Though hockey was essentially in complete turmoil for more than a season, its video game counterparts never left the ice. Now that the sports' problems have been resolved and the players have hit the ice again, new rules and all, another wave of hockey titles have just arrived in console drives, including Sony's latest in its Gretzky series.
Gretzky NHL 06 is an odd mix of arcade-style gameplay with a simulation backend. The game features lightning-quick movement, tightly designed controls and pin-point shooting while on the ice, but the main Franchise mode is replete with most of the depth of a full simulation title. It's a very interesting mix that works well in and of itself, though its whole isn't necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.
Hit the Ice
Spasmatic is a reasonable descriptor for the game's on-ice action. Players look and feel more like they're playing a game of roller hockey on a suburban street than skating gracefully on ice. It's not that the animations are bad or anything; they're actually fairly decent. Rather, players turn and stop on a dime and accelerate and decelerate so fast that it almost feels as if they aren't on skates at all but rather running around with a pair of Nikes strapped to their feet.
As such, the game doesn't entirely feel like hockey, and as this is indeed a hockey game, that doesn't sit quite well. There's a certain grace and smoothness to player movement in hockey that's to be expected from the sport, virtual or not, and that movement simply isn't here. Having said that, it's not a terribly poor playing game, but again, it doesn't feel like hockey.
On the plus side, the controls are reasonably tight, to a degree at least. Input response is quicker than a more simulation-based version of the sport, which some may see as a plus. Since players can stop and turn on a dime, there's less of a learning curve when you first sit down with the game, making it a little more pick-up-and-play friendly. Shooting is also more arcadey than other titles in that you'll actually see a reticule of where you're aiming, making it easier to fire the puck past a goalie. Realistic, no, but that's not an entirely bad thing. The end result is that you're still pressing the left stick towards the section of the net that you want to shoot at, only you're now given a target showing you exactly where you're pressing.
While movement is rather responsive, passing isn't quite as forgiving as it could or even should be. You'll find yourself accidentally passing to the less ideal of two nearby players, and a whole lot of passes will actually whiz by your intended target or get intercepted because of this.
While the passing thing can be a little annoying at times but carefully avoided for the most part, and the player movement and overall feel might be favorable to a small number of non-purists, the way the CPU players play the game will no doubt be the cause of constant frustration. Computer opponents will pass the puck around like a pinball game, sometimes making the game feel so hectic that the best plan of action is to simply start mashing the check button.
The computer will also pass and shoot behind itself constantly, even though it is entirely out of position to do so. The CPU managed to score two goals on us within two minutes due to nearly impossible passes and shots. The first goal came from a one-timer where the passer was being checked into the boards and quickly (and very accurately) popped the puck out to a teammate behind him. Less than two minutes later, a player fired a wrist shot from dead-center in the ice while completely turned around and skating in the wrong direction. Sure, we've seen some of the best players in the game pull off these sorts of miracle plays on rare occasions, but you'll find the computer doing this time and time again.
Behind the Desk
While the game's on-ice play leaves a fair bit to be desired, Gretzky NHL 06 has a few fairly neat modes of play that will draw fans, including a decent Franchise mode. The new Wayne vs. Wayne mode is reasonable fun, pitting players against each other in a fairly standard game of hockey until either team has earned enough 99 Time to call The Great One out onto the ice. It fits perfectly with the game's imperfect arcade-style gameplay and could prove to be a decent source of rivalry between a couple of friends.
The mentioned Franchise option is essentially what one would expect from a multi-season hockey career mode in that it pits you at the helm of a team with things like the team's finances to watch over. It's not as deep as other titles as its missing aspects like future prospects, though it does include player chemistry this year which requires you to balance your various lines with a good player mix. Another positive is that the computer is quite active with trade offers, making for a much more interesting between-game downtime than some other hockey titles.
Looks Like Hockey, Sounds Like Hockey
Visually and aurally the game is respectable, though not great. The game's overall in-game presentation is pretty good with decent replay angles, loud, boisterous sound and on a whole is actually presented like a hockey game should be. Hockey isn't the generally polite and calm sport that golf or even baseball (to an extent) are, and Gretzky NHL 06 gets this part right.
Graphically the game may not look as good as something like NHL 2k6, but it is a reasonably decent looking title. Player faces, while not entirely accurate, are fairly well detailed, as are their overall models. The crowd is mostly polygonal, helping avoid the stands from looking like a bunch of cardboard cutouts (though that's rather expected these days). The ice is missing many of the subtle reflections that other hockey titles have featured for years now though, and on-ice shadows aren't the greatest, resulting in a somewhat flat looking experience.
The game's animations are pretty nice as mentioned, though the herky-jerky gameplay results in a somewhat jittered look to movement on the ice. Some of the check animations are quite nice, though this isn't the hitter that NHL Hitz Pro was.
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