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NFL Gameday '99 (PSOne)
MSRP: $49.99
Number of Players: 1-8
Developer: 989 Sports
Publisher: Sony

Rating:
****1/2
out of
*****

NFL GameDay was the game that toppled Electronic Arts' venerable Madden series in 1996. Its original incarnation shocked EA into the realization that Madden needed serious retooling to compete in the 32-bit arena. In 1998, however, the gap between the two games has closed. Some might say the two games run neck-and-neck, with only hardcore fans nitpicking the faults and features of each one. That might be true, but it's a heck of a lot of fun doing so.

Last year, the GameDay series introduced its polygon-based graphic engine. It was the first of its kind in a PlayStation football game. In fact, many people believed that the PlayStation hardware wouldn't be able to handle 22 polygon players on the field at the same time. However, Sony pulled it off and did it with flair, driving another stake into the heart of the Madden series, which didn't produce a polygon-based football game until this year.

This time around, GameDay's developers seem to have placed more emphasis on presentation and further enhancement of the graphics. The polygon engine was great last year, but gamers are a fickle bunch and demanded slicker, less blocky-looking players for this year's game. 989 Studios delivered spectacular new player graphics, which now include more detailed uniforms (with player names on the jerseys as well as the numbers), more detailed players and better on-field graphics. Other enhancements include the players shaking hands before the coin toss and, when a player is injured, he limps off the field, assisted by a teammate and trainer. The stadiums have also been redone and look a lot better than last year's batch. Graphics-wise, GameDay 99 is the best looking football game ever produced for a console system. It's not perfect, but it's damn near it.

Another big addition this year is a complete overhaul of the audio effects, with the dual announcer team of Phil Simms and Dick Enberg calling the plays as they happen. Unfortunately, the idea of dual announcers is much better than the actual execution, at least in this game. Frequently, it seemed as if Phil and Dick were watching a completely different game than the one I was playing. After I'd thrown deep to a wide receiver, Simms called, "Underneath, to the running back." Scores for games in progress were given incorrectly. A run for negative yardage would prompt a comment about the effective running game. Occasionally, Simms' voice would sound like a Cylon robot from the old TV series, Battlestar Galactica. When the comments did manage to correspond with the action, the dual announcer feature was really cool. Unfortunately, those times were few and far between. Announcers that comment on the action in progress have been done well before, such as in EA Sports' NHL '98 and Triple Play '99. Hearing the extremely flawed commentary here, after hearing how it can be done, makes it all the more disappointing.

As a result of the time and effort spent on the game's overall presentation, it seems the gameplay has suffered a little bit. Nothing catastrophic, mind you, but there's a different feel to this game as opposed to GameDay '98. For instance, the running game has practically vanished. Last year, the polygon engine helped open up the running game because holes in the defensive line were easier to see and exploit. This year, those holes seem to develop much less frequently. The special moves, like stiff-arming and spinning, don't seem as intuitive as before.

Some of the gameplay mechanics have a distinctly arcade flavor. A new "trash talking/celebration" option has been added. (Just tap the triangle button after a play and the player responsible for the action will celebrate and/or taunt the other team.) While it's fun, it's not exactly realistic to see a player celebrate after running for 1/2 a yard. However, you can see it in this game. Another less-than-realistic move is the stiff-arm. Now, it resembles something just short of a shotgun blast to the face of an oncoming defender. Just stick out the arm and watch the defenders double backwards and fall over. It's also fun to watch, but not quite the way it happens in the NFL.

The passing game remains as unrealistic as last year. Threading the needle between defenders and still having the receiver catch the ball is still as easy as ever. The Total Control passing option, one of the game's strongest features (for those willing to take the time to master it), has returned to make passing a little more like the real thing. TCP allows the quarterback to lead receivers, underthrow the ball or adapt to situations requiring a little more touch on the ball. However, for me personally, all TCP has done was allow my quarterback to be sacked more often. I've never had much success with it and haven't attempted to master it yet again.

The tackling, which was a little suspect last year, has been changed, but not necessarily improved. Last year, tackling someone usually resulted in a two-to-three yard gain in yardage for whoever had the ball. This year, to apparently stop that from happening, the whistle sometimes sounds immediately following player contact. This means the play is whistled dead before some players even hit the ground. This change doesn't prevent tackles from being broken, as it doesn't happen every time someone is wrapped up, but it looks and feels a little strange to have forward momentum seemingly negated when it does occur. The abrupt halt to the plays just doesn't feel natural.

The play selection menus, while 100% more attractive than last year, have a slightly confusing layout, which presents four plays at a time, with the two plays in the middle being highlighted and the two plays on each end being slightly obscured. While not overly difficult to understand this layout, it's somewhat odd to not be able to see the full name and diagram of the plays on the ends. Still, the menu screens are highly responsive to the controller when flipping through all of the selections. Kudos to 989 Studios for making the menus so zippy-quick, which gives the game a fast and slick feel.

Overall, NFL GameDay '99 is much more impressive looking, but slightly less satisfying, than last year's model. The attention to the graphics and presentation is evident, but the gameplay took a backseat in the eyes of the developers. Next year, 989 Studios should simply refine the problems with the gameplay mechanics and leave the graphics alone. With just some simple tweaking, and, of course, roster updates, NFL GameDay 2000 could retake the lead in the PlayStation football game wars.

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