Reviewed: October 9, 2006
Released: September 12, 2006
I fondly remember hockey in the 70’s and 80’s. My Dad used to take me to Cleveland Crusaders and Barons games. I didn’t understand the rules, but it was fast and exciting - especially when fisticuffs ensued. I probably got hooked when Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers came to Ohio for an exhibition game against the Minnesota North Stars. The place was packed with the screaming rabid fans that only a hockey game can bring.
Soon I wanted a hockey videogame. EA’s games on Nintendo didn’t quite capture the spirit of the thing. Eventually I found Bethesda’s Wayne Gretzky Hockey game for the PC and I was amazed. It had overhead view EGA graphics, which were, state-of-the-art at the time. It even had a Zamboni! Eventually Bethesda had team expansion packs for various years of the NHL and 1987 Canada Cup (which was probably the best hockey ever played). Soon they came out with the Hockey League Simulator expansion and I didn’t leave my computer for a long time.
I became a huge fan of the game – following the careers of the big stars – Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier and so many others. I still have crates of hockey cards and over 100 classic games on DVD. But the 2004-2005 hockey strike changed everything.
I felt betrayed. Here were these guys who got paid lots of money to play a kids game for a living while I sat in a cubicle office... and they refused to play. I don’t know if it was the owners or the players, but I felt like I was getting hosed. Eventually they cancelled the season and I found other things to do. I haven’t watched much hockey since.
When the strike happened I even lost interest in Midway’s NHL Hitz, which was one of my favorite games. So when I was asked to review NHL 2K7 and EA’s hockey games this year I was a bit hesitant. I used to love watching the pros, and playing the videogames. Maybe these next-gen games will help me enjoy hockey again.
Being one of the few sports left without exclusive licenses, there are four different publishers with mainstream hockey games but so far only 2K and EA are on the 360. From arcade style thugery to complete simulation, each game has its unique strengths and weaknesses.
The game includes a 57-page manual, and you will probably need it if you get hooked as I did. The manual is also available in the game. The controls can be a simple as you like – if you just want to play a quick game, the basic controls will take under an hour to master. But the real fun is in the details.
The advanced controls are numerous – the manual devotes several pages to the minute details. There are even different controls for a “Dump” and “Slap Dump”. You could spend a couple days learning everything. There are also options to change your play style quickly during game action. You’ll have options like “crashing the net” and so on.
The control of the goalie has greatly improved. It takes some practice to get used to making saves, but it’s great to see things from the goalie’s point of view. The opening menu may seem a little light on options, but select anything and you’ll be opening a treasure trove of detail I’ve never seen in a hockey game. The first selection is a quick game, which you just pick the teams, a handful of options and go at it. Next is “Hit the Ice” in practice mode. The real fun begins in Party Battle Mode.
There are 15 party mini-games available for a quick competition. All the games help improve your skills. The games range from a Breakout type game to an FPS type Turf War where you battle to control on-ice token circles. About 1/3 of the games are really fun with the remainders being fairly boring. A lot depends on how you are playing. If you are by yourself, this section will not last long. But if you have some friends over, these mini-games are great competition. You can also play an elimination tournament in this mode.
Next comes the meat of the game. The “game modes” menu includes just about everything you could want in a hockey game. You can play as a manager in Franchise mode or just play old time pond hockey.
The Franchise mode is extensive – if you desire to do things like hire staff and all the little details. You can handle trades, scouting, and just about every aspect imaginable. The board, players, and fans email frequently to tell you how you are doing. This mode is unfortunately limited to current NHL teams.
You can also play for a single season or set up tournaments and 3 vs 3 games. 2K even included pond hockey with backyard rinks.
The Skybox is where you get to start to have some old time hockey fun. In the Skybox you can look at your point challenge stats, view trophies and pictures, play trivia, air hockey, or shuffleboard, and my favorite thing: buy historical teams!
There are over 60 historic teams available for unlock/purchase with challenge points. Included are 45 classic NHL teams including the “original six”, the ’87 Oilers, and so many others. There are also various All-Star and All-Decade teams and 10 classic international teams including the 1980 USA and Russian Olympic teams, and the amazing 1987 Canada and Russian teams from the Canada Cup tournament.
As with other sports games, dealing with historical team rosters is a bit of an issue. It’s unfortunate, but contracts with the NHL and NHLPA are limited to current players. Thankfully, 2K Sports has again done a great job providing some tools to make fantastic teams. Basically you have to hunt down the actual rosters (or watch the user forum posts on 2ksports.com). Once you have the rosters you can edit each team.
Player names can be edited by typing in manually or selecting from a very long list of provided names. Using a compatible USB keyboard is a huge time saver. Once saved, the announcers will use the correct name. A word of warning: Wayne Gretzky is not included by name or number (he has a contract with another software company). So if you are editing any team Gretzky was on, you’ll have to hand key it into the roster. All the names, numbers, and a long list of other attributes are completely customizable. THANK YOU 2K SPORTS! What a complete thrill it is to play tournaments with all these fantastic teams. I want more!
Other unlockables include historic NHL team logos and uniforms, which you can then use to create your own classic teams.
Overall, the gameplay is awesome. The players move realistically and there are even trails left on the ice where you skated. Players collide (even with the ref) and reactions to user input are smooth. If you stop skating, a spray of ice shavings will fly into the air. Orchestrating a set play is easy and may even get you out of your seat to cheer after scoring a goal on the higher skill levels. There are lots of settings to be altered to meet your gaming needs. Essentially you can make it an arcade game with heavy checking and fights, or a very close simulation of the real thing.
Xbox Live play is fairly basic but there’s not much that needs to be done here. You can setup or join tournaments, leagues, and seasons or just sit down for a quick game. Roster updates are available every few weeks for free download. I had no lag problems whatsoever. The only drawback about playing on Xbox Live was you can only select current NHL teams to play (no classic teams).
Note to parents: this is ESRB rated T for teen. This is basically due to regular hockey hitting and fighting. There is no blood or missing teeth on the ice. There are some “mild lyrics” in a few of the included songs.
This is the one area that 2K7 Hockey falls slightly behind. Last year 2K6 Hockey was the only hockey available for the 360 and it felt like it was rushed to market. Let’s face it, 2K6 was basically a port of the original XBOX game. This year the graphics have been tweaked enough to actually look like a next-gen game and it makes a huge difference.
The big missing item in the overall presentation is the lack of a sports ticker. EA has the ESPN license and they have some innovative uses in their games. It’s too bad 2K Sports hasn’t followed suit and signed on with Fox or some other new provider. While it is a fairly new feature in the videogame market, the sports ticker is a great addition that needs to be in 2K8.
Each game has similar opening cutscenes in the locker room and introductions. They are impressive the first 50 times you see them, but after that, the coaches same old speech gets annoying. The graphics overall look very good, but something in the shading and reflections just isn’t quite there yet compared to EA.
The interface looks like more of an arcade game. It’s kind of clunky but the selection bars are large so if you are playing on a small TV, this game is for you. The graphics are not as stunning as EA, but 2K7 hockey is very good… only one step behind. Honestly with all the other great options in this game, I can let the very minor difference in graphics quality slide. 2K7 is much improved over last year. 2K7 includes all the NHL stadiums plus a handful of unlockable generic stadiums. Unfortunately, there’s no Zamboni to be found! Maybe next year. I can’t wait until 2K8.
This year brings an odd new feature in the sound presentation. If you have seen movies like “Miracle” and “Rudy” you quickly realize what a large role the dramatic soundtrack plays in pulling the viewers into the movie. Well, 2K7 now includes something called “Cinemotion” which basically is an epic movie-type soundtrack being played while you are on the ice. It’s… interesting. Briefly. I was quick to change the setting over to standard broadcast mode.
The commentators are Bob Cole and Harry Neale with Phil Hulett as the PA announcer. Overall the commentators do a good job and are not distracting to the game. There are occasional glitches where the announcers are behind the action, but hockey is a pretty fast game. One minor annoyance is the announcer calls the historical teams as “the pirates” instead of their actual nicknames.
The really amazing thing with 2K7 is the level of customization available. In the sound department, you can select custom songs to trigger for almost any game event. You can have a specific sound or song play if you come back from a 2 goal deficit. It can even be customized for each individual stadium.
If you get into a fight, you can have the stadium play Culture Club’s “Do You Really Wanna Hurt Me” or any other song you have ripped to your 360 hard drive. You could spend hours tweaking this feature and it only serves to make this game the best hockey game on the market.
This is THE console game for hardcore hockey fans. While graphically not quite as polished as EA, they have improved greatly over last years offering. EA doesn’t have the teams or the depth of 2K7 and that is where this game shines. I simply love being able to pit the 1987 Edmonton Oilers against current teams. This game will be in my console frequently during the long winter months.
This has certainly stirred my interest back up in hockey, especially now that winter is upon us. I think I’ll have to dig out my old hockey game tapes and relive some of the glory days of the NHL. I may even try to find a live NHL game on the tube. I haven’t seen a hockey game in high definition yet, so perhaps now is the time.
It is certainly refreshing to have game companies competing without exclusive licenses. It’s great for us and as former Wisconsin and NHL coach Bob Johnson used to say, “It’s a great day for hockey!”