Reviewed: January 9, 2006
Released: November 22, 2005
There are dozens of famous rivalries in sports, but none so greater than 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.
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 Xbox 360 has become the latest frontline in this ongoing sports wars with several titles making the leap from Xbox to Xbox 360, but for some inexplicable reason, EA has literally slashed their own throats by releasing butchered versions of many of their sports titles, almost to the point where they could be classified as 360 tech demos. As far as hockey is concerned, EA didn't even show up to the 360 launch with an offering, leaving 2K Sports in a very lucrative position.
Sadly, for those who have played this game on another system there is very little here to entice you to drop $60 on the same game; a game that only costs $20 on those other systems. Thankfully, they didn't remove key features to make some arbitrary launch date, and for the observant gamer you might notice some significant improvement to the goalie control. Plus, you'll get all of the classic gameplay from the Xbox version, all enhanced with some spiffy new graphics for the players and the rink.
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.
Speaking of the goalie, the Xbox 360 is home to a new manual goalie mode that allows you to temporarily assume control of the guy defending the net and directly try to block the incoming puck by matching up your V-shaped cursor with the shot target. It takes a bit of practice to master and it's probably more trouble than it's worth for a lot of players who have become content with letting the computer control the goalie. Still, it's there and an added bonus for those who care to explore this new gameplay addition. 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.
What was already a fabulous looking game on the Xbox is now just insane on the 360. The ice if much more reflective as are the players' helmets and you can definitely appreciate the normal mapping on the clothing right down to stitching on the socks and jerseys. All of the players have had additonal frames of animated added to their moves so everything literally glides across the ice and looks just like you're watching TV.
Sadly, most of these details are lost in the traditionally distant camera angle required to play hockey. Much like soccer, where you need to see most of the playing area, the camera is pulled far and high so your characters are just tiny representations of what is really lurking beneath the engine. But when you see a replay or the camera zooms in for a tight shot you will be amazed at the details. A word of warning for those who don't own an HDTV - much like NBA 2K6, if you can't play the game in at least 720p mode on an HDTV this game will look no better than the Xbox version.
While the game has lost its EPSN presentation you still have the lost of flavor including 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. Nothing has been sacrificed from the previous versions - it's all here and just as fun as ever.
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 360 ice for months to come. And for now, it's the only hockey game in 360-town, so if you want to play you'll have to face off against a $60 sticker price.
There are 1000 Achievement points spread across a surprising few five achievements that are pretty easy to earn. The only thing that makes them harder than NBA is that you are forced to play the game on Pro or All-Star difficulty settings to earn many of them. Still, it's a pretty easy way to add a thousand points to your gamer profile, even during a rental period.
The improved defense, especially at the net, the new momentum feature, manual goalie option, 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.
I probably can't recommend buying this game if you already own another version, but for hockey lovers who are dedicated to their new 360 this is by far the most realistic and the most rewarding hockey game in town, at least until somebody decides to offer up some competition, but even then, the bar has been set mighty high.