One timer? More like all-timer.
The goal of any game is to make you forget about life. You want to forget about the pile of bills sitting on the kitchen table, the five page economics paper due on Thursday, and the frightening new development in your refrigerator. Video games exist to take us to new places, or old places, but always familiar ones. Sports games have the added difficulty of transporting you to a place that actually does exist in the real world, a place with real walls, real fans, real referees, and real players.
With the new tide of hockey sims upon us, the thing that sets one apart from the pack is not only how well it recreates the real thing, but if it does so in a fun way. If these are your criteria for success, then your hunt for the best hockey game on the market has ended here with NHL ’98. While mediocre control and a mixed graphical bag keep it a notch away from greatness, this is still the premier hockey title on the market and well worth your Christmas bonus.
The NHL series is the most successful in the business, and it looks as though the guys at EA want it to stay that way. Fans of the series will be happy to know that NHL ’98 stays strong in the tradition set by its predecessors while offering a few new goodies along the way.
After you get past the techno-hardcore-been-there-done-that-MTV-extreme intro (insert booty shake here), be prepared for a lot of game. Full NHLPA licensing means you actually play with the real players; none of that “Number 99.5, Dwayne Greltzky” business found in unlicensed games. You can play as any of the 26 NHL teams as well as a slew of internationals and the two All-Star teams. In all, you have a choice of 44 teams. Now you can finally live out that fantasy match-up between Slovakia and San Jose.
The graphics are not the best around, but they don’t get in the way. The word of the year is ‘polygonal’, and the players are indeed blocky little fellows. They do move with fluidity, though they look kind of frightening up close. The framerate is actually a bit low, leading to occasional choppiness. The rinks and crowd are nothing to cheer about either, but again, they don’t get in the way. Frankly, you’re not buying this game for the graphics (you’d be better served in that department with NHL Faceoff ’98), you’re buying it for, well, everything else.
Like what? Well, for starters there’s the incredible slew of options. All the standards are here (Exhibition, Season, etc…) as well as some cool extras. Tournament mode enables you to set up and play in one of 5 kinds of tournaments, so even after winning the Stanley Cup you can set new challenges for yourself. You can even check out any goalie mask in the league with the handy ‘Mask Viewer.’
And then there are the cameras. Featuring 8 different camera angles, you can change viewpoints on the fly by hitting one of the trigger buttons. No more having pause the game, go to ‘change camera,’ cycle through the choices, etc, etc. Just click away to instantly switch to a more useful angle. This is quite helpful for situations that require a new perspective (such as getting a closer view for breakaways).The instant replay function is also well-done, with full zoom and rotation capabilities and multiple viewpoints.
The gameplay is solid. You can pull off all the signature moves of the NHL series – one timers, drop passes, fake shots, and even shot deflections are here. Like the real thing, this is a fast paced game. You need quick reflexes and strong focus to keep up with the action. I found that the Rookie difficulty level was a bit too easy; goals are too common and the goalies react slowly. The tougher settings actually means tougher play, so just crank up the heat if you’re not sweating.
Like the graphics, the control has its weak points. Since the framerate is a little slow, skating is not as fluid as NHL Faceoff ’98. And since the puck doesn’t like being slapped around (it told me so), it is often roaming around on its own. The jerkiness of movement only really becomes evident when running down a loose puck, but after enough time with the game this can be dealt with. On the plus side, the ability to utilize speed bursts on offense and the ultra quick one timer responsiveness makes for some up tempo play.
And what is hockey without the fighting? (Answer: Ice Capades). You can of course beat each other senseless if you need to. Unfortunately, the control here is not very responsive. Not that it really matters, as both fighters get the same penalty regardless of who wins.
The sound is great. Checks sound like checks, shots sound like shots, and the crowd sounds interested in the game. But the most amazing thing about the sound, maybe even the whole game, is the superb announcing. With a color commentator and play by play guy calling the shots, you’d think that they programmed a sound byte for every single situation on the ice. The announcing is absolutely seamless -it really seems like they’re calling your game. They even throw in weird facts about the players at appropriate times. For instance, after scoring a goal with Peter Forsberg, they might say,
"The thing about Forsberg is that he's deadly on both ends. He'll beat you on defense and take the puck down the ice for a quick score. Great player."
Even the correct vocal inflections are here. They get excited when things are exciting and sound bored when things are boring. It’s simply the best voicing I’ve ever heard in a game; you just need to hear it to believe it.
I know the word is overused. I know that 9 out of 10 games claim it. But the best way to describe NHL ’98 is simply immersive. You turn on the game, you start a match, and you completely lose track of anything else. It really feels like you’re in control of a televised hockey game, or the next best thing. Realistic touches abound, from the individualized goalie masks to the frustrated player mouthing off in the penalty box. While there is still room for improvement (isn’t there always), this is a strong title fit for inclusion into any sports game library.