It’s back, baby! After a long year away, the NHL returns this season to the delight of many of its long time fans. Coinciding with the new season comes the release of NHL 2K6. 2K5 was easily the best hockey game last year and (given the loss of the ESPN license, and EA’s much improved NHL 2006) 2K6 had a lot to live up to this year. I am pleased to say that they not only lived up to expectations, but improved upon last years game in many facets.
First of all, the game looks great. The players animate realistically, whether they are shooting, skating, checking, or being checked. Players are well modeled as well, faces look realistic (not like they were tacked on like wallpaper). Hit animations are very realistic, not cartoonish like in last years NHL 2005. In a nice touch, following a particularly brutal hit players can lose their helmet. They will remain helmet less until the next time they leave the ice. Speaking of the ice, it looks great as well. Reflections echo off it very well. They aren’t overplayed and they aren’t understated, they come off just about like they would if you were watching the game on TV. Ice also sprays up from the players skates during a quick stop, adding a touch of realism to that fast break the goalie just stoned you on.
One would think that the presentation would take a big hit with the loss of the ESPN license, and while it had an impact, I can’t say that it really detracts as much as I expected it to (at least not graphically, but we get to that in a moment). The folks at 2K did a good job covering for the loss, as the game has a very similar feel to the ESPN presentation. Replays are well done, as well as the cuts to the locker room during breaks between periods (although while playing online, I did notice a few glitches where the losing team would celebrate while the winners looked like someone told them their kitten died). The crowd is really the only flaw to the graphical veneer of this game. They are poorly rendered in many cases, and their animation is repetitive. You may say “But Ryan, all sports games have poorly rendered crowds with repetitive animations”. Two that I say three things. 1. That doesn’t mean they have to be, 2. Most sports games don’t show as many close ups of the crowd as this one does, and 3. Who let you in here? Once a game the camera will pan to a “Celebrity” in the crowd. I swear to all that is holy the first time it did it I thought they were profiling a local homeless woman. Stuff like this seems nitpicky, but when it conflicts with the realism of the rest of the game it can draw you out of your immersion in the game.
Fans of hockey know the sounds of hockey. Big hits, slap shots off the post, and Canadian accents dominate the real life world of the NHL. Most of the sound effects in 2K6 are spot on. Slap shots sound like they should, and big hits come accompanied by the appropriate slams and groans. However, one of the main areas the game suffers from the lack of the ESPN license is in the sound department. Simply put, the commentary in this game is bad. Last year, due to the ESPN license, 2K enlisted the vocal prowess of two of the best announcers in the world of hockey (Garry Thorne and Bill Clement). This year they use Bob Cole and Harry Neale, and the results aren’t nearly as favorable. The rest of the presentation is so well done, that it really is a shame that they didn’t find a pair with more chemistry and wit to provide the voiceovers. As sports game soundtracks go, NHL 2K6 is pretty much par for the course. A selection of not too offensive, but not too catchy pop/alt rock tunes populate the in game jukebox. The X-box version does support custom soundtracks though, so you can score away to Chicago and Journey all you want (Don’t lie-..you know you have them on your hard drive).
As with any sports game, gameplay is the key. 2K6 has it in spades. The action is fierce, fast, and realistic. Hits come when they should, not every 2 seconds like in the last couple EA hockey games. Shots on goal are kept at a reasonable level, and the computer AI is very good about realistically moving the puck around. This isn’t Blades of Steel, goals have to be earned in this game, and every one feels like an accomplishment. The difficulty is very well balanced as well. You will, on the default difficulty level, have some blowouts and scoring frenzies. However, you are just as likely in the very next game to have a low scoring goalie duel. The difficulty does feel a little out of balance from one tier to the other, however, which may frustrate some players looking for a challenge that doesn’t cause them to break their controllers or various household items.
Not one to rest on their laurels, 2K added several new features to the gameplay of NHL 2k6. The most important of which is the new “Pro Control” system. By clicking in the Right stick in the offensive zone you can bring up a wealth of new options. You can icon pass, double tap the icon to perform a one timer, make high passes to your teammates by pushing down on the Right stick, or dump the puck along the boards by pushing left or right. For players that will take the time to learn this system, this will really open up the scoring zone and help you get ahead against the smart computer AI.
To balance this offensive boost, 2K has added several new defensive mechanisms as well. Anyone with a little bit of hockey knowledge knows that very few things help your team out more than a good enforcer to help your goalie protect that one goal lead late in the third. NHL 2K6 takes this idea to heart by blazing a large red E in a circle under your teams enforcer. This player, while generally not as quick as his offensive counterpart, packs a big hit and can usually get away with a little more. 2K even added a button command to the white button that allows you to switch to your enforcer on the fly. Enforcers have the capability to “Intimidate” other players through big hits. Once opposing players are intimidated, they will be less confident when they move into your defensive zone. 2K has also added “Maximum Goaltending” which allows players to switch to their goalies on the fly to stop an opponents rush. This mode is tough to use at first, but with practice will lead to some great stops. The one question that invariably comes up where hockey games are concerned is “How is the fighting”. In a word, great. The most in depth fighting system in the history of hockey games returns, and it makes whipping up on your opponents star Right Winger all the more fun.
One thing that sports gamers can’t live without anymore is a deep franchise mode. NHL 2K6 has a fantastic franchise mode that gets deeper and deeper the more you dig. Got a player that you think should be playing a little better, send him to an individual practice. Want to build for the future, hire a great minor league coach and work on building up your farm system team. Another great addition this year is line chemistry. If your scoring lines are performing quite the way you want them too, try switching them up a bit. You’ll find that different players compliment each other in different ways, which can lead to more goals on game day . The Skybox returns from last year as well, offering you a chance to unlock various bonuses for tasks completed throughout individual games, and your career as a whole.
Sports gamers generally pride themselves on how well they stack up against the rest of the players in the world, and NHL 2K6 gives them a chance to prove it. The game features full X-box live support including Quick Match, Opti-match, Leagues and Tournaments. The gameplay on live is smooth and responsive, and I experienced no lag during the several games I played. Another nice touch, and one that I wish other games would incorporate, is mandatory feedback after every session. At the conclusion of every match you are asked to describe your experience with your opponent. This feedback is used to build an online reputation that takes your feedback, both positive and negative, into account and builds a percent rating indicative of your sportsmanship.
2K sports really outdid themselves this year. They managed to take a hockey game that was phenomenal last year, and actually make changes and additions that brought more to the game rather than take away. Unlike many sports games that add a few gimmicks, bells and whistles and call it a new game, 2K worked on improving already solid AI and gameplay. What they were left with is a hockey game that is nonstop excitement, fun, and realism. The twenty dollar price tag, and excellent gameplay make this a must buy title for hockey fans and for sports gamers that may not usually purchase hockey titles. Trust me, you will have hours of enjoyment with this game. The NHL is back baby, and I couldn’t be happier.