Sports games have a problem. Too often, sports titles are accused of lacking true innovation and providing nothing more than polished-up graphics and a roster update. While NHL 07 is an impressive game, those accusations ring true in EA's latest current-gen hockey title.
The graphics, audio and game engine feel exactly the same as 06. It's pretty clear that with the possible exception of Madden NFL 07, publishers like EA and 2K Sports have their eyes focused squarely on next-generation titles. That's fair, since most gamers have their eyes focused in the exact same place. But the sad fact is that as we near the end of the lifespan of the Xbox and PS2 and as PC titles are increasingly being labeled "next-gen," the newest batch of sports titles are devolving into budget games, like Madden 2004 for the original PlayStation.
That's not to say that the development team at EA didn't do a good job, most likely with limited resources. The big addition to the gameplay is what EA has termed the "skill stick revolution." In short, passing has been mapped to the right analog stick, and with good results. By flicking the right stick in the direction of a teammate, you'll flick a pass in his direction. If you flick the stick in another direction, like toward the offensive zone, you'll dump the puck, allowing your speedier wingers to race down the ice, similar to the new style of play in the NHL with the new rink dimensions and rule changes. Still, this new passing system feels like a simple change, like moving shooting from one button to another.
Since graphics, sound and engine are largely the same, the team at least spent considerable time making some gameplay tweaks. 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. In one sequence, I shot a puck and the goalie made a nice stick save. The puck ricocheted into the air and my player darted forward, hitting the puck in the air into the goal. In a word, sweet.
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 left stick, 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 shot 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 a lot to the left-analog deking. By tapping left or right on the left stick, you do a simple deke without changing direction, ala NHL 94. On breakaways, it's not uncommon to rattle your stick back and forth while trying to fake out the goalie. A spinning deke and a canned left-to-right deke have been mapped to the face buttons, but these are more effective on CPU defenders than the goalie. The left-stick 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 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.
The online modes are standard EA fare: ranked and unranked matches as well as 4 or 8 player mini tournaments. Online leagues should be a standard in sports games by now and we are going to ride EA until it happens. Still, nothing beats grabbing a friend and playing head-to-head hockey. Perhaps nothing ever will.
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