For any publisher releasing an NHL sim for the PC, the task is the same: to make it as good or better than EA Sports' NHL '98. With Powerplay '98, Virgin Interactive and PP '98 developer Radical Entertainment have taken a mighty slap shot at the reigning champ - only to have it deflected on the way to the goal. That's not to say that Powerplay '98 isn't a good game; that would be like saying the Flyers aren't a good hockey team because they were swept by the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals last year. But it does mean that if you could only buy one hockey sim, NHL '98 would still be the game of choice.
Where Powerplay '98 stacks up most favorably against NHL '98 is the place you'd least expect it - out on the ice. Direct3D support makes for smooth animation and high frame rates on lower-end systems like my P-133, and because Radical opted for Direct3D instead of native 3Dfx or Rendition support, PP '98 will run smoothly on more gamers' systems than NHL '98 (which only offers hardware acceleration through 3Dfx-based video cards).
The first couple of times I hit the ice with PP '98, it seemed the players were moving sluggishly, especially compared to the frantic pace of NHL '98. But the more I played it, the more I felt that it was moving at just the right speed; I think it was the close-in perspective (the "PP98" view) I used that made it seem the players were taking their time getting up the ice. Whatever the reason, though, the bottom line is that I wound up liking the speed of Powerplay '98 as much or more as that of NHL '98.
Graphically, Powerplay '98 falls a little short of equaling NHL '98, with extremely angular player faces more reminiscent of the enemies in Quake than real-life hockey stars - this is nowhere close to the mind-blowing job EA Sports did with the player faces in NHL '98. On the other hand, if you're like me, you usually play from some sort of overhead perspective, and that means the only time you even see these guys' faces are after goals or penalties. PP '98 supports up to eight gamepad buttons, meaning you'll use drop passes and flip passes more often because they're so easy to execute. And as far as play goes, Powerplay '98 dishes up some primo hockey action with brutal checks, quick-as-a-wink glove saves, body-pounding battles for control of the puck along the boards, and crisp passes that connect about the right percentage of the time.
One area where Powerplay '98 outperforms NHL '98 is in its coaching strategies. Sure, NHL '98 lets you set offensive and defensive strategies, but Powerplay '98 takes the concept one step further by providing pros and cons of each choice you can make. That might not sound like much of a feature for gamers familiar with the ins and outs of hockey, but for newcomers it's a real godsend.
The only noticeable problem I encountered in the rink was that Powerplay '98's team and player ratings didn't seem to jive with on-the-ice performance. For example, twice I led the lowly Calgary Flames to wins over the Eastern Conference All Stars. These weren't just wins, either, but 7-4 and 7-3 maulings. Buoyed by my performance, I started a season as the Flames and found myself struggling with (and eventually losing to) the Vancouver Canucks. Maybe the All Stars just weren't used to playing as a unit...
But it was when I started the season that I began to uncover some of Powerplay '98's problems - the first and most annoying being that this game uses last year's schedule and rosters! This isn't the first time I've run into this with a sports sim, but usually the publisher or developer (or even a user with some programming savvy) will post a patch that updates the schedule and team rosters. No such luck here, though - and because the only players who'll fight in Powerplay '98 are ones who fought during the 1996-97 season, any players you create to represent rookies will never throw down their sticks and duke it out no matter how dirty a blow they take. It's great that PP '98 has all the NHL teams, but that loses a lot of its appeal when team rosters must be altered manually, one player at a time, to make them reflect real-life counterparts.
And that brings us to PP '98's second egregious shortcoming: no mouse support! Friends, the lack of mouse support in a Windows 95 title is about as unforgivable as it gets - and if you don't believe me, try doing things like typing in new player names, making trades, and adjusting lines using a gamepad. It's incredibly clumsy, and about as anachronistic as Gordie Howe would be if he ever did make the comeback he hinted at last year.
Once you've made a menu selection, you'd better hope it was the right one - because at many screens (such as starting an exhibition game) there's no way to back up if you made an error. You can't check season settings to ensure that rules such as two-line passes and offside have been enabled, something that's all too easy to overlook because of the glitchy gamepad control (Radical released a patch that's supposed to fix the twitchy gamepad control in menu screens, but it didn't help me and my Gravis GRiP).
Gamers who want to sign up for the long haul of an NHL season will be shocked to learn there's no option to "simulate" a game involving the team you picked: the only way to do it is to let the PC control the players and play it out in "real time" (game clocks are faster than real clocks, of course). Feel like checking the slate of games for certain day during the season? Tough - the only schedule you can see is the one for the team you picked, and what's more, there's no way to have more than one human-controlled team per season. Want to simulate the first five games in December, then take control for a game against a hated division rival? Again, you're out of luck: you can only "simulate" games one at a time.
Last but not least, more than a few gamers will bristle when they learn the only multiplayer support in PP '98 is on a single PC. Yes, you can have up to eight players in PP '98, but let me ask you this: when was the last time you managed to gather eight people at one computer to play a game? I can understand the lack of play over the Internet, but the absence of modem or network play is, like the lack of mouse support, pretty much inexcusable.
For gamers who can't enjoy NHL '98 because they lack a 3Dfx-based video card - or for gamers who want to see on-the-ice action handled in a new way - Powerplay '98 is a very good choice, and there's no denying that I had mucho fun playing it. At the end of the day, though, its various shortcomings keep it from making a serious run at NHL '98's title as king of hockey sims.