When it comes to PC simulations, football fans are living the life of Reilly. EA's Madden NFL 99, Sierra's Football Pro, NFL GameDay 99, ABC Monday Night Football, NFL Blitz - regardless of whether you're looking for high strategy, over-the-top arcade antics, or something in between, there's a football sim out there that should satisfy you.
But hockey fans don't have anywhere near that level of choice, at least as far as PC gaming's concerned. It's pretty much boiled down to EA Sports' NHL Hockey games or Virgin's PowerPlay series, and to make matters worse, there's no sign of another PowerPlay game. Perhaps that explains why the debate over NHL Hockey 99 has become so incredibly heated: For hockey fans, there's no really no other game to turn to if you don't like this one.
So what sort of new features has EA brought to the table with NHL Hockey 99? Naturally the graphics have been improved over last year's model, with stunning reflections on the ice and clearly recognizable faces on every player. The animations, especially when it comes to severe body checks, have also been ratcheted up a notch - perhaps a little too much. Seeing a player get knocked through the glass is fun the first time, but it starts to wear a little thin the third or fourth time in a single game. But I'll gladly deal with a little broken glass in exchange for these crisp graphics and smooth animations.
Where the bulk of development time was obviously spent, though, was in sharpening the artificial intelligence routines that dictate the actions of computer-controlled players. Previous NHL Hockey games were plagued with far too many offsides and two-line passes, not to mention goalies that could be faked out of their skates on just about every breakaway and defenses that could be shredded almost at will by NHL Hockey veterans. But that's all changed for NHL 99: You'll see very few offsides and two-line pass violations now, and the computer-controlled defense is now much more aggressive.
At first glance, in fact, it might seem that EA went a little overboard trying to make the AI more robust. In my first few games at the pro level (next to highest level of difficulty), I was giving up an insane amount of goals (with goalie control set to Auto) - 10 against Toronto, 9 against Dallas, 12 against Washington, all while controlling the world-champion Red Wings. Even more frustrating, I was only managing a paltry goal or two on my best nights. But when I stopped trying to score by freelancing every time down the ice (something I could do with easy in NHL Hockey 98) and began focusing on executing the strategies I'd studied in the coaching strategies screen, my opponents' totals began to drop, and my own slowly began to rise.
My studious efforts didn't decrease the unrealistic number of shots taken by the computer - despite your best efforts, you can still see upwards of 25 or 30 shots on goal per team in a single 20-minute period - but at least I could start holding my own on a regular basis. Still, the shots-on-goal issue is obviously a sticky one for gamers looking for a lifelike recreation of hockey; a casual fan like myself can deal with it fine, but hardcore hockey devotees will have a hard time swallowing these inflated numbers.
Another nice addition is a practice mode, where you can iron out your moves in all the offensive and defensive sets, not to mention specialized situations like 1-on-2 breaks and penalty shots. Combined with the animated coaching strategy display, this is a real godsend for beginners - though I would have loved it if EA had gone the extra mile and added a full-blown tutorial (similar to Madden 101 in the Madden NFL games) that would explain more clearly what types of strategies are best-suited for your lineup.
There's been a lot of talk on Usenet of bugs in NHL Hockey such as lock-ups, play-by-play blunders, and so on, but all I can say is that I've yet to experience any type of lock-up or even slowdown during play. As far as the play-by-play goes, it's basically the same stuff we've been hearing for two or three years now, so I've subconsciously tuned it out and wouldn't notice even if the commentary was incorrect (my bad). The other things some people are calling "bugs" - lack of scoring, difficulty in passing, and so on - are just too subjective to evaluate honestly. I too thought the goalies were invincible at the Pro and All-Star levels, but as I mentioned previously, it just took a little patience and practice before I started to see the playing field gradually level out.
Based solely on the intensity of the action out on the ice, I've got to recommend NHL 99 over the 1998 edition - but it's getting a lower overall score from me than I gave that game because of some of the weird omissions and pointless design decisions EA Sports incorporated in NHL 99. For instance, why isn't there a way to allocate a button to perform a wrist shot automatically? The same goes for a poke check - both of these (and many other actions) were available in PowerPlay 98, and I was almost certain that EA would incorporate them in NHL 99.
Realizing that the improved AI might make NHL 99 a little tough even for veterans, EA thoughtfully included an "advantage" option that lets you tilt the balance in your favor regardless of difficulty setting - but if you decide to use line changes (manual or auto), the feature is automatically disabled!
Another real disappointment is the lack of a "coach-only" mode, similar to what's found in the Madden NFL games. Hockey's an extremely fast-paced game, and I'm sure there are some fans who'd be happy to merely make the coaching decisions and watch the computer carry out the dirty work. But even if you don't assign yourself a controller at the Game Setup screen in a Season game, you'll find that you've still got control once the game starts! There really should be a way for you to make line changes without having to control the players out on the ice, dontcha think?
Surprisingly, NHL Hockey has no support for Internet play - although it's probably just as well, given the feeble effort made in Madden NFL 99 for Internet play. In EA's favor, a strong point can be made that latencies are almost always too high to play a game like NHL Hockey 99 over the Internet; you'd need latencies somewhere around 100ms or less to even hope of having a smooth game. But there's always the chance you might get a latency that low against certain opponents - if you both have ISDN connections and use the same ISP, for instance - and a coach-only mode would almost certainly allow for somewhat higher latencies.
Perhaps my biggest complaint with NHL Hockey 99, though, is the interface. I haven't played the console versions of this game, but judging from the convoluted layout, it's a safe bet that the interfaces are all identical. In every previous NHL Hockey game, for example, line changes were selected under the Rules menu; now, you choose them at the Controller Selection screen? I probably spent a good half hour or more just poking around trying to find options and features I'd never had trouble locating in earlier versions, due in no small part to a cryptic manual that gives you little more than the bare essentials of program navigation.
So, I'm uninstalling NHL 99 and going back to NHL 98 or PowerPlay 98, right? Not on your life! I'm loving the heightened challenge and stellar graphics in NHL 99, and while I'm not too happy at muddling around the interface screens, the sense of satisfaction I get from victories or even hard-fought losses more than compensates for any frustration I'm experiencing. NHL 98 owners on a tight budget can certainly get by without buying NHL 99, but at the very least they should download the demo and see what they think of it - especially since they can "upgrade" to the new version for the reasonable price of $29.99. And no matter how infuriated you are at NHL Hockey 99 for not delivering what you expect for in a hockey simulation, at the very least you've got to appreciate that pricing move.