Now that the Winter Olympic games in Nagano, Japan are finally over, the NHL can resume again. That means that we will be hearing more and more about how great Dominic Hasek is, just because he led his Czech Republic team to Olympic gold.
So far this season, we have seen the king of hockey simulators, EA Sports’ NHL 98, shine on the PC and on the PlayStation. Up until now, the Nintendo 64 had to make due with the sub-par Gretzky trilogy (Gretzky 3D, Gretzky 3D ’98, and Nagano Hockey 98), which basically is just the same game in three different packages. Fortunately, Acclaim and Iguana continue their follow-up of successful software (Turok and NFL QBC ’98) with NHL Breakaway 98, and while I will admit that this is the best hockey game on the N64, key flaws in the game’s realism prevent it from dethroning the mighty NHL 98.
NHL Breakaway succeeds by bringing the most sim-based hockey environment to the Nintendo 64, which was definitely needed after the Gretzky trilogy. We now have a full 5-on-5 contest which features all the players, moves, teams, and penalties that N64 fans have lacked, in addition to the most updated rosters of any NHL game on a console system. (PC is left out because the rosters can be updated via patch files)
Breakaway also incorporates a unique icon passing control, similar to that used in the Madden or QBC series. Holding the Z trigger assigns each player a button to provide quick passing to other teammates. However, sometimes it can be hard to see who is on the screen, and the puck will be stolen when trying to make a pass.
In addition, season statistics are well planned, including an actual running ticker of other games played that night. It definitely has a strong ESPN2 feeling, and helps to keep players up to date on conference races.
However, as a hockey purist, I have noticed some serious flaws that take away from the realism of the game. First, hockey is meant to be a fast-paced game, and at times, the gameplay in Breakaway is very sluggish. Even at the fastest game setting, it just didn’t seem like the real thing. Shots which average about 90 mph seem like they are only going about 30 mph. In addition, fast skaters such as Peter Bondra skate like they are glued to the ice.
Penalties are also a great concern for me. When I played, I noticed there was a heavy dominance of spearing infractions, which resulted in only two minutes in the box. In the real NHL, spearing infractions are severe; they usually result in at least a five-minute major and a game misconduct. They are so severe, that they are seldom called.
The announcer isn’t really too good either. I’ve noticed a lot of name mispronunciations when referring to certain players. I admit though, I like how he announces the penalties with the actual time of the infraction, which usually isn’t found on a hockey sim, but when a goal is scored, it only announces who scored the goal, not those who assisted in the play. If only this game only incorporated the exceptional 2-man play-by-play commentary that NHL 98 succeeds in. But that is the limitation of carts these days.
Goalies aren’t the hottest either. Even Dominic Hasek, who many claim as invincible, can easily succumb to a weak little wrist shot. Fortunately, goalie AI can be increased to make scoring much tougher, but gaps can still be found.
NHL Breakaway 98 might not be that bad; it is the best that the Nintendo 64 can offer for right now, but still, one must wonder what this game would be like if more tweaking was applied to the hockey engine. This game is worthy of purchase if you only have a Nintendo 64. If you have a PlayStation or a very fast PC, NHL 98 would be the better choice.