I’m a huge fan of the National Hockey League. I am a season
ticket holder, am the president of the booster club for our local NHL team, and
play recreational hockey, poorly. So it’s fair to say that I get a little
psyched when the new hockey games come out. With the end of the NHL lockout and
the beginning of a new look NHL, I was even more excited to play EA Sports NHL
EA has been producing NHL Hockey video games since 1992,
originally under the Electronic Arts Sports Network (EASN) NHL Hockey logo.
This 14 year franchise has become the most popular hockey video game franchise.
NHL Hockey has been produced for every major platform since the “16 bit” era,
and the 2006 version is available for Playstation 2, X-Box, GameCube, and PC.
As the game has evolved over the past 14 years, game modes
have been created to fit nearly every gamers taste. “Exhibition” mode allows
for instant play against the IA or a human opponent. “Season” mode allows the
gamer to play through an NHL season and the Stanley Cup playoffs, if their team
qualifies. “Dynasty” takes season mode and adds the duties of a General Manager
both during and between seasons.
If the NHL season options become tedious, there are the
“World Tournament” and “International Elite Leagues” modes as well. In the
“World Tournament”, the best players from each country take each other on in
what is comparable to the World Cup of Hockey. The “International Elite
Leagues” expands upon the previously included European leagues, while including
the NHL players who ventured to Europe during
the NHL lockout.
Two major changes have been added to the controls, the skill
stick and classic deking control. Gamers utilize the skill stick to perform
special moves with top offensive players. Moving in on net, a quick tap of the
analog stick will move the puck between the stickhandlers legs before roofing a
shot over the goaltender. Classic deking control allows the user to control the
puckhandler in a way similar to the early days of the NHL series.
Graphically, NHL 06
falls a bit short of expectations. The NHL series has had roughly the same
quality for the past few years, mixing 2D and 3D graphics between the fans in
the stands and the action on the ice. Small improvements can be seen, but in
general the graphic engine in the game appears to be nearing its limits.
Hopefully, the move to the Xbox 360 in NHL 07 will force the developers to move
to a new engine for all platforms.
In terms of audio, this game is still near the top of the
class amongst sports titles. The sounds of the game, the in-arena
announcements, and the game commentary are all improved over previous versions.
Key players throughout the league have unique audio segments that are played
when they produce during the game. Sadly, the announcers remain the same
mediocre talent from the previous versions. With the redistribution of NHL
announcers and the new NHL national TV deal, hopefully this will change in NHL
If I’ve been harsh on the title thus far, that’s because I
am such a fan of the franchise and want to see the few areas it’s lacking
improved. After fooling around with “Exhibition” mode, I launched into
“Dynasty” mode like an Ilya Kovalchuk one-timer.
It was really enjoyable at first setting rosters and
negotiating contracts between seasons. While the game has minor league teams,
assignment of non-roster players is generic to the “minors” and doesn’t allow
the player to be assigned to a specific league. Additionally, none of the new
rules regarding contracts, trades, waivers, or even the salary cap are included.
There are some settings in “Dynasty” mode, such as changing the cost of tickets
or the percentage of profit on concessions that look to be a compromise on not
including a salary cap. This was likely due to time constraints and should be
fixed in NHL 07.
On the ice, this game is tough to beat when it comes to fun
factor. I’ve played hundreds of games from all different genres and on several
different platforms, and to me there’s nothing quite like racing into the zone
with the puck and backing off the defender right as you saucer pass the puck
across the zone to a streaking winger who one-times the puck over the goalies
shoulder. While I’m a proponent of skill over grit in the real NHL, fighting
will always have its place in the EA NHL. Beating down the opponents goon with
your teams own tough guy doesn’t just give you the reward of dishing out a
whoopin’, but it also gives your teams momentum a boost, and that certainly
doesn’t hurt in a close game.
If I have any complaints about the on-ice experience, it’s
to do with the difficulty settings of the game. “Easy” is so easy, within an
hour of game time, even novices will be racking up 8 to 10 goals in a game.
When the user moves up from “Easy”, the difficulty goes up so much so fast that
even advanced users will have trouble keeping control of the puck in the
offensive zone for more than a few seconds. This is likely due to the increased
skill of the computer AI, which was surely a necessary upgrade from the
previous offerings. Adjusting the specific settings of each difficulty rating
allowed me to find a level of play that I found both rewarding and challenging.
EA made a big deal of emphasizing the customer player
creation in the NHL 06. While this
“EA Creation Zone” allows for customization of a player from head to toe, these
customer player features have never appealed to me. If EA wants to find a way
to include more flexibility in the game, they should acquire licensing from the
Canadian Major Junior Hockey leagues in order to offer more “real” players for
the “Dynasty” mode drafts.
As with prior versions, multiplayer can be accomplished at
the console level or via Xbox Live. Even with the advances to the AI, the best
hockey comes from a live opponent. Xbox Live offers a terrific option for those
who can’t find a worthy local opponent. I may have to go the Xbox Live route
myself, as dominating my editor at console hockey has become ho-hum.(editors note: when your opponent takes the Red Wings against the Blue Jackets you tend to win most of the time)
In conclusion, NHL 06
improves upon NHL 05, and provides some advances that point towards what could
be an amazing title in NHL 07,
especially on the Xbox 360.
More On:NHL 06
Decent gameplay, a solid dynasty mode, and an improved physics engine more than make up for poor team creation and few major enhancements as NHL 06 goes â€œfive holeâ€ on the competition.