I missed NHL 06 on Xbox 360 last year. NHL 2K6 was a passable first stab at next generation by 2K Sports, but the world of frosty digitized pucks isn’t spinning squarely on axis until its founding father, EA, has published its annual entry. But even in gaming despair there’s always a silver lining. The crafty development team at EA Canada has had an extra year to prep their entry into next-generation hockey, and they approached the challenge by thinking outside the box they built.
Instead of revamping the Xbox NHL engine, EA took an “out with the old and in with the new” attitude, resulting in the entire game being built from the ground up. This freedom gave the developers an opportunity to obviously rework the graphics, which trump NHL 2K7’s hands down, but also allowed them to experiment with new control schemes. The result is nothing short of the biggest revolution in hockey gaming since EA’s first hockey entry on Sega Genesis.
Gone are the need for face buttons to shoot, pass, deke and whatnot. On Xbox 360, the two thumbsticks and triggers are all that’s needed get in three periods of play. The left thumbstick controls movement as per the norm; the right controls shooting, checking and stick-handling; and the right trigger controls passing. There’s no better motivation to hit the ice with these controls after witnessing the short introduction video that climaxes with a player performing a perfect spinorama, sliding the puck across the crease and behind the goalie in one photo-realistic, smooth movement.
As with any dramatic change, there’s a sharp learning curve with these controls, especially passing and shooting. Initial frustration is impossible to avoid when your fingers instinctively reach for the face buttons to make a quick one-touch pass or slap a crossing pass into the back of the net. There’s an option to revert to classic controls at any time, but why bother? Once fumbling with the thumbsticks and passing trigger are no longer a nuisance, a whole new world of realistic puck handling and intuitive shooting toward is discovered and ready to fully explore.
However, a few other game features and improvements still need some work for this new take on hockey to really thrive. Skating in particular is slow and at times cumbersome, especially when chasing down loose pucks for icing calls. Excluding the speed burst button is partially to blame, but I’d be happy if the players at least looked like they were pushing full speed on occasion. Other anomalies, like far too many shots that clang off the pipe â€“- despite all-new puck physics — bad clipping when players become jumbled around the net, and extreme thumbstick sensitivity with wrist shots will hopefully be addressed in next year’s version.
NHL 07 is more a re-imagining of console video game hockey than a sequel to its predecessors. Aside from a relatively robust franchise mode, many of the off-the-ice frills have been stripped away, leaving a basic game to be learned all over again. The best place to get educated is by partaking in countless turns in the penalty shot drill. Time spent practicing will pay off on the ice, either against human or CPU players. It’s a small price to pay considering the long months EA put into this risky endeavor. Thankfully, their work was time well spent.
- Overall: 8.2
- The controls are revolutionary and the game looks great, but there’s still room for improvement on the puck physics and pacing. A few more features would be nice, too.
— Dan Bradley