Mediocre. Ho-hum. Pedestrian.
There's a long list of words in the thesaurus to describe the average-quality sports titles that were released at the launch of the Xbox 360. We checked. The two major players, EA and 2K Sports, came in with different philosophies. EA built from the ground-up, a gamble that resulted in stripped-down games with less features, less game modes and less everything. 2K, on the other hand, ported its well-received current-gen titles, a gamble that resulted in the same deep options and presentation, but little-to-no innovation in graphics and gameplay.
With the release of NHL 2K7, however, 2K demonstrates that the 360 comes first, a philosophy shift that results in an excellent hockey game with new next-gen graphics, next-gen presentation and next-gen innovation.
We love throwing that "next-gen" modifier around, don't we? After forking out a lot of dough for our 360s, peripherals and games, we deserve nothing less, especially sports fans that are still waddling in our stacks of -- let me get the thesaurus -- "run-of-the-mill" sports titles. But NHL 2K7 gives us so much hockey -- party games, pond hockey, online fantasy leagues and even air hockey -- that 2K sports latest title is like a Disneyland for Canadians.
The big focus in 2K7 is presentation. For years, sports titles have been presented like broadcast events, with commentary, instant replays and stat graphs popping up left and right -- call it the presentation that Sports Talk Football built. Well, the team at Kush Games decided to offer fans something more, something different and something new called Cinemotion. I like to think of it as Miracle the Videogame. Basically, Kush Games has created an interactive hockey movie, complete with cinematic score and a dynamic camera.
The broadcast style is still an option, although the 2K Sports broadcast team of Bob Cole and Harry Neale sounds a bit cheesy compared to the sultry, suave musings of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement from NHL 07. If you choose Cinemotion with music, you get several layers of musical score, including victory, defeat, building momentum and losing momentum. Things get even more dramatic in Franchise mode with rivalry games or playoff games.
The effect works surprisingly well, and at times you'll feel like Daniel LaRusso dominating the Cobra Kai as "The Best Around" cranks in the background. The musical score itself is a bit Brothers In Arms-ish, and the soundtrack during the last few minutes of a big victory sounds like you just saved Private Ryan. While this presentation style can't really be described as a major innovation, it's a great idea and an answer to repetitive commentary in sports games.
More than just music, Cinemotion also includes player and coach chatter. Teammates will commend you for a big hit, the headman will call for the puck, the coach will yell out "Three on two!" during appropriate breakaways. All of this serves to make for an immersive hockey game. The only problem with the presentation is the crowd. There's minimal cheering and chanting and the atmosphere is about as rowdy as the Westminster Dog Show. Anyone who's been to a hockey game knows that those arenas pulse with crowd energy and, in this, 2K falls short. The team most likely didn't want to blare out the music and the chatter, but a wild and crazy crowd goes with hockey as much as missing teeth. It's instrumental.
On the ice, 2K7 represents the latest evolution of the critically acclaimed franchise. Anyone that's played past titles will have no problem picking up the 360 controller and feeling right at home. While the mechanics are all the same from last year, including shooting, checking and passing, you can't help but notice that the engine was clearly built for the 360. The power of the new console has allowed Kush Games to rewrite the skating engine, and the result is highly polished as well as intuitive. Players realistically accelerate, digging into the ice, utilizing realistic momentum system, unlike the arcade-like warp speed in the current-gen NHL 07.
On the offensive end, 2K added a drop pass to the repertoire of moves, although icon passing remains the big offensive feature in 2K7. It takes some time to get used to, but utilizing icon passing allows you circulate the puck with ease and is especially useful on breakaways and with give-and-go passing.
The one-timer is still a major source of scoring for the 2K franchise, which is not always a good thing. One-timers are not a major source of scoring in the NHL, not compared to a snappy wrist shot in the slot or a break-away. In 2K7, it's easy to wait for a teammate while leading a breakaway, let loose a centering pass and hit a one-timer to the near post. It's been a problem in the franchise for years, and it remains a minor nuisance today. There is a one-timer difficulty option that can be bumped up -- there are options and sliders for just about everything in 2K7 -- but we'd like to see it tweaked even higher.
Shot aiming is set at auto by default, and seasoned 2K gamers know already to immediately toggle it to manual. Then, in the slot, you have a nice chance at locating a wrist shot in the desired corner of the goal. The shot aiming is satisfactory, but nowhere near as fun as NHL 07's skill stick or even the current-gen version of NHL 07 and the bulls eye aiming system.
Defensively, the new addition is Pressure Control, which puts three layers of defensive pressure on opposing players. By holding down the left bumper and aiming at, say, Sydney Crosby, you ask a defender to shadow the young star. Click the bumper twice and the defender will get rough with Crosby, risking a penalty in exchange for even more pressure. Three clicks call for a double team, useful in crunch time when teams look to their star players.
Checking is simply too easy on the default difficulty levels, and experienced gamers will want to bump up the challenge to Hall of Fame. If not, the CPU makes a minimal effort to dodge hulking defenders that are gearing up for a board-shaking collision. Still, defense is where 2K7 shines, with 360 degrees of poke check controlled with the right analog stick and some solid CPU AI on both sides of the puck. Defenders will lie out on the ice to deflect slap shots and they'll continually clog the slot. On higher difficulty levels, you'll have to work to score goals. On easy levels, you'll look up in the third period and find yourself up 6-0.
Visually, 2K7 is a very pretty hockey game. The animations and frame rate are as smooth as anything we've seen on the Xbox 360. Smooth has always been a great way to describe the NHL 2K franchise, but Kush Games takes it to all new levels in 2K7. Big hits knock off helmets of opponents, and they'll skid about the ice until the next frozen puck. Head to head with NHL 07, another great looking game, 2K7 stands out with the new dynamic camera. The Cinemotion camera is lower to the ice and pulled back a bit, so you get a great view of the action without feeling as if you are too far away. You can see your whole team on the break -- great for icon passing -- and the camera will even drop behind the goalie for one-on-one encounters. The camera is an excellent touch and a real improvement over the traditional top-down angle.
Online play is better than ever, with eight-player seasons and 30-team leagues and stat tracking. 2K Sports continues to raise the bar for online sports gaming and EA Sports needs to put in some work if it wants to catch up.
The remaining game modes comprise a long list: pond hockey, the Skybox, tournament, party mode with 15 mini-games, mini-rink and old-school season mode. Skybox is your virtual trophy room where you use points from gameplay to purchase classic teams and games like air hockey. The Franchise mode is excellent this time around, featuring a team chemistry system and dynamic rivals. Each team has a default set of historical rivals, but if a team boots you from the playoffs or signs one of your star players an instant rivalry forms. There are three levels of rivalry, and beating up on your main rival is worth more to your team's morale than knocking off a third-tier rival.
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