The word “revolutionary” isn’t used much when talking about sports games. In fact, it’s used even less to describe the slew of supposed next-gen sports games we’ve seen lately that seem to subscribe to the beliefs that less is more and looks are everything.
It was a pleasant surprise then, to see what EA Sports, the company behind some of the slimmest sports packages we have seen in quite some time has accomplished with it’s first foray into next-gen hockey; NHL 07.
The biggest change to the long running hockey franchise is the compete overhaul of the offensive engine. Sure, the left thumbstick still controls your skater and aims, but the right stick is where the magic happens. As the mandatory video tells you the first time you start up the game, the right stick is your hockey stick. Flick it forward to do a quick wrist shot, move it side to side to deke the goalie or flick it to the back, then the front to hammer in a pounding slap shot, and that’s just the start of the crazy realistic control you have.
This new offensive formula comes with a large learning curve, and will feel fairly awkward at first (for instance, one-timers now require near perfect timing), but once you get the hang of it and start to realize the freedom the new engine brings with it, you’ll find yourself forgetting all about shooting with the face buttons as on earlier versions. What’s more, the engine makes the game more fun and rewarding, as you know you’ve earned each goal and assist you’ve made.
With all of the emphasis on the offensive side of the puck, it seems that the EA team forgot about improving on the game’s defensive play. The defense isn’t bad at all, it’s just relatively the same as it was in previous versions and while the developers did say the defense was next to get the next-gen treatment, it would have been nice to have the total package. The defense also relies on the right thumbstick to throw bone-crushing hits, but the system was an afterthought to the offensive control and at times, it feels like it.
NHL 07 is a definite treat in its audio and video departments as well. Each stadium comes alive with authentic lights, sounds and effects. You can actually tell the difference between playing a game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden and playing at the Pond in Anaheim. What’s more, each player model is frighteningly realistic and their facial expressions more often than not match the action on the ice.
The fans play a huge part in the realism in NHL 07. Remember the promise of “smart fans” in NCAA Football 07? Yeah, they must have gotten lost and found their way to NHL 07. The crowd’s reactions are amazingly on par with how the game is going. They go nuts (you can both see and hear this) when the team does well, just as they’ll boo when they’re getting destroyed.
Though NHL 07 only features exhibition, shootout, world tournament, dynasty and online game modes, each option features enough depth to satisfy even the harshest critics. At the heart of the game is the franchise mode, which features everything from owner mode to a slightly thin create-a-player mode.
NHL 07 does a lot more right than it does wrong. In fact, it completely changes the way an entire genre is played. Though the game has its share of problems it succeeds in not only becoming the Xbox 360’s best hockey game, but the systems best sports game in general.