NHL 99 Preview

Our features editor, Tasos Kaiafas, takes a look at what's in store for EA Sport's NHL 99.

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More so than its superior money or resources, one asset EA Sports has that many of its competitors lack is a legacy. This legacy can be found in both the foundation of extensive computer code already laid down over years of work and in the brand reputation that's reinforced by the EA Sports slogan "It's in the game."

But legacies can become distant memories when competition that once could only nip heels suddenly finds enough solid footing to race ahead of the pack. Fortunately for EA Sports, that hasn't happened yet. Even despite some recent lackluster games, the company that's synonymous with triple-A sports titles shows no signs of wearing down and seems to be prepared to give its most acclaimed franchise, the NHL series, a firmer hold on the hockey market with this year's release.

Of course, GameSpot's 1997 Sports Game of the Year, NHL 98, was no slouch. Its amazing 3D graphics were a spectacle to see. Forget TV realism - it almost looked better than TV. But almost isn't good enough. This year, NHL 99 will show off its all-new player models and animation, with moves captured from such NHL talent as Markus Naslund, Donald Brashear, and Mattias Ohlund (Vancouver Canucks), as well as Mike Sillinger (Philadelphia Flyers) and John Vanbiesbrouck (Florida Panthers). Like last year, professional stunt men were used to create the action sequences, like hitting and checking.

As satisfying as NHL 98's graphics were to see, the game, as has been the case every year, was criticized by its long-time fans for gameplay problems. Many were fixed last year, but some remained. In NHL 99, EA Sports claims that the most significant improvements come in the areas of gameplay, AI, and accessibility to the first-time player.

Some of the AI improvements involve both player reactions and coaching strategy. EA Sports says that the improved player AI will lead to more realistic fighting, shot deflections, breaking out of your own end, neutral-zone plays, odd-man rushes, and play behind the nets. Hot and cold streaks will affect a player's performance, while harder hitting and shooting physics, as well as a quicker overall pace, will make the game more exciting. The more realistic puck physics will also combine with improved player logic for more effective passing and shooting in general. In fact, EA Sports is saying the new game will be more intense overall, with harder hits and slap shots.

The coaching strategies in NHL 98 have been improved with the addition of four new strategies. A new feature called Marc Crawford's Coaching Drills has also been added, where you can practice specific skills and scenarios. (Crawford was the coach of the '96 Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche). Strategies can now be called on the fly during the game, something asked for by many advanced players.

EA Sports claims NHL 99 will be even more accessible to beginners by virtue of a new level of gameplay designed specifically for them. Presumably this skill level will be easier than "rookie," but we haven't tested this level.

NHL Broadcasters Daryl Reaugh and Jim Hughson will provide the commentary whether you play on a single computer, over a LAN (with support for up to 12 players), over a modem (over two computers with up to six hotseated players), or head-to-head over the Internet.

Watch for NHL 99 to release sometime this October.

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