Hockey is perhaps the most perfectly realized sport in the world of videogames. It's fast, easy to learn yet hard to master, and both fluid and brutal all at the same time. It takes a skillful developer to really get it right, but when everything comes together hockey videogames are generally one of the most fun sports and party games out there.
Kush Games and 2K Sports return to the ice once again with NHL 2K7, the latest installment in the reigning hockey franchise champ. The game was released not too long ago on the Xbox 360 (and current-gen systems as well), and while the PS3 version is in large part an exact replica of said release, it does bring with it a few PlayStation 3-specific features that make great use of the SIXAXIS controller.
One of the things that's made the series great for some time now is its extremely fluid control. Players really feel like they're on the ice, skating in proper arcs and accelerating and decelerating at realistic speeds. The hardest part of any hockey game to get right is the skating, and luckily Kush has nailed this.
The skating ties directly into the game's extremely smooth and realistic animation system. Players lean, kick and shift their bodies exactly as real humans would, helping to heighten the game's sense of fluidity. The players' weight is also simulated quite well here, with crushing checks that really deliver the feel of inertia and mass. It's too bad the SIXAXIS doesn't support rumble to help emphasize the blows...
Speaking of checking, this brings up the PlayStation 3's first unique feature in that you can use the SIXAXIS controller to check your opponent. You can land a ferocious blow by simply moving the controller towards another player, be it by simply tilting or full-on thrusting it like you're actually trying to check someone. The movement response is really quite good and works just as well as pressing Circle does. It feels a tad odd at first, and we weren't quite sure whether we'd stick with it or not, but after a period or two we can't go back to simply pressing a button. The act of shoving the controller and seeing your on-screen player check the living hell out of someone is too rewarding.
The other way that NHL 2K7 uses the SIXAXIS is with its Crease Control system. For those not familiar with it, Crease Control is activated by pressing R3 when you're on defense and allows you to control your goalie from a third-person, over the shoulder perspective. You're given a vision cone that you aim to control your defensive zone, and when a shot is fired you need to move a crosshair to the shot point to block the puck. It's a really fun and inventive system, though it's been a bit slow to line up the markers with an analog stick.
With the PlayStation 3 version of NHL 2K7, you're able to perform everything but dive moves with the SIXAXIS' tilt controls (you use the right analog stick for these). Tilting the controller from side to side moves your goalie's vision cone, and rotating it forward and back moves the block marker up and down. It's quite simple and intuitive to use, and it allows you to block shots that would be nearly impossible with an analog stick simply because of movement speed. The tilt control allows for awesome use of the Crease Control and it becomes quite a bit more fun than using a stick. We could play entire games from this perspective and not miss the hat trick celebrations.
Speaking of scoring, this is one of the few areas that NHL 2K7 still feels a little old-school. After switching off the defaulted auto-aiming and taking things into your own hands with the goalie deke controls, you're able to put a few in the net every now and then, but by and large the easiest way to score is via one-timers. Just as we began abusing them back in NHL '94, one-timers are still far and away the easiest way to score and most every play you make will revolve around them. That's not to say that the goalies are incapable of stopping them, as the keepers are quite adept at making miracle saves to stop shots that never should have been picked off.
One-timers aren't entirely easy however as the game's defense can be quite tough, mostly due to their tendency to intercept anything within reach. The puck isn't quite as loose as it could be, for better or worse, which means that while your teammates are stellar at receiving passes, the defense is just as good at intercepting them. This is their strongest aspect, and you'll need to crank up the difficulty quite a bit to force them to play a little rougher and more aggressively, but they're great at snagging the puck away from you on any level.
As has been the case for a bit now, NHL 2K7 features a fantastic franchise mode. You'll manage contracts, player happiness and their overall fatigue, a minor league team, scouting reports and more. There's not really a whole lot missing from the system, though the front end could still use a little polishing. It's nicely manageable, but it could use a next-gen overhaul, much like all of the other menus in the game.
One thing that's somewhat disappointing about the game is that despite the PlayStation 3's support for seven controllers, NHL 2K7 only allows for four players on the ice. Filling an entire team with human players and running through a season over the course of a handful of months is a fantastic experience, but that's not to be this time around. Maybe next year.
Visually, NHL 2K7 is somewhat of a mixed bag. The animations are fantastic and player detail is pretty good, though texture work is a little bland and flat. Their jerseys and faces don't make use of any advanced shaders or whatnot that would give them a next-gen look. The ice on the other hand looks really good, reflecting everything around it and generally looking quite realistic.
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