Of all the titles being thrust upon us for the upcoming launch of the Xbox 360, sports is the genre most largely represented. From both EA and 2K sports, we're going to see X360 versions of the NBA Live 06, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06, NBA 2K6, Madden 06, and FIFA 06. Across the EA titles there has been a disturbing amount of feature stripping, and the 2K games looks suspiciously like their counterparts on the PS2 and Xbox. It's amazing then, given the much higher level of popularity of sports like basketball and football, that NHL 2K6 should have one of the most substantial and enjoyable gameplay additions of them all.
Before we go any further, know this: if you've played NHL 2K6 on either the Xbox or the PS2, you'll be familiar with most of this game. I emphasize most because the new crease control feature succeeds in adding a cool new gameplay wrinkle, but I'll get into that in a bit. In terms of game modes, NHL 2K6 comes will all the game modes you'll find in the current generation including Franchise, Dream Team, Season, and Tournament. You'll also find all the same gameplay features like being able to call plays on the fly as well as bringing up icons on your players to help you bust out quick precision passing plays.
What's New On X360's Frozen Pond
The X360 version of NHL 2K6 has two additions that differentiate it from its current generation brethren, graphics and goalie control. Specifically, it's the gameplay graphics that differ. You'll still find the same boring blue, white, and red menu screens, though they've been slightly reorganized. It would have been nice to see this get overhauled since it's really not attractive and at points can be incredibly clunky, but it looks like we'll have to wait until the next release.
There's a noticeable improvement in the game's graphics on the X360. Everything looks sharper and the ice surface is much shinier and reflects the lights on the ceiling of the arena realistically. Players themselves have a much improved level of detail, especially in their helmet reflections. The actual models have had their polygon counts buffed up, but are coated with an odd next-gen gauze. Though this could at times be interpreted as the arena lights reflecting off of their jerseys and faces, it sometimes gets in the way and looks a reverse shadow. It's somewhat similar to the hazy sweat effects present in NBA 2K6, but less distinct.
On each player you'll be able to see detail on their socks and the mesh of their jerseys. As you might expect, their faces are more detailed, and the designs of their gloves, skates, and sticks are more intricate, and they move around and they'll occasionally perform new animations. However, all of these visual details are visible only in cut-scenes and replays. During the actual game with the camera suspended above the ice, it's possible to fool yourself into thinking it was actually the Xbox version if you're not looking hard enough.
If you're planning on picking up 2K Sports' X360 hockey title you're going to need a television that supports 720p. If you're not running this game in HD, you're not going to see the visual modifications that were implemented in the next generation version. We tried out the X360 2K6 on an Optoma H78DC3, a 720p native projector, and it looked decent. It didn't look great, but it was undeniably a step up from the Xbox. However, when we compared the titles in 4:3 and with the X360 switched to TV mode on its composite cables, the games looked almost identical. Though the visual edge was still with the X360 the whole way through, effects like the reflections and skate cuts on the ice's surface and ice spray effects were muddled and often lost at the lower resolutions. As seems to be the case with most of the X360 games so far, you're just not seeing how the game really looks. For those of you sitting around content with your 4:3 CRT TVs, it's a much bigger difference than you might expect.
Aside from the visuals, fans of the 2K6 series will find a new, entertaining game mode that marks the first time you're given the ability to directly position your goalie and actually make saves based on button presses. By clicking down on the right stick you'll bring up a cursor that extends out from your goalie in a V shape. You'll want to aim this V at whoever on the other team is carrying the puck. If you're facing the puck, you're considered to be in a good position, as indicated by the cursor turning green. If you're facing away from the puck, you're in a bad position, and the cursor turns red. When the puck is actually fired at you, a red target will pop up showing where the puck will cross the goal line. You'll need to match up a green cursor with the target to make a save. If you're in good position before the shot, you'll get more time to match them up.
Sound like fun? Well, it is for the most part. It's a genuinely entertaining addition to gameplay that makes you ask why this mode wasn't implemented before. That being said, it does tend to get in the way once in a while. Every time you shoot the camera switches to a behind the back view of the goalie. If you're playing against a friend, the screen pops up in a picture-in-picture display. Either way, it's disorienting to have a large window pop up in the middle of gameplay. While controlling your goalie, you can't control anyone else, so you'd better be sure your opponent is about to take a shot. You'll be able to switch with the click of a button between goalie mode and the regular game mode, but it's still confusing if you've just made a save which way you're supposed to skate with your defender after the screen switches back. It's equally as annoying on offense, making it difficult to keep your head straight in terms of where you're players are positioned and how you'll continue to attack.
Aside from these issues, the goaltending control mode is a great idea, and something that will hopefully be refined and executed to a much better degree in future released of the NHL 2K series. It's definitely to your advantage in the game to use this mode instead of leaving goals up to a computer controlled goaltender. If you're able to consistently position your goalie in a good position, you should be able to stop more pucks that come your way. Still, we did experience the occasional aggravating occurrence where we felt we should have stopped the puck only to have it slip by anyway.
A few other things we noticed was that the opponent A.I. was somewhat less intelligent than the Xbox version. Even with the difficulty cranked up to the highest level, the challenge seemed lessened. There were also some glitchy puck animations. At times the puck seemed to teleport to players' sticks and to move awkwardly across the ice surface. You'll experience much longer load times between games, too, so be prepared to wait.
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