It’s been as predictable as the St. Louis Blues making the Stanley Cup playoffs; each year the software manufacturers release their respective hockey titles, and each year EA’s NHL title comes in second in what is basically a two horse race. But even the St. Louis Blues can’t make the playoffs forever, and this year EA’s NHL 07 is the title that gets to put its name on the Cup.
Usually, in reviews we extol the graphics, the game play, the audio, online play, and maybe even the cover photos before we spend just long enough on the controls so when our editor asks, we can say we covered them. Not so with NHL 07, where the controls are the biggest change to the game, and one I personally couldn’t be more excited about.
EA calls it the “skill stick”. I call it closer to really controlling what the players do with the puck than any other game on the market today. The right analog stick is in essence your hockey stick. To anyone out there that has played ice, roller, or ball hockey, once you try this control setup and give yourself time to adjust to it, you’ll never want to go back. Want to blast the goalie with a hard slapper? Just pull the stick back and then flick it forwards. Want to deke hard to the left before pulling the puck in for a quick wrister? Simply push left on the right analog stick for a second before slapping it forward. To channel John Buccigross, “What the left analog stick is to skating, the right analog stick is to puck handling”. In fact, with this new control scheme, you really only need the two analog sticks and the right trigger (passing) to have a pretty full gaming experience.
So, what impact does this innovation have on game play? Tons. To begin with, skating down the wing with the puck to draw defenders before setting up the forward in the slot for an easy one timer has gone the way of the Dodo. Of course, you can still try this play, but it’s a heck of a lot harder to time the pass and the shot with the new control system. However, it’s also a heck of a lot more rewarding when you actually manage to pull the play off. And while I’ll miss the easy goal scoring techniques of the previous controls (the one timer in the slot is one of the many weapons I’ve used to pummel Chuck in the past several iterations of the EA and 2K franchises), the new ones make you feel like you really earned that flashing red light when the biscuit is finally in the basket.
In part because of the lack of easy scoring routes in the new control scheme, and also because of improvements in the defensive skills of the games AI, players have to look for alternative ways to score. Whether it’s cycling the puck along the boards before dishing to a forward who has lost his defender or hoping for a rebound on a shot from the point, it’s a whole new and more realistic experience in the offensive zone.
It’s a similarly different experience in the defensive zone, but sadly not for the same good reasons. Seeking to duplicate the control allowed with the skill stick, playing defense has changed with the new poke check control. Holding the right bumper, you can again use the right analog stick to control the players stick in attempting to poke check. This gives you nearly full range of motion with the poke check, so you can try to stand up rushing forwards in the neutral zone. The problem is that the poke check is not nearly as smoothly implemented as the skill stick on offense, and can lead to stabbing wildly at the opponent, or worse sending your team to the penalty kill as your poke check attempt ended up as nothing more than a trip.
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