Reviewed: December 9, 2006
Released: November 1, 2006
Iím writing this review (and the NHL 2K7 review) with mixed feelings. Just a few years ago I was a HUGE hockey fan. Every week I waited patiently for The Hockey News to arrive in my mailbox. I had crates of hockey trading cards, McFarlane figures, over 100 classic games on DVD (mostly featuring Gretzky or Lemieux), and I rarely missed a game on ESPN. The Hanson Bros. were hilarious, Slap Shot was the best movie ever made, and my favorite game was Midwayís NHL Hitz. Hockey was the only good thing about winter for me.
But everything changed during the 2005 strike. I just havenít been able to watch a game since then. I donít know if I got angry at the NHL or just found other things to do with my time and money. A friend even gave me a DVD of the NHL finals last year and I have yet to watch it. Iíve been to a few minor league games this year, but the NHL (or its players, depending on your point of view) really spoiled it for me.
So I finally got a 360 and the first games on my review pile are hockey games including NHL 07! Do videogames have the power to bring me back to the rink?
For EAís first hockey game on the 360, I must say they aim to impress. The graphics are amazing. The opening sequences get repetitive, but they still are amazing to watch.
On the other hand, the menus are painful. EA chose to get fancy and have angled menus, which look really interesting at first, but in practice itís difficult to read. Thankfully they included the option to make the menus flat, which helps considerably. The text is still a bit small so hopefully you have a big screen HDTV to play this game.
All the current NHL teams are available for play, including 4 All-Star teams broken down into East/West or North America/World teams. Also included are 21 International teams, which add some fun (and slightly different rules) to the mix. Unfortunately there are no classic teams, which really takes some of the fun from the experience.
Player controls have been overhauled for EAís hockey debut on the 360. They added an innovative new control scheme. Basically the left thumbstick controls your skates and the right controls your stick. It takes a few games to really get the hang of it, but after that, I was wondering why nobody thought of this scheme before. The only drawback is on occasion you will mistakenly shoot the puck when you intended to do something else. The scheme also doesnít include a speed burst (which is usually the right trigger in other games). If you have an adverse reaction to change, you can always use the classic settings.
Another annoyance comes in the form of signature moves. Once you learn the control scheme you can quickly learn how to do fancy moves with the right thumbstick. Unfortunately when the AI on the opposing team starts doing these moves, you canít do anything to stop them. Itís almost a guaranteed score. Itís frustrating to say the least.
The biggest blunder of the new control system is a bug. When going into a face-off, if you repeatedly press the B button your player will freeze. You can switch to other players, but your face-off person will stay stuck there while play goes on around him. The only way to reset the player is to get an offside or some other stoppage in play. This really distracts from an otherwise good game. Iíll just assume all these little annoyances will be fixed in the next version.
Game modes are presented in 4 options: a quick game, dynasty mode, EA world tournament, and Dodge shootout. There is no practice mode or any form of drill aside from the quick games.
Dynasty mode is very basic, but still very fun. You can choose to just management the team or you can also play the games. It is limited to 10 seasons, but thatís plenty of time to get your team to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The EA World Tournament is similar to the Olympics or World Cup of Hockey (aka Canada Cup). You set the rules and basically get to play with international all-star teams. It can be fun, but again, there are no classic teams. It would have been nice to play with the 1987 Canada Cup teams or various Olympic teams.
The Dodge Shootout puts you in the high pressure 1 on 1 shootout. Itís pretty easy to win Ė especially using the new control system, but itís still fun and provides a bit of practice with the skill stick.
Occasionally you will get into ďthe odd tussleĒ as Don Cherry says. 2K7 and EA donít do much for this side of hockey, probably at the insistence of the NHL. Basically you can choose to get into a fight and itís time to yawn. In 2K7 you actually do some button mashing to control the players, but EA just has the guys do a little dance with a rare punch thrown. But nothing seems to factor into who wins aside from who hits the best combo of buttons at the right time. Hopefully Midway will bring back NHL Hitz to satisfy my needs.
XBOX Live brings another basic set of options. You can choose quick or custom games. It was fun playing against an unpredictable opponent, but when I could get a game I frequently ran into lag problems. Some games are playable even with slight lag issues, but a fast game like hockey isnít one of them.
An XBOX Live connection also allows you to update the rosters in the game. At time of review there had only been one update and that was as of October 21, 2006. Itís great to have updates, but keep it maintained. 2K7 has had 3 updates to EAís 1 in the same timeframe. I guess thatís further evidence for which publisher really supports hockey.
NHL 07 has 26 achievements worth 1000 points. Most of the achievements are fairly easy and you should be able to complete most of them with 6 hours of play. The more difficult ones are in the higher skill levels such as getting a shutout in superstar mode or one player scoring 5 goals in superstar mode (50 points each).
The graphics in this game are just stunning. I havenít seen anything like it in sports games. EA has really captured the look of an indoor arena with all the lights, reflections and ice shavings. If all you want is a sports game to show off your 360, this game might be your baby.
Everything from the stitching in the numbers on playersí jerseys to the animated stadium light screens is here. Even the fans are something to see. Stadiums from all NHL teams and a few generic stadiums are amazing in detail.
EA has a handful of available playing views, but the higher up you go, the more problems you get. In any of the overhead views there is a problem with face-offs in the upper end of the ice. The face-off takes place near the top of the screen and when the puck moves toward the boards off-screen, the camera doesnít move with it. So basically you have to guess where the puck is and throw one of your guys off-screen to check someone in hopes of digging the puck out. It really puts you at a brief disadvantage.
The ESPN sports ticker keeps improving with each new game EA releases. This time you can pick which sports you want to have on your sports ticker. Options include everything from NFL, MLB, NCAA, Golf and NASCAR to various soccer leagues throughout the world.
ESPN integration is at a new high with NHL 07. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are the announcers and itís great to have the familiar TV voices giving us the play-by-play. They really add some excitement to the game.
The crowd and other stadium noise really add to the tension. Crowds have specific chants for teams and even cheer certain players like Curtis ďCujoĒ Joseph. Itís really awesome in surround sound during a big home game. The crowd just goes nuts.
If you win the EA World Tournament there is a medal ceremony in which the winning teamsí national anthem is played. This is a classy touch and adds a little reward for winning.
Custom options are pretty basic with EA. On 2K7ís hockey game you can pick which song is played in specific arenas when specific events happen. Not so with EAís NHL 07. They just have the usual custom soundtrack option.
Iím really curious how much NHL videogame sales have gone down since the strike. Iím sure on some level videogames play a part in winning back and making new fans. Which is great, but this game is missing a few important things.
Iím a nut for historical teams. Iím also big on the gameplay feeling like the real thing. 2K7 has it, EA NHL 07 does not. 2K7 has tons of customization options while EA is very basic. The big difference is in graphics and presentation. If all you want is a basic hockey game that looks nice, EA is it. But if you are (or used to be) a hockey fan, 2K7 is the better choice. It just has a lot more to offer than EA, and that is what will keep me coming back.
The bigger question is: will I be playing this a month from now? Probably not. Itís great to show off the 360ís capabilities, but gameplay is more important, and 2K7 has the edge there.
Honestly, after playing this for several weeks, I was bored. I tried to like this game, and the graphics sure are enticing, but in the end itís just not as satisfying as 2K7.
If EA ever decides to offer classic teams in their hockey game, 2K7 might be dethroned as my hockey game of choice. The combination of great graphics and ESPN sound is as good as it gets. But I want to play with the legendary teams and players; not the walking wounded that is the current NHL.
Maybe itís time for me to dig out my hockey cards and watch a few classic games on DVD. I might give the NHL another chance. If I could only find them on TV or afford a Blackhawks ticketÖ