The number of arcade action sports games that are recognised as true greats are very few indeed. There's Sensible Soccer on the Amiga, Super Tennis on the Super nes and the various versions of John Madden Football on the Mega Drive. Then there's the classic ice hockey game, EA hockey, and its re-jigged follow-up, NHLPA Hockey, on the Mega Drive. It seems like only yesterday that I was struggling through yet another version of the uninspiring Wayne Gretzky Hockey and bemoaning the lack of a version of one of ea's games on the pc, and now suddenly, like a slapshot from the red line, it's here. (Except it hasn't left a big red weal on my chest.)
'Aha,' you're probably thinking, assuming you haven't already dropped the mag in Smiths and are sprinting for the 6:48 to East Grinstead, 'but I bet this version of the game is two years behind the Mega Drive version, like all the other games that eventually get to the pc from other formats.' That's the best thing about it - you're getting the latest version before it's even available on the Mega Drive. NHL Hockey, in its pc form, is the equivalent of NHLPA Hockey 94, or whatever the next Mega Drive one is going to be called, incorporating all the features that the next version in the original format of the game will have. That's something other software houses might like to take note of.
Assuming that I'm now only talking to people waiting for the 6:53 to Norwood Junction and my grasp on their attention is equally fleeting, I won't beat about the bush and drag out the verdict until the final sentence: this game is absolutely brilliant. There's a tendency for anyone who's seen the Mega Drive games to take it all slightly for granted, until you remember the competition on the pc - that's when you realise what a good job ha has done. Let's start with the options: As you'd expect, you can play one-off exhibition games to your heart's content. Every current nhl team is available, along with two All-Star teams. ea now has the official licence from the National Hockey League, so the teams have the correct nicknames and logos, and the licence from the nhl Players' Association means the players in the teams are all correctly-named chaps too. This means you have the likes of Brett Hull, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky to play with. You can play your way through an entire season, or you can simply launch straight into the knockout-basis playoffs and pretend you've done all the hard work already. There are extensive facilities with which to customise your teams and every one of the 24 teams can be human-controlled. You needn't even play all the games on the same computer: players can export the league database to a floppy disk, take the floppy home with them to play their games, then import and merge the results onto the central database using the extensive League Manager's facilities.
For those of you who've never played an ea Mega Drive game, the first thing you'll notice is how well designed the controls are and how quickly they become intuitive.
Button one can best be summarised as the 'subtle' button. This is used to select the player nearest the puck, to pass the puck and to make tackles with the stick - either to steal the puck or to trip the opponent, depending on your timing. Button two could be looked on as the 'force' button, used to shoot on goal (a quick press flicks off a wrist shot, a long hold means a big backswing and massive slapshot), to inject pace into a player's skating and to charge, batter and smash your opponents to the ice or into the boards. Pressing both buttons at once means your defender attempts to hold an attacker. It's all tried and tested, well thought out and most importantly, the select-the-player-nearest-the-puck bit works well. Goalies are computer controlled and play to their ratings.
All players conduct themselves with intelligence when you're not controlling them (which makes it something of a shame when you get your hands on them, really).
Oh, what an atmosphere...
The sound is universally outstanding through a Sound Blaster. There's everything from the sounds of stick on puck and bone, to authentically tinny organ music. Crowds scream and howl and boo and are whipped into a frenzy by the crowd-o-meter. There are grunts of pain when you floor an opponent and satisfying smacking noises when the puck hits them in the face. A digitised announcer, complete with slight echo, calls the penalties out, recounts the goals and assists, and the ubiquitous Ron Barr introduces the match and winds down the show when you quit the game.
An ice view
The graphics, from the tv show-style presentation screens to the in-game stuff, are excellent, and the quality of animation is as high as you'd expect if you'd seen the Mega Drive originals. Players wobble and lose their balance, but keep their feet if you don't hit them hard enough or if the player you're using isn't as strong as the man you're hitting. They reach up with one hand to bring down a high-flying puck. They lean into a heavy challenge, poke out their sticks to trip or raise them across their bodies to cross-check opponents. They somersault when you hit them from behind, and sprawl, arms and legs akimbo, onto the ice afterward. They even sit up before rejoining the fray. And it all happens at speed and flows smoothly, too. The attention to detail is heartwarming: players sitting in the dugout even drink from bottles and spit out whatever weird liquid ice hockey players drink these days. Probably something isotonic, rather than Guinness, but you can't have everything.
And it plays...
Beautifully. It's easy to get into, and you'll soon be stringing those passes together and raining shots down on the goal, but you won't score too frequently at first. It's one of the few sports games where you can shoot at areas of the goal, never mind just at the goal: skate past left to right and shoot bottom left, for example. Goalies are as awkward to beat in this as they are in the real thing. It takes a while to work out where it's best to shoot, and who it's best to shoot with (although you can look that up in the team information).
You can introduce your own degree of difficulty by selecting the better teams, playing the crap ones first and progressing from there. In addition you can make things easier by not playing with line-changes and offside rules, although it's more rewarding if you do have them. Successful passing is the key to a winning team - if you try to take the puck up the length of the ice on your own, you usually find yourself on your back, without the puck and with someone else's skates wedged behind your molars, which is unhygienic and ill-advised.
What more can I say? It weeps atmosphere from every orifice. It's accessible, great fun and rewards practice. It isn't just the best ice hockey game on the pc, it's the best sports game. Even if you've never been into ice hockey before, if you like sport, you'll love it.