Take 2's hockey title has made easy work of the competition over the past few seasons, and last year's price drop to $19.99 made NHL 2K5
perhaps the greatest sports value in history. Since last year, a lot has happened between Take 2/2K Sports and software juggernaut EA Sports, their bitter rival.
Once the $20 price point started cutting into their bottom line, EA started locking down sports league licenses, securing the holy grail of sports gamingthe NFLin an exclusive deal. In addition, EA took over the ESPN branding that Take 2 had thoroughly integrated into all of their sports products. As of yet, no one owns the NHL license exclusively, so both companies will put products on the market this year.
NHL 2K6 is the first 2K Sports product to emerge since the brouhaha, and although the ESPN license is missed, the rest of the experience is intact. In fact, there are several improvements to this year's game that make it the most complete and hockey-minded videogame yet.
It begins with the cover, which features Dallas Stars' goaltender Marty Turco, only the second goalie in videogame history to be showcased thusly. Of course, if you're going to promote your game with a goalie, that AI must be solid. Rest assured, 2K6 features the best goalie play of the series. Turco was used extensively for motion capture sessions, resulting in some of the prettiest goalie animations yet. But it goes beyond that. The goaltenders have good awareness and movement, play all the angles appropriately and keep the goals to a realistic level, especially on the higher difficulties.
That said, this game actually features a lot more rebounds than in previous iterations. This is not only more hockey-realistic, but a lot more fun. The scramble for the loose puck in front of the net is one of the great joys of the game. You would think with an increase in rebounds, the goals would skyrocket, but the defensive AI has also improved. Players rarely get too far out of position, and if by user mistake, someone gets pulled away from their assignment, the CPU does a good job of compensating.
In addition, gamers have the option of calling on-the-fly plays in order to give quick group directions. This is handled with a flick of the D-Pad, and allows you to tell your squad to clear out the front of the goal, break out, or ask for help on defense and pinch, crash the net, or ask for help on offense.
For players who know what these terms mean, and when they should be used, they are invaluable. It's great to call for a clear-out in front of the net and actually watch your guys go to town taking them down. Again, these on-the-fly controls add a layer of realism to the sim that most closely resembles the actual sport.
Perhaps the coolest innovation of this year's game is icon passing. By clicking the thumb stick, you will see the icons of everyone on the team. By pressing the various buttons, you can queue up a number of passes. If the defense intercepts at any point, you will have to restart the process, but if you manage to work around them, you can get a serious string of passes going. Cycling like this has never really worked to its fullest potential in a videogame, but this innovation edges it ever closer to the real thing. From this mode, you can also double tap an icon to produce one-timers, which is an excellent way to score. In fact, on easier difficulty settings, if you excel at cycling the puck, scoring will almost become too easy. Luckily, on higher settings, the defense does a better job of reacting, and the goalie manages to save a lot more chances.
Another great innovation from the why-did-it-take-so-long department is the flawless implementation of backwards skating both on offense and defense. This is especially helpful to face front and defend, but in the offensive zone, it can be used to make space for passing and shooting. To give you even more ammo on offense, a goalie deke function has been added. This allows you to use a button plus the right analog to put a move on the goaltender as you approach. This is invaluable in shootouts, which have become a much bigger part of the game. In addition, it offers a little more open-ice creativity than allowed previously.
Momentum is also new, and it provides a fun give-and-take dynamic that is fresh in sports gaming. Essentially, if your team gains momentum, you have the ability to take away an ability from the opposing team. If your buddy is lighting you up with goalie dekes, disable it and he'll have to claw his way back in order to gain the skill. Momentum can toggled in the options menu, but especially in a multiplayer game, it provides a cool cat-and-mouse game if left on.
For heavy-hitting aficionados, those raised on NHL Hitz, the checking may disappoint, simply because it is not blown out to mammoth proportions. 2K6 keeps hitting fairly realistic. In some cases, you'll level an opponent, but other times, you will merely nudge another player offs-course. It is another element of realism, but one that some gamers might not appreciate. What most will appreciate is the implementation of the wrap-around, an element that is borrowed from Hitz. If you are behind the goal and in control of the puck, pressing the shoot button will cause you to attempt a wrap. Not only is it an extremely cool way to score, but it is also totally legitimate.
The new league rules have also been implemented (smaller goalie pads, no two-line passes), which results in more goals and much more wide-open play. For those who are used to turning off a bunch of rules in the Options menu, you don't have to worry
the NHL has taken care of that for you!
Almost as robust as the number of innovations in gameplay is the number of modes available in 2K6. In short, all of the modes you've come to love are here, and in most cases, improved. In addition to the quick game, there are the standard season, playoffs and franchise modes. Last year's Extra Modes makes a reappearance with a couple of additions, and there is a Dream Team mode as well, which allows you to take various all-star caliber teams through either a Ladder or Challenge mode, unlocking new teams as you go.
The real bonus, however, is the Party Mode, which opens the game up to a whole new world of possibilities. In Party Mode, 1-4 people can take each other on in a series of mini-games
like Mario Party, but involving hockey, and cool! This mode is best played with the four-player max. It's a pick-up-and play action element that anyone can enjoy, even your mom. Hand her a controller, tell her what color she is, and watch her get into it.
While the game plays great, in terms of presentation, it has definitely taken a step backwards. 2K6 definitely suffers from the loss of the ESPN license. That partnership brought instant recognition to every element of the in-game design, and was the closest a hockey game ever came to pure simulation of a game on television. The new interfaces are very spare, pared-down from the flash and glamour of ESPN, and they come off looking very vanilla.
The in-game presentation, devoid of familiar graphics or sponsorship, also feels sparse. It certainly no longer looks like a television presentation, which is what 2K6 excelled at. What's more, the character models seem to have shown nearly no improvement over last year's. Luckily, the animations are as smooth and varied as ever. Tons upon tons of hockey maneuvers have been captured and implemented. In fact, it's amazing to see the minor tweaks sims come up with each year to take the game to a new level of realism.
On the sound side of things, the biggest addition is the commentary of the famous Canadian announcers Bob Cole and Harry Neale, who add a good deal of authenticity to the game's sound. Their commentary is often fairly basic, but that saves it from being repetitive. The comments keep up with the action fairly well, and even continue into a pause screen. There are tangents these guys go on that sound just like what announcers babble on about during down time.
The crowd effects are appropriately dynamic, rising and falling nicely with the action, and the on-ice sounds are good. More whoomp on the hits would be welcome, and the slap of the shot is not always as loud as it could be, but those are fairly minor complaints.
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