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NHL '97


Electronic Arts

Reviewed by: Flurin Condrau
Author: EA Sports Price: Retail:£45 UK, Street: £32 UK
Category: Ice Hockey Simulation Released: November 1996
Platform: Windows 95, also on Playstation, Saturn, Megadrive, SNES. Version: 1.1
Multiplayer: Up to 8 via Modem/Serial, Multi-controllers, IPX, TCP/IP.


Graphic modes: 640x480x65536 (DOS in-game 320x200x256, 640x400x256, 640x480x256, Win95 in-game varies depending on your graphics card but 640x480x256 is standard)
Controls: mouse, keyboard, joystick
Sound devices: Win 95 version (DirectSound 2.0 compatible card, Windows Sound System compatibles), DOS version (SB 2/Pro/16/compatibles, Gravis Ultrasound, Ensoniq Soundscape, Windows Sound System)
Computer Memory HD space CD speed Other reqs/options
Minimum P75 8M 25M x4 Supports Gravis Grip, requires mouse. Win95 version requires 40Mb hard disk, 16Mb RAM and a DirectX 2.0 compatible graphics card
Reviewed on P100 32M 50M x4
Recommended P100 16M 50M x4

Reviewer's Hardware: Ensoniq Soundscape, Elsa Winner Trio V (S3TrioV+) 2MB


NHL '97 or Panzer General hits the ice

This review is yet another one praising the convincing 3D engine of NHL '97. Remember last year when everybody called NHL '96 the unfinished prototype and FIFA '96 the completed product? This time hockey is the coolest game on earth. There is no sports game on the market with better graphics, nicer player moves (hey, they even step over other players lying on the ice) and cooler sounds. This is a product for fans: the between-the-games menus are rock solid and contain a lot of information about players and teams. To mention every great detail in NHL '97 is a task for more than one review: play-by-play is surprisingly accurate taking into account that hockey is a way faster paced game than soccer or football ("hu-hu, the boys are back" - when scoring two in a row to equalize). The sound effects in the game are hilarious. The Vancouver based developers even added a candy for their folks: at Canucks home games the homecrowd calls for Gino. The real Gino Odjick has accumulated 181 penalty minutes in only 55 games during the last season and is the Canucks toughest "goonie"! Although players up close look a bit like ET on skates, they rendered the real faces onto the face polygons of the star players: Messier, Gretzky, Sakic, Koivu and others are really in the game. Probably the greatest achievement of EA is that this marvellous 3D engine runs nicely on "mediocre" hardware. It is enjoyable on a P75, and it runs well on a P100 with a middle range graphics board. Although NHL '97 can make use of DirectX under Win95 (my graphics board didn't like NHL '97, or vice versa that is) the majority of machines runs better in DOS in terms of speed and stability. Speaking of stability, the game crashes every now and then. On my machine - patch installed - I average a crash every ten games in DOS mode. Joysticks still tend to lose their calibration, although I have no problems using my Grip pads. DOS users should use a Smartdrive cache (try 4-8 MB on a 16Mb machine) or else they will have to be very patient with this game. Most of these issues are dealt with in the recently published patch which brings NHL '97 to version 1.1. Although there are still crashes in the game, and not all the problems were covered this patch fixes so many bugs that it is a must for every owner of the game. Hello, Cyrix owners: you can play the game now!


A standard for sports games? NHL '97s menu-section

Of course a sports game should look great, but itís gameplay where the long-time fun comes from. So this review will discuss a couple of issues in detail to give you an idea about how good this game really is. Letís begin with the game speed. This is a step in the right direction. Remember those days in NHL '96? You played the Legion of Doom (Flyers) in slow motion and the camera still managed to lose the puck. You actually needed better hardware to run NHL '96 as well as NHL '97 and its flashy graphics run on a lesser machine. The other extreme is (the often underrated) NHL Powerplay '96. Recchi passes to Koivu for the breakaway - nice and fast. Fast? Helluva speed, the game was designed for a lowly Pentium or even a high-end 486. On a good P100 system the game is too fast: donít blink or you lose the puck. NHL '97 comes in here as the ideal mix of both. They motion-captured the playersí moves from a real NHL hockey star and it shows: The moves are fast and look great. [Editor's Note : However, some of the more dangerous moves were captured from stuntmen] For the first time you get the feeling of controlling a hockey player and not a pixel-monster or a buzzing little fly on skates. Give all three games to a sports games novice and I bet that NHL '97 will be his or her favourite in a minute because what you do with the controls relates so well to what the players do on the ice. By double tapping on the gamepad (which I learnt to prefer over joysticks) you can even speedburst to a nice-looking breakaway with an unbelievable speed.


Watch the slapshot beat the goalie in the replay

Oops, did I just say speedburst? Actually, this is the easiest way to score an endless number of goals. I played my first season with NHL '97 with the Montreal Canadiens and won the Stanley Cup easily. Win the face-off with Damphousse (If only the real Damphousse would be as good at it!) and pass the puck to Malakhov. Then simply speedburst with him over all enemy defenders like a Panzer General to get a breakaway and deke the goalie. This is a move where you fake the goalie by aiming to one side of the net and then shooting to the other. Malakhov bursts straight ahead to the goalie, while approaching the goal turn right for a moment, then left and shoot - itís a matter of timing. After your first great breakaway goal, enjoy it with the sensational replay feature which allows you to zoom in on your player and really see the move he makes to fake out the goalie! So your Malakhov was the leagueís scoring leader you may say, whatís wrong with that? Well, heís a defender. Even those real Norris Trophy winners - the like of Chris Chelios or Paul Coffey are not the NHLís scoring leaders. What about Gretzky, Lemieux, Jagr, Forsberg, Sundin, Koivu? Oops, you donít need them as long as you can win the faceoff and pass to a fast defender - and winning faceoffs is no problem provided you use a gamepad and not the keyboard. Itís fun to find out how to do the deke and win games 7-1, 13-2 or even 23-0, but I tell you this: it wears off because the computer does not know how to speedburst or deke. The computer controlled players are not even able to recognize a breakaway. Each and every NHL player will try to score in a one-on-one against the goalie. The computer knows it better: the player dumps the puck into the zone and your defense has plenty of time to pick it up again. The patch improved this problem a little bit - but the computer players still miss most of their breakaway chances.


"He scored!"

Problem is Electronic Arts put all the developers on the 3D engine and forget to think about gameplay. The deke is just one example of mixing weak Artificial Intelligence (read as: how strong is the computer?) and bad implementation (read as: is it hockey or rollerball on ice?). After the third deke goal by Malakhov, the scouts would report to the upcoming teams: Malakhov always dekes. In short: the goalies would know what a deke is and almost certainly that my players always try to deke them. This would require a learning ability in the goalie-AI which is probably asking too much. But that you can speedburst over the defenders like a tank is a terrible flaw in gameplay because itís completely unrealistic. Of course, your buddies and even the computer know that itís a good idea to check someone from behind who is on a breakaway because all that should happen is a penalty shot which gives the goalie more time to concentrate on the save. And the computer (and your buddy no less) checks you from behind virtually all the time. Sometime they get a 2 minute penalty for it, sometime not. But sorry, forget about penalty shots, Iíve never seen one, I think nobody ever saw one. Plenty of them were in NHL '96, they arenít in NHL '97. You want more? What about goalie control? It was in last years edition, you could try to surprise your deke-crazy buddy by controlling the goalie yourself, well, it isnít in the game anymore. You still want more? I am sure you found out how to set up a give-and-go in NHL '96. You could be proud of a realistic and good-looking move to convert a 2-1 attack situation. In NHL '97 itís a give-and-gone: whatís in the manual is not in the game because holding down the pass button doesnít do what it should do. Gamers are no longer allowed to save a game in progress or change the controls during a game! Electronic Arts missed a golden rule of software design: never drop features when designing software upgrades.


Dead-butterfly or never stand-up: the goalies' styles

As soon as you start thinking about gameplay there is an almost endless list of things which are poorly done. Try to setup a one-timer in NHL '97 and all centres will regularly miss the pass. If you are lucky and get off the shot, you never ever score with it. You practically have to give up one-timers or really practice them hard to get one good shot in ten attempts. Instead of making a decent pass to the slot just curve around wildly because quite soon youíll have outskated the defenders and that means always the same thing: deke and score. If you are on a 2-1 or 3-1 or even on a 2-0 (this means: 2 attackers vs. no defender but the goalie) forget the other forward and go for the deke or youíll fail to score and not because Roy is God but because you will miss the pass or take a really weak shot. All this is particularly sad because in NHL '96 there were a couple of different moves to score nice goals - being that easy to beat NHL '96 provided some kind of compensation by allowing really good-looking goals. NHL '97 is still too easy to beat but what makes matters worse is that it's monotonous now: practice the deke and you will score at will. Remember to play only 5-minute periods, an accidental goal by the computer and a bit of tough luck can give a thrilling game every now and then. If you play 20-minutes, well, at least youíll score a couple of hattricks. And if you canít score and lose you simply didnít know how to deke, itís not stellar play by the computer. Remember: the deke itself is a valid move, itís not a bug which allows you score against the laws of hockey. What's important is that youíre allowed to score endless and boring goals while the computer doesnít even think about trying it.


Hockey may be cool, but it's certainly tough in NHL '97

If you are under attack follow the principle of the USA World Cup team: if it moves hit it. Actually checking is the best defense strategy even if youíre penalized: forget the manual and the pass button, always cross-check with the shoot button. Should the computer really go on a breakaway all you have to do is speedburst to catch up and heavily check the computer player from behind. You will probably get a 2-minute penalty for it but who cares? The computer has no idea about setting up a decent powerplay so check everything in sight and your goals-against-average will drop considerably even if checking outplaces your defense. Have a couple of fast players on your penalty killing unit and you will score lots of shorthanded goals! Never expect the defense to clear the rebounds. If you donít know what to do on offense fire a hard slap shot, crash the net and push wildly on the shoot button. Rebounds are the second best way to score and can raise the number of shots on goal above 100 in a 60-minute game. NHL '97 goalies - although weak on the deke - are superhuman in that respect: no real goalie would physically survive 120 shots in 60 minutes without any help by two or three backup goalies. All the defense does with the rebounds is put them in their own goal. Oh yes, you read it right: when you miss on a deke attempt there is a fair chance that the first defender who rushes after you picks up the puck but stops too late and hence carries the puck into his own net. You will get angry about these cheap goals soon enough, but you have a workaround: keep passing the puck away immediately and never try a good move around your own goal. It still happens every now and but you will not loose every game because of this.


It's 3d and it's loud: flashy graphics and cool sounds are in the game

I donít think that these issues are only relevant for the minority of hardcore hockey freaks. One of the motives to play sports games is to learn something about the sport. Hockey is a good looking and hard-checking sport, so far everything is alright. But hockey is also about good shots, decent passes, great scores and spectacular goaltending. And NHL '97 doesn't get close to real hockey here. If you are a hockey fan you will not be able to walk past the graphics and the sound. You will want it when you see it. If you are a hockey novice, youíll have plenty of fun with this beautiful sports game until you start to understand the game. The hockey pro will beat the game after one playoff series, the hockey novice probably after the first or second full season. A true sports gamer will beat every AI sooner or later. An obvious way to make winning harder is to go from a strong to a weak team. Sadly, this won't help much in NHL '97: if you have won the Stanley Cup with Colorado you will win it with Ottawa as well! In my opinion there are only two ways to keep it thrilling: try out other controls. You will feel so clumsy with the keyboard that you will have a couple of games which are hard to win, when youíre on the winning track again try a joystick and so on. The second option you have is to try the multi-player game. Try to beat your buddy, sadly though, itís soon enough a kind of breakaway fest. Both players knowing to deke may be a bit boring again, but it gives close games. Better yet, get a Gravis Grip and play four vs. the computer. Now this is really good fun. The "party value" of NHL '97 sure is good. Even your Team Canada will respect the Ottawa Senators for a while. You will realize how to score soon enough. Setting up one-timers is easier in multi-player mode: most of those one-timers will go in at the second attempt because the goalies (the experts probably call this: dead-butterfly-style) spread out on the ice - and remain there long enough for you or your buddy to miss the pass, regain the puck and take a free shot at the empty net. Oops, speaking of an empty net: If you want to improve your scoring stats you just have to protect a one-goal lead to the final minute. As soon as the computer takes out his goalie every shot goes in, the farther away the better. Win the face-off and you can leave out the breakaway this time, just shoot and score. Actually, scoring is a must in terms of statistics because if your shot gets deflected by a defender or the goalie before going in - and thatís the case most of the time - only the goal scorer will get a point but not the assisters. Believe me but not the stats: these numbers can be educated guesses, but most of the time they are downright wrong: assists are not given where they should is only one example. There is one final issue to consider: thankfully EA brought us international teams. But donít ask me why they couldnít include the proper Finnish and Swedish national teams, they dumped them together and made a Team Scandinavia (and a Team Europe that is). But, Koivu and Forsberg, Kurri and Sundin never, NEVER will be playing together on an international level because the Swedish-Finnish rivalry in hockey is no less intense than the one between Canada and the USA. Iím sorry but this is a slap-in-the-face for European customers. An explanation for this can be that EA never really thought about the World Cup because the international teams can only be used for exhibition games.

If we could have the gameplay and the coaching options of NHL Powerplay 96 combined with the looks and feel of NHL '97 , now that would be a great hockey game. Ah, NHL '97 is such a beautiful game! But, to be honest, not much more. Show this game to a friend and you and your computer will be the star of the evening but in the long run EAís own NHL '96 is more fun to play against your buddy than this Panzer General on ice!


Pros:

  • Superb graphics
  • Rock-solid menus
  • Good sound effects, nice play-by-play commentary

Cons:

  • Weak artificial intelligence (too easy to beat)
  • Key features are missing (such as goalie control)
  • Severe problems in the gameplay (passing, deke, breakaways)

FOOTNOTES

Appeal: Hockey fans and novices will love this game for the graphics
Originality & Storyline: Please watch a real hockey game
Graphics & Video: Perfect. And it's all done by your standard graphics board!
Audio: Please use your hifi equipment only if neighbours are away.
Longevity: Don't practice the deke. You'll beat the game soon enough. Start looking for a buddy to play against now.
Presentation: Good. I do like the goalie masks as part of EA marketing!
Packaging & Docs: If it's in the manual it's probably in the game...
Bugs & Problems: Most hardware bugs are dealt with in the patch. There are still crashes though.


Copyright © Flurin Condrau for the Games Domain Review, 1996. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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