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Review by: Craig Miller
Published: October 11, 1998
HOCKEY!!!!! Sorry, I’ll try and gather myself together…. You see, I grew up about 30 miles from the Canadian border. I played hockey for thirteen years and even met Bobby Orr (the greatest player to play the game) and Jacques Plante (the first goalie to use a mask). I can remember playing hockey on a frozen pond with the temperature below zero without the chill factor. With all that in mind, one can hardly wonder why I get so excited when hockey season comes along and Electronic Arts releases their latest incarnation of NHL Hockey. Hockey is arguably the fastest, roughest and most exciting game on Earth and simulating it isn’t the easiest thing to do. EA Sports has tried to capture it as best as possible with NHL 99.
The NHL Hockey series has been a mainstay of EA Sports for a long time now and it has a legion of fans that run out each year to buy the latest version. During the first few years in the life of the series, I was just excited that a hockey game existed and that I could play against my friends on whatever platform was the best at the time. Eventually, I began to demand more out of the game and I wasn’t satisfied with a minor update with new player and team stats. EA Sports delivered big with the release of NHL 98. It had great graphics, the incredible control that everyone came to expect from the Genesis series, along with the ability to play a full season and be the team’s general manager. NHL 98 was not perfect but still sold like crazy. I was afraid that EA would be content with sales and not try and improve upon what was, admittedly, a very good product. Thankfully, they took on the task of making the game even better and NHL 99 is the result of their efforts.
With the feature-rich environment that NHL 98 had, one would wonder how exactly EA could improve the game. AI was a big concern of mine with NHL 98. Frankly, it wasn’t up to par with some other sports games I have played; computer-controlled players didn’t play very smartly and at least one technique existed that allowed you to score with a high rate of success. EA Sports decided to tackle the daunting task of upgrading the AI. Trust me folks, I have taken AI classes in school and it isn’t an easy subject, especially in something as complex as a hockey simulation. Here is what EA lists as having paid special attention to in terms of AI: realistic fighting (sigh), smarter goalies, shot deflections, breaking out of your own end, neutral zone play, odd-man rushes and play behind the net. All of these except fighting (sorry Don Cherry) are worthy places to improve the game. The goalies are definitely smarter — you can’t fake them out very easily at all.
The overall play of each player is greatly improved. For instance, if you pass the puck to another player for a quick shot and they are facing in the wrong direction, they don’t shoot from that position — they turn their bodies appropriately to get the shot off. The power play was another area where NHL 98 was weak. In NHL 99 a team’s special play has been greatly improved. It isn’t perfect — players don’t pass the puck around and move themselves into position for the shot — but they do act a lot more realistically than before.
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