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Hockey has always been one of the most difficult sports to capture in a video game. For years we have been accustomed to playing realistic golf simulations. Baseball and football have been mainstay products since video arcades existed. Racing enthusiasts have seen several great games come their way recently. But the hockey fan has always never quite been satisfied. Electronic Arts has made it their duty to remedy that situation with the release of this year's update of what has become one of their most popular products, NHL 97.
Excellent Animation and Sound
One thing that has plagued video hockey games in the past has been the lack of realism. First of all, they never seemed to get the size relationships between the ice surface, the players and the puck quite right. Assuming a standard size ice rink, the players would have to be at least 10 feet tall and 4 feet wide to be stick-handling that two foot puck! For some reason, it just didn't seem right. But things have improved over the years. We've seen a steady progression in realism in games like Wayne Gretzky Hockey and the predecessors to this game. NHL 97 has made quantum leap in this department.
As soon as you've finished installing NHL 97 and the game's demo comes up on the screen, you know you're in for a treat. The first thing you'll notice is that the players look realistic, both in the way they look but also the way they move. The programmers at EA have gone to great lengths to ensure that the game looks as much as possible as what you see when you watch an NHL game on TV. Look closely at the players and you'll see that their uniforms look almost exactly like the real thing; observe the player's name and number on his back; remark that some players shoot left handed and others on the right; and that each of the goalies has a different mask. Note that the size of the players in comparison with the ice surface and the puck is right. All that to say that if you were to take a snapshot of this game, it would look quite a bit like an actual NHL game.
All that's great, but hockey is a fast sport, right? What you really want is players that move like the real NHLers. Well, you've got it here. Watch how NHL 97 has captured the movements of players skating, stick-handling, winding up for a big slap shot, throwing a vicious body-check or cross checking his opponent in the back. EA has obviously done its homework. The realism is downright amazing!
Next on the list of things you'd expect when you watch an NHL game on TV is a play-by-play announcer. Well, NHL 97 has got one. In fact, Canadian hockey fans will recognize the familiar voice of Jim Hughson, play-by-play man for the Vancouver Canucks. At first you might think that having the announcer all the time during the game would become annoying, but it really doesn't. It adds to the realism of the game. That's because EA has done a good job with the sound editing. The sound bytes at cut so close that it really sounds like Hughson is describing a live game. You really need to hear it to believe how good it is.
All of these bells and whistles come at a price though. Hopefully you have a quick machine with lots of RAM or you'll get some hesitation in the player's movements and even broken up speech. The game ran fairly smoothly under Windows 95 on a Pentium 75 equipped with 16Mb of RAM, but Coming Soon Magazine recommends at least a Pentium 120 for optimum performance. Players with slower machines should sacrifice some of the graphic detail (like team logos on the ice) in order to free up some system resources.
Game play is the key
While it's really great to have super graphics and sound, the most important aspect of any hockey game is game play. By that we mean that play on the ice should be as real as possible, no matter what it looks and sounds like. For example, all ten players should not converge on the puck at one time; players shouldn't go for a line change when the other team is on the attack; and players shouldn't always go offside. In other words, the players should play like real NHLers. While there still are a few bugs, this game does a pretty decent job. Generally speaking, you're not going to find yourself streaking in on a three on zero breakaway in this game.
So, why do we only give NHL 97 85% for game play? Well, while the players move well and they generally play like they should, the game really hasn't captured the individual aspects of the NHL players. Mario Lemieux doesn't seem any different than Wayne Gretzky. Eric Lindros no different than Pat LaFontaine. While Gretzky should be feathering passes from behind the net, he instead is throwing body-checks. Now, when was the last time anyone saw Gretzky throw a solid check? Perhaps a small annoyance which would probably be invisible to those unfamiliar with the NHL, but nonetheless an area for some improvement. If EA could somehow get a little bit more of the players' characters into the game, it would be truly awesome.
Some neat features
What NHL 97 does offer in abundance is features beyond the on-ice game itself. First of all, you are given the opportunity to play around with the rosters on the NHL teams. Want to see Paul Kariya play with Saku Koivu for the Montreal Canadiens? No problem, just make the trade! That's a nice feature for any die-hard fans who want to play an entire season with the actual team rosters.
The game also lets you create a player, which is kind of neat if you want to insert all the real like rookie players into their respective lineups. What's more fun, however, is creating a player in your own name and seeing if he can lead the league in scoring. Which, unfortunately, brings us back to a small complaint about game play. We created a player modeled after this reviewer. A five foot six inch, 160 pounder would be hard pressed to make any NHL team but under no circumstance should he score more points than Mario Lemieux.
Hockey fans with modems can now rejoice that it is now possible to play against remotely located opponents. While you can expect a little bit of slowdown in terms of game action, the feature is a welcome addition. After all, it's much more fun to pummel one of your friends than a computer opponent.
People with lots of patience will be happy to see that you can play an entire 84 game NHL regular season schedule. However, those of us with less patience are happy to see that we can jump right in to the Stanley Cup playoffs of simply playing a single exhibition game.
Written by Mike McGrath
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Pentium 75Mhz or faster,
DOS 5.0 or higher,
Min 8Mb memory,
Hard disk drive with 25Mb free,
SVGA video card VESA compatible with 1Mb memory,
Quadruple-speed CD-ROM drive with MSCDEX 2.21 or later, or faster,
Microsoft mouse and driver or 100% compatibles,
Sound Blaster 2.0 or higher, Sound Blaster Pro, Sound Blaster 16, Gravis UltraSound, Ensoniq Soundscape and 100 % compatible sound cards.
Multiplayer: IPX Compatible network, modem 14,400 bauds or serial connection.
Windows 95 Configuration
Pentium 75Mhz or faster,
Min 16Mb memory,
Hard disk drive with 40Mb free,
SVGA video card DirectX 2.0 compatible with 1Mb memory,
Quadruple-speed CD-ROM drive with MSCDEX 2.25 or later, or faster,
Microsoft mouse and driver or 100% compatibles,
DirectSound 2.0 compatible sound cards, Windows Sound System and 100% compatible sound cards.
Multiplayer: IPX Compatible network, DirectPlay Winsock IPX or DirectPlay TCP/IP.
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