Did you know hockey is back this year? The general consensus amongst friends I’ve observed is a split between those who either don’t know or know and don’t care, and those overwhelmingly overcome with jubilation from the return of the puck that no other programming exists. Electronic Arts felt the vast majority of gamers fall into the first category and thus decided during the NHL lockout to not include an NHL entry in the Xbox 360 launch lineup ” despite including NBA, NFL and even PGA. 2K Sports on the other hand made a gutsy decision to gamble on the NHL’s triumphant return after a year off and by virtue of distinction will capture the next generation hockey audience.
Gamers drawn to NHL 2K6 for Xbox 360 will either be familiar with or have played the Xbox or Playstation 2 version. They’ll know the ins and outs of the deep pro forma franchise mode with a huge array of sliders and settings, extensive stick handling options, enforcers skating with a big “E” under them, pointless yet fun mini-games, online lobbies by skill-type and online leagues, On-the-Fly Coaching and even the air hockey parlor game in the Skybox. If this were an Electronic Arts game several of those features would have been laid to rest in the voyage to Xbox 360. 2K Sports don’t play that. Every single gameplay and off-the-ice feature has survived the next generation transition.
Like its 2K current generation cousins, you will want to play on either the All-Star or Pro difficulty setting out the gate. The defensive A.I. is downright awful on Rookie and Amateur levels resulting in huge 15-0 shutouts, and sketchy at best on the higher difficulty settings. I realize the “new” NHL is geared towards offense but why the need to be multiple breakaways every minute of each game? Not everything can obviously be addressed in this first next generation entry but a couple areas were the focus of the development team.
2K Sports has implemented a drastic graphical overhaul that shines in some areas and crashes into the boards in others ” such as the drab last generation menus. Whereas in NBA 2K6 the player models are a visual highlight, here the ice surface has been pieced together with the precision of a neurosurgeon. Firing up the opening game of a franchise for the first time in 720p HD 16 X 9 widescreen on a 10 foot diagonal screen via a projector is a revelation in gaming clarity. The pond for the first time looks realistic from high above and not like a layer of foam core. As players navigate the rink their skates leave dynamic marks in the ice and create small imperfections only viewable when zoomed in during replay mode. To cap the illusion of realism, ice chips fly up off the ice and stick to players” socks and pants. Playing this game on a standard 4:3 CRT set in 480p would be an insult to the game’s artists who spent countless hours bringing the ice to life.
I often found the Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes on Xbox to lack that extra oomph even low level DVD movies were capable of putting out. Whether this is due to the Xbox’s processing power or design decision I don’t know. What I do know is Microsoft has made a push for Xbox 360 audio to be drastically improved ” even in the same Dolby Digital 5.1 format. The surround output is parallel to the fronts offering an enveloping arena experience. Shot off a goalie’s leg pad thud appropriately. The only issue arises along the baseboards when the announcer is overly thrust to either the front or rear channels, creating an off-balance effect.
Any sports gamer knows to achieve the best odds of winning the camera needs to be pulled back for maximum teammate and ice visibility. Unfortunately doing this erases much of the minute detail in the ice, on the puck and on the players themselves. After a few games I began to crave more close-ups and suddenly understood Tiburon’s decision to zoom in on the quarterback play-calling before each and every down in the Xbox 360 version of Madden NFL 06. More cut-scenes and tighter, less jittery automatic replays would have showed off the great visual work without compromising gameplay.
There are some graphical inconsistencies that over the course of several games begin to nag like a cranky sister. First, the pre-game cut-scene sequence is always almost identical down to the same vendor concourse and player having his pads adjusted in the locker room. The fans, now fully rendered in 3D, look as if low-resolution photorealistic faces were pasted on top of Playstation 2 body models. On the ice some of the stick handling moves appear to skip small animations with the puck jumping from one side to the other or in the case of wraparound goals, traverse the entire back of the net in a fraction of a second. And the most annoying graphical glitch occurs with the new dynamic net physics. Yes the nets look great when they give as a puck is rocketed into them. But I don’t want to see the water bottle pop into the air like a jackrabbit when a shot is rifled into the lower corner of the net without ever leaving the ice.
The other new major addition to this next generation presentation is of the gameplay variety and tackles an area developers have struggled or declined to approach for years. When the puck enters your defensive zone, a quick click of the right thumbstick switches the camera to a behind-the-goalie view for Crease Control mode. In this mode a cone is projected out from the goalie in two colors: red if the goalie is out of position for a shot from the puck’s current position or green if the goalie stands a great chance of making a save. It takes a little while to get used to following the action ” which tends to move fast ” and keep the goalie in position to make a save. Once the puck is shot the action quickly slows down into a bullet-time effect and a red cursor appears where the puck will cross the goal line. To make the save, a green cursor must be moved on top of the red cursor before the puck reaches the back of the net. Despite swearing I was in position to make the save, a couple low shots managed to trickle into the net. So any heightened advantage of having total control over the goalie to dismiss any AI goalie inconsistencies can be erased by erratic puck physics versus the Crease Control cursors.
After struggling to keep track of the fast paced offensive push for upwards of a minute, slowing down drastically for a save ruins the game’s flow and feels awkwardly out of place. Don’t get me wrong; 2K Sports is to be praised for taking the initiative of tackling this difficult hockey necessity. Whether the timing is right given some of the game’s other issues is debatable but I like to think of this new feature as a baby step towards a future refined Crease Control so fun that player 2 may want to stay in the mode via split-screen the entire game.
The other next generation sports titles have already garnered more attention than NHL 2K6 which is a shame considering this offering is more feature rich than many of them put together. Granted there’s all sorts of room for improvement including player models built from the bottom up and tightening of loose A.I. Whether this game is for you or not depends on which camp you fall into: the hockey fanatic who will applaud the Coyotes howl after a goal in Phoenix and hats flying onto the ice after a hat trick, or the casual gamer who thinks Mario Lemieux is a French cartoon cat. Either way with a clean year of development for next year’s version and the return of competition from EA, we expect NHL 2K7 to blow our minds instead of quietly satisfying.
– Dan Bradley