The level of realism in this year's crop of sports games is both frightening and exciting. Even without taking the unbelievable graphics you get with a 3D card into consideration, 1997 is shaping up to be a breakout year for the genre. Computer-controlled players are smarter, physics are better, and gameplay is more exciting than ever. Throw in awesome graphics and audio, and sports games are finally coming into their own.
NHL 98 is one of the front-runners in this bumper crop of sports games. Each year, this game gets so good, it's hard to fathom how it could get better; not that past versions of the game were perfect, but compared to other sports games, this hockey series has consistently been one of the best.
The major improvement in the '98 edition comes in the area of control. It's about time EA Sports got around to supporting more than a two-button control scheme. You can do a lot more with a couple more buttons, and all EA needed to do was take a look at console sports games. With just this one simple addition, as well as a few other improvements, EA's NHL series once again ups the bar, not only for hockey games but for all sports games.
The four-button control scheme makes doing some moves easier than before. The designers removed the need for double clicking on the gamepad, and some of the moves that previously relied on double clicks, like speed burst, are now assigned to a single button. Maybe someday EA will decide to include full eight-button support for the aging Gravis GrIP or the Gravis GamePad Pro.
Finally, the game includes some strategic elements, although not many. You can choose among four different offensive and defensive strategies - and you can select these from the ice instead of always having to exit to the menu. The game is still a bit shallow on the coaching side, but the inclusion of any options at all is a welcome improvement.
The physics have improved so you get a greater sense of a player's size and momentum, making it important to know how big your player is before you decide to go for a hard body check. Plus, the puck doesn't seem to pass through players as much as it did in the past. You can even choose to deflect a pass into the net instead of always using the less-subtle "one-timer."
For those who want to keep track of your season's statistics, EA has included the NHL 98 This Week area, accessible while a season is in progress. It's a great way to keep up to date on injuries and trades going on in your personal league. This is particularly helpful if you have several players participating in a single league, which is made possible via the Internet or a local-area network.
Although AI is better, it still needs a little work. The goalie will now leave the net to stop the unnecessary icing call, and players are smarter about going offsides or receiving a two-line pass, but the game still has a few hitches. Still, play isn't stopped nearly as much as in years past. There are also moments where computer-controlled players will not go after a loose puck - it's like they don't see it or are not paying attention.
Apart from these improvements, everything else is pretty much standard fare for the series - which is by no means a criticism. With only one or two potential threats on the horizon, NHL 98 is a strong contender for the best sports game of the year.