The "06" edition of EA Sports' classic hockey series hits the ice with a number of new features. The "Skill Stick" control option is designed to allow players to aim their shots more accurately, with a quick flip of the right analog stick. The game's "Real Puck Motion" ("R.P.M.") physics system is designed to accurately reflect the sheer power of that little hunk of hard rubber moving at 90-plus mph, and allows effects like "rippling the twine" of the net, or even bumping the goalie's water bottle. Fast-moving pucks may now even injure unwary defensemen, or cause goalies to lose their cool.
In addition to puck movement, the momentum of the players themselves is now accounted for. Larger players can put their full force into a clean check, but smaller players will be more agile, and able to turn more quickly to avoid those big hits. Favorite features from earlier seasons return, including professional play-by-play and color commentary, the chance to design and develop a custom player, and full representation of the National Hockey League's real-life teams, players, and arenas.
I remember the glory days of EA's NHL series. Not coincidentally, they were the most recent glory days of the NHL itself, back in the early 90's when the New York Rangers were making their run at the Stanley Cup, before expansion teams started popping up in Columbus and Nashville and the league eventually imploded in a year-long strike. Back then, it seemed we were all playing along on our Sega Genesis or SNES, racing up and down the ice, deking goalies and setting up perfect one-timers. For a few years after that, we were blessed with some nice translations to the PC, and, with high-res graphics and our Microsoft Sidewinder gamepads, all was good.
Play NHL 06 today, however, and much of the thrill is gone. The graphics might be a little sharper and the players have a few new moves, and yet it all feels a few years out of date. It's fun to race up and down the ice for a few games, but NHL 06 is a product of a franchise that's lost its way, and lacks the kind of magic that will make you want to stick with it for long.
The first problem with NHL 06 is the basic gameplay: in some ways, it feels more like basketball than hockey. Perhaps taking too much of a cue from this year's NHL rule changes designed to speed up the game, you race up and down the ice, trading possessions like the old Showtime days of Lakers vs. Celtics: you skate towards the opposing team's goal, take your best shot, and the other team grabs the rebound and dashes off the other way. There's even the "skill stick," which allows players to make crazy moves or crushing hits with the right analog stick. The only thing missing a 24-second clock.
Now, arcade-like gameplay isn't necessarily a bad thing, but poor balance is. On "Easy," any NHL veteran shouldn't have much trouble winning big, as you can quite literally skate circles around opponents, waiting for the perfect shot to present itself. But "Medium" completely turns the tables. Hold the puck in the opponent's zone for a few seconds, and the computer automatically steals it. Meanwhile, opposing players consistently outrace you to one loose puck after another, and shrug off body checks as if hit by Michelle Kwan. Merely getting shots through the defense becomes a major challenge, let alone getting to rebounds, and it's common to get outshot 30-15 or worse. There are a few pages of sliders available to tweak things like game speed, passing accuracy and shot power, but hours of tweaking and testing failed to produce anything resembling a balanced, satisfying game of hockey. The computer essentially cheats, and you'll have to resort to cheesy gameplay to beat it.
If it's any consolation, there are a ton of different modes in NHL 06, starting with your basic exhibition game to a full season or "Dynasty" mode. Season and Dynasty modes are fairly similar, except Dynasty lets you pretend to be the owner, dealing with contracts, ticket prices and other tasks similar to Madden NFL's "Franchise" mode, challenging you build a dominant team over several years. It's great to be able to draft and trade players to build a team, but why anyone thinks it would be fun to micromanage beer and ticket prices in a game so far removed from a simulation is something I've yet to figure out.
If you need a break from NHL play, there's also the World Tournament (a personal favorite of mine), where all-star teams from different countries face off in a mini-tournament modeled on the World Cup of Hockey. There are also elite leagues from Germany, Finland and Sweden, all with proper rules and uniforms, so you can pretend the NHL strike never ended if you're so inclined. Finally, there's a mode called "FreeForAll," a mini-game where you go head-to-head with a goalie and try to score as many goals as quickly as possible, which only shows how hard it can be to score goals without one-timers.
Further proof of how dated the NHL series has become can be found in its graphics. The PC version used to have the best graphics of all the platforms, and I can remember days when NHL 2001 looked cutting-edge at a resolution of 1280x1024. Five years later, and that's still as high as NHL 06 goes. That's right. No 1600x1200, let alone widescreen modes.
And it's easy to see why. While some aspects of the graphics have improved over the years, NHL 06 still looks very much like a game using a recycled engine co-developed to run on the PS2. The on-ice action looks OK when you're playing from the overhead camera angle, but when you get up close -- especially during replays -- you can see the player animations are still pretty clunky, and the players themselves don't look all that hot. The problem of warped jersey numbers has been around forever, and the less said about the bizarre crowd -- a mix of 3D clones and 2D sprites with 3-frame animations -- the better. Suffice it to say that the NHL series is in major need of a graphic overhaul.
The audio doesn't fare much better. For the umpteenth year in a row, Jim Hughson is on hand to provide annoying, overexcited play-by-play, accompanied by Craig Simpson in the booth. There's nothing interesting about the commentary, and yet it's delivered like a wrestling match, yelling and growling the entire way. "He STONED him!!!!" you'll hear on one save after another, and soon you'll find yourself wanting to do the same to the announcers.
In theory, there's online play in NHL 06, but if you've tried to play any of EA Sports' PC titles online this year, you already know how frustrating it can be.
First, you have to find the latest patch: for some reason, the game can spawn an external web page to sell subscriptions (more on that in a second), but makes you write down a lengthy URL to find the patch page. Then there's the comedy of trying to locate an existing username or find a new, unused one. This is more of a problem with the entire EA Sports Online system than NHL 06, but good luck if you don't remember your existing account name. When I tried some of my usual account names, I was repeatedly greeted with "that name does not exist," but when I tried to create a new account under those "unused" names, the system responded with "that name is already in use." Nice.
The final insult after you've finally set up your account. Just as you're just about to enter the matchup lobby, you're kicked out to an external webpage that informs you that you'll either have to (a) use a credit card to pay a one-time $2 fee to play online, or (b) allow ESPN to spam whatever email account you registered with. It's not that two bucks is a big deal (although it's arguable whether you're getting your money's worth), but I'll be darned if I entrust the monkeys that built this Rube Goldbergian mess of a system with my credit card info. ESPN, spam away.
Once you've overcome the hurdles of getting into the system, the online play is merely adequate. There's a cluttered interface for setting up games, and most of my matchups -- even ones where the ping was in double digits -- suffered noticeable choppiness. The games were all playable, but nowhere near as smooth as if you had two people sharing the same screen. And then there's the Cheese Factor, as all sports games have: I had some good, tight games, far more satisfying and realistic than playing against the computer, but you'll occasionally run into players who know how to exploit the AI and score on the same moves over and over. In all, the online play is hardly worth the effort.
The Final Word
NHL 06 isn't a horrible game. If you're a hockey fan who hasn't touched the series in a few years -- and doesn't have access to a console that would allow you to play one of Sega's superior NHL2K games -- you'll get a little mileage out of it. But there are probably a hundred things in this year's game that could be improved, and it's obvious the game is being allowed to coast in some areas. Forget about NHL 06 as a serious hockey simulation, and even as an arcade game, it's only marginally satisfying.
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