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.
The goalie play is equally inconsistent. While the save animations are drastically better than in the past and the goalie seems less likely to let in the easier goals, there are still a large number of pucks that shouldn’t go in but do. I can’t count the number of goals I’ve scored that have gone in off the goalies mask, blocker, shoulder, or even the top of the goalie pads that really shouldn’t have. In fact, there have been goals scored when the goalie is lying prone on the ice on top of the puck but the AI forward somehow magically forces the puck from under the goalie and into the net.
One last thing long time NHL franchise players will notice is that they won’t find a turbo boost anywhere in the game. While missing turbo boost would be the death knell to a Knight Rider title, it’s fitting that it doesn’t have a home in NHL 07. EA has clearly opted more toward simulation than arcade, and removing the turbo only makes that much more sense.
While there are a few complaints that can be made about the defensive AI, anyone who complains about the graphics deserves a Dwayne Roloson “cup check”. From the opening sequence through the menu screens and onto the ice, this game is beautiful. Ok, for a hockey game, maybe beautiful isn’t the word, but on either HD or SD TV’s, you’re sure to notice graphical improvements over any previous EA NHL title. Especially outstanding is the shoot-out mini-game, for which the camera angle is basically at ice level, and the players are as big as your TV will allow. Everyone who owns the game has to try the shootout, if for nothing other than sheer looks.
In terms of audio, the game doesn’t really offer anything new. The on ice sounds might be a bit better than years past, but the commentary basically sounds like every other version of the game. There do seem to be audio clips that are specific to individual players as opposed to the role based audio of years past, where every goal scorer got the same comments about they lit them lamp.
The one troubling thing is that after the regular hockey, the shootout and a few other mini games, there really isn’t much depth to this title. Much like Madden 06, most of the feature set has been stripped away, likely in preparation for major changes in NHL 08. The dynasty mode still exists, but with limited General Manager functions including poorly implemented budgeting and free-agent systems. If you really feel the need to micromanage your teams’ finances in preparation for your shot at a real life NHL Assistant GM gig, you may want to look elsewhere.
In conclusion while NHL 07 certainly isn’t perfect, the core of any hockey game is still the on ice play, and that is where this game shines, outdoing the competition. Again, if it’s depth you want, you may want to also pick up 2K’s NHL offering, but in terms of hockey, EA NHL 07 is the clear choice.
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NHL 07 for 360 is the hockey game to own this year. The skill stick is the most innovative sports game control short of anything to be offered on the Wii, and while it has a steep learning curve; it’s absolutely worth the effort. Sadly, while the controls and game play have improved, the games secondary features have dramatically thinned to the point of being a shell of the previous version. But the skill stick makes it all worth it.