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NHL '99 Preview

Publisher - Electronic Arts
Developer - E.A. Sports
Platform - N64
Release Date - November 1998
Type - Sports

Last year, EA's NHL 98 for PlayStation won Game Informer's coveted "Sports Game of the Year" award. We simply loved the game, and being the absolute hockey fanatics that we are (you know, living in Minnesota and all), nobody is happier to see the NHL franchise make its way to Nintendo 64. Of course, some aspects of the game will be limited by the cartridge format -- most notably FMV intros and commentary -- but based on what we played at E3, NHL 99 for N64 will be equal to, if not greater than, its PlayStation counterpart.

To start, EA went back to the drawing board for motion capture. Since the game was produced by EA Canada (in Vancouver), a few too many Canucks were used in the motion capture; but hey, if you want to motion capture fighting, who better to use than resident brawler Donald Brashear? Mattius Ohlund is an excellent young talent, and along with Markus Nasland, provide most of the motion capture material. For the goalie animations, EA once again relied upon John Vanbiesbrouck. One interesting facet of the motion capture is that EA focused more heavily upon professional stunt men for the real hitting. This year, players will be flying all over the place in all sorts of twisted and contorted positions.

According to Ken Sayler, producer of NHL 99, "The entire sports game industry is getting back to gameplay and fluid control." Certainly, the NHL franchise embodies this belief, with a simple three-button interface, much like the old Genesis games. Plus, there is a new beginner difficulty level which makes playing that much easier. For the casual sports gamer, NHL 99 is very easy to pick up and play, but for the advanced players, NHL 99 will also feature in-depth strategy calling and AI. For example, players are able to shift strategies on-the-fly, and new AI capitalizes on opportunities. Players will skate forward to support odd-man rushes, new breakout AI will help the transition game, and tough checking will allow defensive forwards to dominate the neutral zone (just ask Mattius Ohlund what happens in the neutral zone when you skate with your head down).

There was some controversy last year surrounding the checking in NHL 98.Many magazines, and consumers, complained that it was too easy to check, that just running into someone knocked them off the puck. It's Game Informer's belief the easy checking was to counteract the offensive speedburst button. It comes down to balance -- if the offense can speedburst with the puck (which we love), then the defense must be able to counteract this. Much of the checking will thus remain the same, but the checking has gotten a little more in-depth. In NHL 99, Marc Crawford sat down with the development team and helped divide expansive checking ratings. Using this system, certain players will have an easier time moving the opposition to a certain side, while offensive forwards will be better neutral-ice checkers. Also, Marc Crawford guest stars in a brand new feature: Marc Crawford Coaching Drills. Here, you will be able to practice checking, passing, odd-man rushes, and other hockey fundamentals.

NHL 99 will be as up-to-date on rules changes as humanly possible. For example, the crease is smaller, and the video goal judge will be able to call down to the on-ice official if something is amiss. It's too early to tell if the game will include other NHL hallmarks, such as inconsistent referees, unfair suspensions, or ridiculous TV timeouts. Just be glad there's no red or blue trail behind the puck, boy does that little "innovation" suck. This N64 version does include a TV-style presentation, but instead of Jim Hughson and Daryl Reaugh it will be ESPN's Bill Clement. Expect the N64 version to have fewer comments and less chatter, but quicker menus and no loading time. The N64 version is Rumble Pak compatible, includes 18 international teams (the Czechs rule), and 1 to 4-player capability. Mark your calendars for October 27th, the day NHL 99 ships for N64.