As a stand alone hockey title, NHL 97 is a top-notch effort, complete with all the detail, realism, and pro licenses anyone could expect from a quality sports sim. However, as an EA Sports product - especially when compared to the mind-blowing new PC version - NHL 97 falls a bit short of the company's usually lofty standards. Or put another way, the game rocks but doesn't go the extra mile.
While the good far outweighs the bad here, the truth is that a handful of inexcusable glitches stick out like sore thumbs. The game is without an on-ice ref, which means face offs are triggered by a puck that floats over the players' heads for a few seconds before it drops to the ice. There are more realistic ways to depict something as basic as faceoffs. Play-by-play commentary is also conspicuously absent: Players get only the occasional goal or penalty announcement from FOX and NY Rangers color great John Davidson. Most shots on goal don't seem nearly as fast as they should, even when the "speed check" radar gun clocks a blast at 80+ mph The majority of goals scored by the computer would be considered softies by pro hockey standards - in fact, shots your goalie should stop blindfolded often slide past him and into the net. Gone too are overall team ratings, used to help weigh the decision when selecting teams. (Using the numerical ratings to pick a strong team and play against a weaker squad is often a good way to learn basic gameplay mechanics, but here - unless you're very familiar with NHL teams - you'll just have to guess.) Line changes on the fly can only be made when your team is on offense, which means you can forget about killing a penalty and firing the puck the length of the ice to get fresh players...once you clear the puck, a line change cannot be made. Lastly, and this is truly bizarre, when the computer-controlled team is down in the final minute of play, it will pull the goalie for a sixth attacker - yet only five players will be on the ice with an empty net behind them. Granted, these are minor faults, but an EA Sports title should be devoid of these bush league imperfections.
Minor points of contention aside, NHL 97 is still one of the best hockey sims yet on a 32-bit system, perhaps second only to Virgin's spectacular NHL Powerplay 96. Despite the occasional animation hiccup, the 3-D polygon players skate, shoot, and body check with exceptional realism. Jersey numbers and team logos are clearly visible on all players. You can trade and create players during a season and even track stats for up to eight saved seasons at once. All 26 NHL teams, two All-Star teams, and over 650 real NHL players are included. The crowd, reflections on the ice, the haze of the glass, and the advertisements along the boards all add to the game's realistic look and feel. The gameplay is super-quick, and control is dead-on and responsive. Featuring nine camera angles to choose from during gameplay (eleven in replay mode), a shootout option to practice penalty shots or to improve your goalie's reflexes, and the customary exhibition, season, and best-of-seven playoff modes, this game's got it all.
If you're in the market for a Playstation hockey title, look no further than NHL 97 - even if it lacks the perfection generally expected of EA Sports.