Reviewed: November 8, 2005
Released: September 6, 2005
There are dozens of famous rivalries in sports, but none as great as the ongoing battle being waged on our consoles every year by EA Sports and (this year) 2K Sports. In the golden era of gaming (the past 2-3 years) we got to pick and choose our “teams” and stand by them. EA would continue to pump out yearly installments with little to no improvements while SEGA would practically reinvent their titles year after year.
It all came to a head last year when SEGA released their EPSN games (all of them) for $20. Even EA loyalists who were content to play their inferior versions of their favorite sports games had to stand up and take notice. EA quickly fought back by slashing prices, but the damage was done and EA gamers had gotten a taste of the “good life”.
Left with no other options EA, backed by a few million dollars, purchased the NFL and ESPN brand names quite effectively eliminating the competition…or so they thought. SEGA handed off their sports line to Take 2 Games who quickly formed the 2K Sports division and with the same great designers (Visual Concepts) behind the scenes; the franchise lives on in 2006. It might not have all that ESPN flavor but the gameplay has never tasted so good.
The NHL license is still up for grabs. Apparently nobody wanted to invest a few million to secure those rights with all of the controversy and cancelled season. What happens next year remains to be seen, but this year both mega sports giants are releasing hockey titles and once again NHL 2K6 proves that you don’t need exclusive licenses and schoolyard bully tactics to make the better game.
Building on an already sound hockey engine, Kush Games opted to make minor refinements and tweaks to the AI and overall gameplay for this year’s installment. Perhaps the biggest improvement is in the area of goaltending. Unless you are playing with a large group of players chances are you leave the position of goalie up to the computer. That critical position has never featured better control than it does this year.
I was really excited to see my home team’s (Dallas Stars) goalie featured on this year’s cover. I knew he was good but wow, and Marty Turco is only one of two goalies to ever be featured on the cover of a video game. Marty was also used as the source of much of the new and improved goalie animations making the best part of this game closest to the net.
That’s not to say the gameplay suffers on center ice. Everything about NHL 2K6 has been improved to some degree. The intelligence of the players, whether on offense or defense is uncanny, and there are a lot less stupid mistakes. It took me three complete games before I ever got a call of “icing”, and that is something that happened a lot in the previous versions.
Players know their position on the team and on the ice and you can almost always count on the computer being in the proper location to work the puck down the ice. I had to seriously overcome the urge to micromanage and take over each player as they took possession of the puck like I had done in the past. I could now pass and be confident they would pass it back to me, or some other player when they were in the clear.
One thing you will quickly notice (or maybe you won’t) is that the players can now skate backwards with much more proficiency. This can greatly improve your team’s effectiveness in both offense and defense and shave valuable seconds off of plays where you previously had to pivot the player before finishing the play.
Checking seems a bit lax this year. You really have to smack someone to knock them down and getting into an actual fight is very hard. Hockey has certainly gotten a lot more civilized since the old days of Face Off.
Fans of the NBA games will be glad to know that the icon passing has been adopted into this year’s hockey game. Clicking the analog stick will bring up icons over each player that correspond to buttons on the controller. But get this…you simply aren’t limited to passing to one player then starting over. You can actually perform multi-button combos to strategically move the puck down the ice. Only if the defense intercepts, are you forced to retry the maneuver. And if you double-tap the icon you can easily perform one-timers.
There is a new system in place that allows you to use the D-pad to shout out directions to the team for on-the-fly coaching. This is a great system that really mixes up the strategy and gives the entire game a lot more realism. Actually, NHL 2K6 is the most realistic hockey game I have ever played.
Momentum is another new feature that is realistic in theory but I'm not so sure it was implemented all that well. It’s an option you can toggle on or off and while it offers some unique rewards for playing well, this option is better left for the multiplayer games. Basically, the better you play the better your “team spirit” and the more advantage you have in the game. As your momentum increases you can disable certain functions and abilities of the opposing team and they will have to regain their own momentum to reactivate that function.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the best, or at least the most intense action is around the net. The addition of the new goalie-deke move can create some strategic holes and scoring opportunities, and the new wrap-around shot lets you attempt to score while still behind the net.
The NHL has changed a few rules this year in hopes of increasing the number of goals and bringing back the crowds to their previous numbers and level of excitement. All of these new rules are accounted for in the options so you won’t have to go in and turn off a bunch of stuff that used to make playing hockey a drag.
So the gameplay has obviously improved but what about the ways in which we play hockey? Everything you loved from the previous games is back, bigger and better than ever including the standard Quick game, Season mode, Franchise, Playoffs, and a Dream Team mode that allows you to unlock new teams as you rise up the Ladder or complete Challenges.
For those looking for the occasional break from the realistic hard-hitting sport, the new Party mode is going to rock your world. Just think Mario Party on ice where up to four players can participate in hockey-related mini-games. The games and the gameplay are so intuitive that kids and adults of all ages can jump right in, even if they don’t know the first thing about hockey.
While the gameplay of NHL 2K6 was able to withstand the loss of the ESPN license the overall presentation is admittedly a bit lacking this year. True hockey lovers probably won’t miss the excellent broadcast quality coverage of last year’s game. All the fancy logos, sponsors, and even the menus have been stripped away from their authentic flavor.
Personally, I’m here to simulate hockey, not hockey on TV, so if ESPN wants to sell their soul to EA then ESPN execs can go roll around naked in their wads of cash. I’ll continue to play the best videogame version of hockey there is on the Xbox.
The game visuals are beyond reproach. There are pre-game animations of fans milling about the stadium, the players suiting up in the locker room then walking onto the ice, then you have all of the pre-game celebrations, player introductions, mid-game and post game animation, and much more.
Once the game kicks in the skating animation has never looked so good, forwards, backwards, or even leaning hard into ice-edging turns. You can still play the game from multiple camera angles including TV, action, and angles from the side and ends of the rink. You can also zoom in to multiple distances to appreciate the subtle details on players like textured jerseys and facial animations. The puck has a highly visible halo around it, so you can easily keep track of it no matter how far you are zoomed out.
It gets really crazy around the net with all of the new moves, and the goalie animations have never been better thanks to some wonderful new motion-capture provided by our cover boy, Marty. The game will show instant replays of all the best shots and there are even PIP inserts to highlight face offs. You can even stop and replay the action yourself using advanced VCR controls and free camera movement.
Gone are the ESPN commentators of the past and this year we get some authentic hockey play-by-plays from Canadian announcers Bob Cole and Harry Neale. After all, if you want realistic hockey commentary, ya gotta go to the Great White North. The play-by-play is surprisingly accurate and always on time with the action, but there is also a lot less of it this year. Not that I mind. I rather enjoy hearing the players skate and the crowd cheer, and it saves the commentary from getting too repetitive too fast. The color commentary is also really good and you’ll hear these guys start talking about off-the-wall stuff between plays just like they do in real life.
Sound effects are excellent with an intelligent crowd response that fits the action. You can always tell when you are playing a home game versus an away game just by the thunderous crowd noise as you near the enemy goal. The rest of the sound is just skating and players thumping into each other. As with previous Visual Concepts games, NHL 2K6 is presented in a wonderful 3D surround sound mix that creates just the right amount of ambience and reverb.
The ESPN theme music has been replaced with typical sports fanfare as well as more than a dozen licensed music tracks. I hadn't heard of any of the songs on the list but they were okay I guess. If you don't like them you can always opt for the custom soundtrack features, but hockey has never been about the music.
Sports games last forever or at least until you get tired of them or the next year’s installment rolls around. NHL 2K6 has some added life to it with the incredibly addicting and insanely fun Party Mode. If you have a group of friends or family that have become outcasts during your hockey addiction, you can now invite them to join the fun. With the holidays approaching this could be just the pastime you are looking for after that big meal.
But even if you aren’t looking to socialize, the core game modes, lengthy franchise, season, and challenging Dream Team modes will keep any hockey lover on the Xbox ice for months to come. And at the bargain price of $20, you’re only paying half of what this game is really worth.
The improved defense, especially at the net, the new momentum feature, and the long-overdue icon passing interface all combine to make this game the closest thing to the actual sport of hockey without putting on all the padding and a pair of skates.
NHL 2K6 for the Xbox is as good as it gets for videogame hockey, at least until the Xbox 360 arrives later this month. For hockey lovers who won’t be advancing into that next generation this is by far the most realistic and the most rewarding hockey game in town.