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NHL '99

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Reviewed by Scott McCall EA Sports' N64 titles thus far have been hit and miss. One might be a big pile of dung while another turns out to be more impressive than you would imagine. So, of course, I was extremely leery when I heard that NHL 99 was coming to the N64. After all, how could it have even a fraction of the incredible presentation (i.e., sound) of NHL 98 on the PlayStation? Well, folks, I'm here to tell you that my fears have been squashed, as NHL 99 on the N64 is a highly impressive debut for EA's last dominating series. Actually, the most disappointing fact about NHL 99 is that the N64 version is based on last year's NHL 98, and that means all of the improvements and changes to NHL 99 on the PlayStation aren't included. Yes, there are updated rosters, with the inclusion of the expansion Nashville Predators, but you won't find the new NHL rules or Marc Crawford's coaching drills in the N64 version. The lack of a few features doesn't hurt a lot, but it's still a detriment, especially since the new rules aren't "in the game." At the heart of NHL 99 is the same great gameplay that's been tweaked since the early '90s. Does that mean it's getting old? Not really. The series continues to get more realistic with better physics and better intelligence -- but it never compromises the fast, fun gameplay. However, the NHL series has always seemed to lack continual innovation and improvement, and NHL 99 is noticeably thin (even on the PlayStation) in that department. If the game wasn't so much better than every other hockey game out there, then that might be a cause for concern. The control in the N64 version of NHL 99 can be a little tricky at first -- almost entirely because of the C buttons on the controller. Like other titles from EA Sports, you have your choice between the Control Pad and the Control Stick. Then here's the default button scheme: The A button is for passing and switching players. The B button is for shooting and hooking. The Bottom C button is for a speed burst and for a body check. The L button is for blocking shots and spinning. The Z button is for spinning and changing your skating direction 180*. Finally, the other three C buttons are used with strategy, and therein lies the problem. The first few times you play, you'll accidentally be hitting the wrong C buttons, which will change offensive and defensive strategies or will change your line. One area of control that I think needs improvement is just the inclusion of a few more functions. For example, there is no icon-based passing in the game. You just basically aim and pass. That can lead to some unwanted inaccuracy. Also, the dumping the puck option needs to make a comeback. They tell you to aim for the boards to clear a puck, but that isn't always the right move for every situation. Sometimes it would be better to just dump it. Also, why were the fake shots and quick stops removed? Besides the sound, a big improvement NHL 98 had over its predecessors and competition was the superior intelligence. Being a veteran fan of EA Sports' NHL series since the first SNES version appeared, I can attest that NHL 98 had far and away the best intelligence ever in a hockey game. I actually had low scoring two-player games (10 minute periods). Guess what? Maybe it's just me, but the intelligence in NHL 99 seems inferior. In the one-player mode, I noticed I scored more goals on the default Pro level of difficulty than last year, and the All-Star difficulty seems to get more difficult only by having the computer hooking and holding you a lot more. So it remains to be seen whether the intelligence was "dumbed down" for beginners (not a wise move) or because the graphics are more sophisticated. The game modes in NHL 99 are your basic fare. There are new Beginner (no penalties or strategy) and Quickstart modes, but there's also the standard Exhibition, Season, Playoff, Tournament, and Shootout modes. Obviously, the game can be completely customized, too. You can change the skill level, period length, and penalty frequency, and you can toggle fighting, offsides, icing, two-line pass, injuries, and line changes on or off. There are also different controller configurations (the default works best), different camera options (can be changed mid-game), passwords for cheats, a "heavy meter" that shows the speed of your slapshots, not to mention some management options like editing lines, trading players, signing free agents, and creating players. As with Madden NFL 99, the Controller Pak, Rumble Pak, and extra controllers come into play in NHL 99. The Controller Pak support is set up so only one note is used (unlike Madden), but there can be varying numbers of pages underneath that note. Here's the way it works: Header - 2 pages, Playoffs - 24 pages, Rosters - 20 pages, User Logs - 2 pages, Settings - 2 pages, Tournament - 22 pages, and Season - 45 pages. So if you add all those up, then you can see the maximum number of pages required is 117 while the most realistic minimum would be 4 (header + settings). The Rumble Pak support is one thing that can be improved for future versions, but the multi-player mode already rocks. Forget Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey, because NHL 99 is not only more realistic but more fun. The graphics in NHL 99 can be summed up into one word: breathtaking. They absolutely blow away the PlayStation version with higher polygon counts, zero blockiness, and crisp and clear surroundings. In fact, even though the graphics aren't high-res, they look better than Madden NFL 99. EA can continue to work on increasing the amount of animation for special situations, but what's here is very fluid. But the most important thing is that the graphics are smooth and fast. As a few side notes, I noticed the crowd is realistic looking, the Plexiglas now has marks on it for realism, and the ice gets cut and scratched during the course of a period. Maybe most impressive about the N64 version of NHL 99 is the sound. After the extremely disappointing sound in Madden NFL 99, I expected the worst. Boy was I ever surprised. After watching and hearing the quick-cut, full-motion video-style introduction with high-quality rockin' music, I knew I could be in for a treat. First, the game has slightly less than a dozen digitized song clips throughout the game and menus. Yes, they are in mono, but it's basically CD-quality so that's not a big deal. But second, the in-game sound effects are in Dolby Surround Sound. That truly makes all the difference in the world. The skating, puck, shooting, and, most importantly, checking sound effects are loud and clear with great separation. A big problem I had with NHL Breakaway '98 was the tinny sound. Trust me, that's not a problem here. But let's not kid ourselves. This is a cartridge game and not a CD game. So the two-man commentary team of Jim Hughson and Daryl Reaugh had to be replaced, there isn't rockin' music during line changes, and the PA announcer has been reduced. Instead, N64 players get in-game commentary by Bill Clement, which is quite interesting. I guarantee you haven't heard play-by-play like this in a video game before. The quality is perfectly fine, but he is extremely fired up, goofy, and enthusiastic. It's quite entertaining even if it does get repetitive. The rockin' music during line changes has been replaced (at least it made it into the menus) by decent organ music and some nice crowd cheers. Finally, the PA announcer calls players by the number, not by name. Still, when you add it all up, NHL 99 has some of the best sound heard on the N64. The N64 version of NHL 99 is fantastic. A few advantages it has over the PlayStation version are much-improved graphics, a more accessible multi-player mode, and no loading time. Sound, which one might think would be a big disadvantage, is an extremely pleasant surprise. So that means the PlayStation version only has a slight sound advantage along with its features advantage while the N64 development team plays catch-up. NHL 99 on the N64 is also light years beyond Acclaim's NHL Breakaway '98. Acclaim has a lot of work cut out for it if it hopes to equal EA Sports' hockey offering. But a word to the wise: Next year's edition will definitely need more innovation and additions if EA is to continue to dominate this sport. Get this game now.

Graphics: 4.6 out of 5 Sound: 4.7 out of 5 Control: 4.4 out of 5 Gameplay: 4.5 out of 5 Lastability: 4.7 out of 5 Overall: 4.6 out of 5

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