speed burst button. As I skated on my first breakaway with Jaromir Jagr, I hit circle to gain that little extra advantage over the defender. To my dismay, instead of bursting ahead, Jagr instead decided to slow down, perform what appeared to be a little jig, and get knocked on his ass without even coming close to the net. If I'd wanted to see dancing, I'd have played Ice Capades '99 instead.
Moving on, the shooting in this game is very one dimensional. You can't really direct your shots - you just hit square and pray. The goalies are very susceptible to slap shots and tight angle shots, and they're usually pretty predictable and easy to beat. Sure, it's fun to score - but 2-3 times a period? Trust me, the novelty quickly wears off.
What Faceoff '99 lacks in gameplay it attempts to make up in special features and details. Notice how I used the word 'attempts.' For starters, it has all the hockey usuals - Season and Tournament modes, stat tracking, real NHL players, line changes and a slew of the basic options. Nothing special there. Once again, 989 offers Total Control Passing, a totally useless feature in hockey games because the action moves too fast. (It's still great for football games though!).
Next, we have the multitude of set plays and strategies, which you can call 'on the fly.' Yeah right. By the time you figure out the button combinations to press when you want to change strategies 'on the fly,' the other team has long since taken the puck off your stick. It's cool to have all the strategies available, but it's also pretty standard in today's hockey games, so nothing special. Also, Faceoff lacks a practice mode where you can work on the strategies, a feature introduced in EA's NHL '99.
Moving on, the AI in this game is pathetic. I would take my cat over the computer if my money was on the table. Nearly every time down the ice, the computer tries to set up plays. This entails having the player with the puck skate past the blue line and wait for his teammates to set up. This gives you ample time to waltz over to the kitchen, fix a snack, come back and still have time to take the puck from him before he gets the play going. The first time I played, I beat the computer 6-0 on Pro level, and it only got worse from there. Multi-player games are a bit better, but you could still do much better with other hockey game.
The game also features every NHL arena, down to the tiniest detail. But if I wanted to admire NHL arenas, I'd buy a book or a calendar or something. Furthermore, the rink seems a bit small. Its only about 2-3 body lengths from the blue line to the goal line, which makes the game feel crowded when you're in the attacking zone.
I feel like I've spent this whole review bashing Faceoff '99, but its not my fault. Other than the graphics, the game just doesn't have much value.If you're looking for a good hockey game this season, it looks like EA Sports is still the top of the line.