Hockey fans have had a rough ride over the past year. The lockout persisted despite the complaints of fans and analysts even suggested that it would torpedo the popularity of the sport outside of the devoted Canadian masses. The masses rejoiced this summer when
the owners and the players' union finally ended the dispute and guaranteed action on the ice in 2005-2006.
After a less than stellar response to 2005's offering, EA had to take a good look at what made their hockey games tick in the first place. This brought the development team to the same logical conclusion that would dawn on anyone who's been skating on virtual ice for more than a decade: EA somehow needs to recapture the glory of NHL 94. This philosophy has led to a throwback in terms of control and an improvement over last year's version. It also led to the actual inclusion of NHL 94 in the main menu. This is more than just a nostalgic treat as the game is still fun if a bit mindless when compared to today's sports titles.
First off, the near constant checking that previously broke up offensive drives has been replaced with more varied checking. You can still lay on the big hits, but they aren't nearly as frequent and '06 has steered away from becoming a more complicated version of NHL Hitz.
Perhaps the biggest change to the gameplay is the decision to move deking to the left analog stick. The goal of this mechanic is to make quick dekes as accessible as they were in the glory days of SEGA Genesis. Quickly pushing the stick to the left or the right is needed to throw defensemen off their guard and dupe the goalie. The mechanic is more of a throwback than a true addition to the genre like 2k's face button passing, but it does improve the game.
Dekes may be performed with ease, but they'll be necessary to get anything past the strict defense of 06. This year the goalies are on their game and they aren't letting any cheap shots over the line- and I thought these guys were supposed to have smaller pads. With the improved goal tending you'd expect a well placed shot after some fancy puck work or an expertly placed one-timer would be the only way to score. However, EA has also included star moves that neatly circumvent the goalie's ability to stop you cold. Star players are easily identified by the uh, star outline around their base and are capable of flashy moves like spinoramas and between the leg shots.
Like deking, these maneuvers are easy to accomplish with only a tap of the right analog stick. Again, the system is easy to use and fits right in with the previously mentioned mechanics. When taken together, everything makes for an arcade-like experience that is only bound by the intensity of the goal keeping and AI offense that can be bumped up to fiercely competitive levels. Even on the medium setting, a tight defense is required to keep the CPU from lighting you up continuously. A wide range of difficulty settings is necessary to keep any hockey game attractive to both sim fans and those who prefer revisiting the days when we were able to make little Wayne's head bleed. NHL 06 has decidedly arcade leanings but will partially satisfy both camps.
Another wholly positive addition is the new goal targeting system. When holding down a button for a slap shot, a small bull's-eye now appears in the net. This allows players to place their shots with the left analog stick up until the point they blast the puck towards the goal. Before this marvelous invention, the exact placement of a puck was mostly left up to chance. Everyone loves to brag about surgically placing a goal, but never before have players had such precise control over where their shot is aimed at such short notice notice. Oh, and if you can slam one into the back of the net, enjoy the water bottle animation as it is bounced into the air.
What holds the game back is a general lack of responsiveness that pervades almost all aspects of on-ice action. The development team has prided themselves on the new puck handling animations that seek to overcome the "magnetic puck" feel of other hockey titles. This means that players realistically push the puck out ahead of them as they skate, and using a speed burst momentarily lessens a player's control. There is an argument to be made that this mechanic is far more true to life than the snappy movements of players in NHL 2K. However, I prefer direct control over my players rather than a slight lag that is implemented to trade responsiveness for realism.
While the game still doesn't feel as snappy as the 2K series, this year it takes the cake for having a stellar presentation. The animations include plenty of details that will have players watching slow-motion replays over and over. Facial expressions are realistic and skaters can be celebrating, scowling, or chewing gum as they slide around the arena. The game displays the most exciting highlights in between the action and show a wide range of reactions from players and coaches.
Outside of an exhibition match, players have plenty of options to delve into the intricacies of hockey management. The Dynasty Mode has an exceptionally smooth interface that gives rookie GMs the option to manage a roster and the financial dealing of their franchise down to the concession stand markup. The email system keeps players abreast of important decisions and eases the pressure of managing so many areas. An addition that should be noted is that players can now intervene in a simmed game in order to turn the tide. Not only does this offer more specific control over a season, it also offers players a monetary reward when they jump in and win it.
The EA creation zone includes the option to create a player down to the width of their nose and whether they have one or two black eyes. After putting together a seven foot tall caveman with bushy eyebrows, players can put them on a specially designed team. The team can then be substituted into dynasty mode and treated like an existing franchise. While I was able to partially bring the Hartford Whalers back into existence, I would appreciate the same number of stadium and logo options found in a baseball title.
It's nice to see hockey receive almost as much attention as the other major sports when it comes down to details like practice schedules and scouting reports. Hopefully, the trend will continue with options like training mini-games and even more cosmetic adjustments concerning uniforms and arenas.
NHL 06 doesn't disappoint in another area where EA has always excelled: the graphics. The game doesn't look drastically different from last year, but everything from player models to the menu system has an extra bit of flair. This year the ice has received some extra attention and slowly deforms as players tear it up over the course of a match. The Xbox version of the game has some especially shiny surfaces, with eye-catching spray that is kicked up as players dash over the ice. This game best exemplifies the benefits of playing a title this late in the life cycle of a console. All of the visual kinks and wrinkles have been ironed out and the result is the prettiest hockey experience yet to be delivered by EA.
The commentary is acceptable with plenty of side comments and intelligent observations. The only thing holding this game back in the audio department is the return of the infamous EA Trax. With no custom soundtracks, the assortment of rowdy rock tunes will quickly wear out their welcome. The inclusion of NHL 94 on the PS2 edition of the game reminded me that I'd rather hear the organ rendition of Hava Nagila than another EA Track on repeat for the duration of a game.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved