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NHL Breakaway '98 Review

Publisher - Acclaim Entertainment
Developer - Iguana
Platform - N64
Type - Sports
Score - 7/10

After three hockey games from Midway that are all exactly the same, Nintendo 64 owners now have a choice with NHL Breakaway '98, the first game that comes close to realizing the potential for hockey on the Nintendo 64. Unlike the Gretzky Hockey series, which are basically arcade hockey with a simulation hockey mode tacked on, Breakaway makes realism its goal from the ground up, and it pays off.

NHL Breakaway bills itself as a simulation, and it has everything you would expect from a sports simulation. Both the players and the teams match their real world counterparts, in look and in performance. The gameplay and rules are those of real hockey, and Breakaway comes much closer in feel to a real hockey game than Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey. Some aspects of the game are exaggerated. The way that equipment goes flying all over the ice after really hard checks seems a bit overdone, but it's cool anyway, and the puck spends more time in the air than is really plausible, but I chalk this up to the overstatement typical of sports games. Why stop at the limitations of the real world when you don't have to?

To its credit, Breakaway takes things farther than it has to in the simulation department. Like International Superstar Soccer, Breakaway gives you strategies. Breakaway actually gives you more options in this respect that ISS, allowing you to choose a separate strategy for most of the situations in a hockey game. In addition to offense and defense, you can also control your powerplay, penalty killing, and two man down strategies, so that you can always play to the strengths of your own team. In addition to player trading, NHL Breakaway also provides coach trading. If you're not winning, you can always blaming it on your coach, fire him, and get a replacement.

Breakaway has an understanding of hockey rules, but it also has an understanding of the mentality of video gamers, so you can turn penalties on and off individually. If offsides strikes you as a stupid rule, no problem, just turn it off. Unlike Gretzky Hockey, Breakaway has heard of delayed calls, so you can make long passes off the far boards without getting erroneously called for icing. On the other hand, you can't get out of a potential opponent scoring situation with a cheap penalty. The game waits until they lose control of the puck before calling it, the way it should. NHL Breakaway puts the ref on the ice, so you'll know when a delayed call is coming, but it's also another person on the ice to be avoided.

Given how well the game handles other aspects of hockey, you would be justified with high hopes for the gameplay. It's somewhat mixed, unfortunately. Certain aspects are exactly how you would expect them to be. One thing missing from Gretzky Hockey, for example, is passing off the boards, and NHL Breakaway gives you the control and computer AI so if you can't get the puck directly to a teammate, you can deflect it off the wall and it will get to them. You also get control over other basic hockey moves, like skating backwards, that are also mysteriously absent from Midway's games. However, the game has some other aspects to be worked on. The puck moves as if it's magnetic, snapping to the player's stick rather than sliding smoothly across the ice. Also, the control is somewhat slippery. While the players are on ice, I'd like tighter control over turning, starting, and stopping.

Since it's hockey, there has to be fights. (I assume this is in the hockey rulebook somewhere, but I'd actually like to see it in writing.) Not much needs to be said here, beyond the fact that Breakaway is a hockey game, not a fighting game, and you shouldn't expect it to behave like a fighting game. For what it's worth, I preferred the fights in the Gretzky series, but I'd be just as happy without fighting anyway.

The game is generally pretty, but not without its flaws. The player models are significantly better than Gretzky's, so they look like real hockey players, but the motion capture is a little worse. In other words, they look good standing still, but they could move better. The stadiums look like stadiums, rather than the disembodied space of Gretzky. It looks like you're playing a real game in a real place. The camera angles could be better. In particular, when the puck is at the boards on the close side of the rink, the wall is completely transparent, but the glass above is still translucent, which is a disjointed effect that damages the illusion that the rink is a physical object. It would be better if the boards were partly transparent, so you could see what's going on, but you would know the wall was still there.

The sound really failed to grab my attention one way or the other. It's there, with the puck making good whacking noises as it deflects off things and the audience cheering along, but it doesn't really stand out in any way.

The control is good, although a little complex. While skating backwards is cool, it takes some effort to master it, and the fact that there are two different ways to pass the puck can make you inefficient at both. On the other hand, the freedom to put the puck where you want it or pass to a particular person as you see fit is liberating, if you get the hang of it. As I said, the controls feel slippery, but you don't feel as detached from the game as you do with Gretzky.

Most sports games are now supporting the Rumble Pak, but most aren't using them very efficiently. NHL Breakaway is no exception to this rule. The Rumble Pak is there, but it doesn't add to the game.

Much like Acclaim's first sports game, NFL Quarterback Club, NHL Breakaway has some impressive features and innovations, but also has some significant flaws. If you're looking for a hockey game, NHL Breakaway is better than all three of Midway's games combined, but I hope that Acclaim doesn't follow Midway's route and there are improvements (or any changes at all) in next year's version.