NHL 07 is your new friend on long plane rides and in PS3 pre-order lines.
In the inaugeral season of hockey for EA on the PlayStation Portable, NHL 07 stands out as an impressive hockey title. On that little, slow-loading UMD, EA was able to cram in pretty much all the content from the PS2 version of the game, including a solid dynasty mode and online play.
Granted, the graphics, audio and game engine feel exactly the same as 06 on the PS2, the graphics being a bit fuzzier on the PSP. That's not to say that the development team at EA didn't do a good job, most likely with limited resources. A big adjustment has been made with the one-timer and it's nowhere near as powerful as before. As in real hockey, the accuracy of a one-timed shot is generally poor. Unless a player receives a perfect pass and is in perfect position, the one-timer will be ineffective. A back-handed one-timer will look downright ridiculous. As one-timers are a rarity in the NHL anyway, this is a nice improvement in hockey gameplay. The 360 version of NHL 07 also removed the one-timer as the dominant play, so let's hope this is a trend in all hockey games in the future.
By tweaking the one-timer, then, EA took another little shortcut in making it a little easier to score in other ways. The puck physics are very good in NHL 07, resulting in plenty of interesting rebounds and deflections.
The excellent shot-aiming from NHL 06 returns, complete with the magic bulls eyes that appear in each corner of the goal. By aiming in nine different directions with the analog nub, you can put the puck in nine different areas of the goal. I prefer to remove the bulls eye indicators since I know what direction I'm aiming in, but the system is very responsive and you truly feel as if you are placing the puck where you want it. On the flip side of that coin, you have to have your player in the proper shooting position for maximum effectiveness. In the slot, square to the goal, a forehand wrist shot has a great chance of hitting the target on goal. Skating backward away from goal, however, a backhand has no chance of going in and little chance of being on target. In short, shooting is a real strength of NHL 07.
Puck control is simple and intuitive, thanks to the NHL 94-like deking system on the analog nub. By tapping left or right, you do a simple deke without changing direction, ala NHL 94. On breakaways, it's not uncommon to rattle the nub back and forth while trying to fake out the goalie. A canned left-to-right deke has been mapped to triangle, but it's more effective on CPU defenders than the goalie. The nub is the trick when scoring on breakaways.
The sprint button is almost too effective in NHL 07. At full speed, players move faster than in any hockey game in history, perhaps faster than even Dan Jansen. The tradeoff is that puck handlers lose maneuverability and control of the puck -- defenders can easily poke the puck away. On international ice with the larger dimensions, the game is very fast and wide open.
The checking system from 06 returns. Surprise. This system allows for some huge hits, but those have to be lined up perfectly. In general, a check from the side will slow the opponent down and he won't necessarily even lose the puck. The downside to this system is that players are magnetically drawn to the puck-handler, sort of like the FIFA soccer games when you try to steal the ball. Although you skate in the direction of the opponent, you lose control of the line you want to take. The 2K system of checking is implemented better on the console titles because you can unleash a hit exactly at the right moment instead of being locked into the animation. You can always let go of the check button and cancel the hit, but by then you are likely out of position.
The computer AI does a great job on defense of clogging the zone, and rarely will you skate right into the slot for an open shot on net. On offense, the CPU circulates the puck very well and plays good hockey, waiting for good shots. The default difficulty levels are a bit easy and you'll have no trouble beheading opposing players with gigantic checks as they seem oblivious at times to hulking defenders speeding their way.
Off the ice, the Dynasty mode is deep and you can now choose to run any NHL team or a team from one of four European Elite leagues. EA secured the rights to the Czech elite league so you can finally play Litvinov Chemopetrol if you really want to. You can also transfer your dynasty between PS2 and PSP.
Online play, in a word, sucks. In all the attempts we made, we could not get past the face off. The ref drops the puck, you make one pass and then the game returns you to the faceoff. Who knows? Maybe it's just our copy of the game, but our first-hand experience is that the title was unplayable online.
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