REVIEW OF NHL 06

by Adam Hill

 

ďWhen he was a kid, heíd be up at five, take shots Ďtil eight, make the thing drive.  Out after school, back on ice.  That was his life, he was gonna play in the Big LeagueĒ.

Ė        Tom Cochrane

Yes folks, the big league is back, and so is the big video game to go along with it!  Iíve spent a lot of time the past couple of weeks playing this game from virtually every angle, trying to get a feel for EAís finest offering this year, and I must say, for the first time in a long time I am truly impressed by what theyíve managed to do.  As a fellow hockey fan, commentator and gamer, like the NHL, EA Sports has managed to get it done right. 

 

Some die hard video gamers who have played this game for as long as I have say this is the game NHL 2005 should have been (and you know what, had there been no lockout, may have been), but 2005 was what it was, no sense beating a dead horse.  Or is there?

Personally, I think EA was planning for a lockout last year.  While the game was visually breathtaking as always, it just seemed to be lacking something.

For the purposes of getting the best overall experience, as always I have played with both the PC and Playstation 2 versions of the game.  By now Iím sure I donít need to tell you which version I prefer, but for the sake of those who arenít as computer savvy, any version will satisfy your craving for the coolest sport to ever hit the ice on two skates. 

For those of you looking for a little bit of retro gaming plug in the PS2 for a look back at the classic NHL 94 in all its glory, except for one major difference Ė the rosters resemble the entire EA development team rather than the players who were in the game back then.  From what I understand this is because most of the players who appeared in this game are no longer NHLPA members due to them either retiring or moving overseas.

So whatís new in NHL 06 or better yet why do you need to run, not walk, and buy it right now?  For starters, the gameplay is much improved.  The newer controls implemented for last yearís version still exist, but EA has also brought back the older conventional controls to make it easier for those of us who used to play with only two buttons Ė pass and shoot (Blades of Steel anyone?).

Itís very simple.  If youíre new to the game and want to make full use of the gigantic controllers theyíre making today, be my guest.  For those of you who have played the game since NHL Ď92, then you can map virtually any controller to the way you remember, and still play the game effectively.  Innovation Ė youíve got to love it!  What does this mean?  The old deke button from the past Ė itís back with a vengeance!

With the implementation of an all new ďskill stickĒ, you can take full control of the puck and make signature moves just like the pros do.  Sometimes the goals come so fast and furious you have to watch the replay a few times just to see the amazing things your player just did.  For myself, Iím still to this day used to and set on the older Playstation controls from as far back as NHL í98, and what can I say, they work for me.  Forget about bruiser controls or give and go controls, just give me my pass, shoot, turbo and deke buttons, and I will show you Iíve got game, or at least Iíve been able to show the computer how itís done.  For those of you wanting more controller options, you can play around with this as well.  Old school meets new school.  Whatever you do though, get yourself a controller with analog sticks because they really do help (if youíre playing the PC version that is, most consoles nowadays should already have these).  Some people have reported a few issues with those USB to Playstation/USB to Xbox adapters on the EA forums, but I have to say Iíve had no problems whatsoever and believe me when I tell you my old reliable first generation dual shock Playstation controller is getting quite the workout of late!

 

Not only are the controls much more improved over last yearís version, we have a more realistic game.  With new Realistic Puck Momentum (R.P.M.) physics, you can stun a goalie with shots off the mask, and pop the water bottles right off the nets!

Iíve also noticed if you tweak the sliders just right, you can actually carry the play to the other team quite easily.  Power plays are much more realistic as you can actually pass the puck around for the ultimate setup Ė something which wasnít always easy before.  In the past Iíve very rarely been able to set up from the point and let the puck fly without somebody breaking free and going the other way mano et mano with my goalie.

 

The all new Momentum Skating makes it actually feel like youíre skating rather than just gliding.  You have to first build some momentum from your strides and then take off down the ice.  Real ice trails follow you, and by the time a period is over, the ice is scratched up beyond recognition as per usual.  Even after the (invisible) zamboni flooded the ice between periods, from the scratches it looks like itís been skated on and not like a sheet of glass like it has in the past.  Since you look at the ice for the whole game you wonít believe the effect this has.

 

The default speed of the game has been slowed down to reflect the natural flow of the game, but if itís hockey on steroids you want, you got it!  Just adjust the many sliders to desired taste and go nuts!  All the usual settings are here for speed, puck control, computer AI, not to mention you can play around with the rules.  Donít like the fact the NHL is going with the shootout this year?  No problem Ė revert back to 4 on 4 overtime and keep your ties intact.  Want to put yourself in the game?  Go right ahead, as the create a player option is back and allows you to add character to your guy by giving him a black eye, broken nose, missing teeth, and scars.  The likeness of myself (or as close as I could make it) looks so hideous Iím surprised players donít scream on their way back to the bench.

 

Now the graphics were always good and much improved every year.  When you think back to what this game started out as and what it is today, it is just amazing how you can immerse yourself into the game and feel like youíre actually at the arena.  As always, you can adjust the camera angles to virtually any angle youíre used to from previous versions.  One thing youíll notice right away is not only are the player animations much improved yet again, theyíve made the game more interactive than ever.  Rather than the coach standing behind the bench and flapping his arms once and awhile, he actually gets animated once and awhile.  A penalty call doesnít go the teamís way?  The Opposing team scores a goal?  Look for the coach to go ballistic, Pat Quinn style (and trust me when youíre playing the Leafs, itís funny to see!).  EA has built upon this with little side takes which tell the game story from almost every angle.  Player injured?  Heíll be shown next game in his civilian clothes shaking hands and patting players on the back.  If youíre playing dynasty or season and happen to make a trade, all eyes and cameras will be on your new acquisition.  Even playing with the commentary audio muted, you should be able to follow the game fairly easily.

As for the game modes themselves, some purists may be disappointed to find out the dynasty mode hasnít implemented the salary cap system from the new CBA, not surprisingly.  Time constraints more than anything have kept this out of the game, and you can bet your controller buttons this will be fixed for NHL 07, or at least thatís EAís story and theyíre sticking to it!  Even still, Iíve heard every criticism right down to the age old comment ďwell Madden has the cap in place, well Madden has this, well Madden has thatĒ.  Well, with all due respect to Madden, the NFL has had a salary cap in place for several years.  The NHL has just implemented a cap for the first time, and as Iíve discussed previously in a Puckiní Around column, $39 million is not set in stone by any stretch of the imagination.  I applaud EA for waiting to see how this cap is policed by the league and what adjustments, if necessary, will need to be made to make sure teams abide by it.  We all know about the escrow which will pay back the league if even one team goes over, but how it will pertain to the next season has yet to be seen.  You can bet the development team will be all over this for future years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As it stands right now, the dynasty mode is absolutely amazing as it is.  You could create a team before out of several templates, but you could never take them through a full season or dynasty mode.  Well, now you can!  For every game you win you will earn upgrade dollars to build your team into a powerhouse.  As for bringing your own team into the mix, the sky is the limit here.  Want to bring the Jets back to Winnipeg and send the Phoenix Coyotes howling into the desert?  Well you can!  The same goes for the Quebec Nordiques.  The older Hartford Whalers jerseys are here too, but for some reason the logo isnít, but I decided to pick on Carolina anyway.  Keeping their names intact, I moved the Hurricanes to New Orleans, pun intended.  I then proceeded to clean house, getting rid of virtually everyone except for a few key guys like Glen Wesley, Ray Whitney, Cory Stillman and Rod Brind Amour.  Iíve managed to build an all star team with the likes of Ryan Smyth, Pavol Demitra, Dominik Hasek, Scott Mellanby and Rob Niedermayer to name a few, not to mention yours truly centering the top line.  Laugh if you must but Iím almost halfway through my first season as both general manager and player and quite frankly, weíre going to win the Stanley Cup, yet weíre only expected to just make the playoffs.  Iíd better enjoy it while it lasts because once EA puts the new CBA in place I may not be so lucky or even have the luxury of keeping all of my guys, even though Iím still operating at about $45 million.

Hereís my favorite new feature of them all, albeit itís a small one.  You can now simulate games right down to the last goal!  Before by telling the computer to simulate you essentially lived with the result the computer gave you, like it or not.  Now you can see how the game unfolds, period by period, and if youíd like to do something about it, you can intervene and play the rest of the game from there.  You can get right down to only five minutes remaining in the entire game with some work to do.  If youíre playing a dynasty, if youíre down and actually come back and win the game you can double or even triple your usual upgrade dollars.

The usual regular season and playoff modes are back, as well as the usual World tournament mode.  The Swedish, German & Finnish Elite leagues are again represented here, although with the NHL back in full swing I donít think too many people will be overly concerned, although I must admit itís a fun way to experience the game outside of the box.  You can even use your created team to tear up the oversized ice if you feel the need, so go nuts!

If there was anything Iíd like to see different in NHL 06, it would have to be the audio, more the commentary than anything.  As always, EA has put together the right mix of audio tracks to complement the menus as well as on the ice.  The in game sounds, particularly the crowd noises, are virtually unchanged from years past, with the exception of a few new trumpet tracks (you hear ďsheíll be coming around the mountainĒ a lot!) and some new commentary from Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson.  But hereís the part I donít get Ė Craig Simpson is now an assistant coach.  NHL Lockout or not, there should have been at the very least a new color commentator guy.  Bring back Don Taylor or something.  Well maybe not.  Personally I get a better experience with the commentary off because it just gets on my nerves.  Besides, unless you bring a radio with you to the games, you donít get commentary anyway.

Another thing I wouldnít mind seeing is the addition of team mascots.  I mean, they have the coaches, why not?  I know the real game happens on the ice, but since theyíve perfected the game play and the bench, now time to go beyond.  Since we have all the goal horns intact we hopefully can get EA to work on bringing in more than just one public address announcer.  And is it so hard to bring back a zamboni between periods?  Finally, can somebody explain to me why the PS2 version has an introductory video and the PC version doesnít?  Hereís a suggestion for EAís next PC version of this game: put it on a DVD and let those who canít spend $20 on a DVD-ROM suffer (forget the fact these are the same people who will spend $50 on the game itself)!

I had to literally tear myself away from this game long enough to actually write this review of it, so forgive me if I sound like Iím rushing through it in the hopes of squeezing another game in before the regular season starts Ė because thatís exactly what Iím trying to do.  As they say practice makes perfect Ė and training camp is in full effect!  As the box says, ďthe rush is backĒ!  I couldnít agree more.

Gameplay: 10/10

Graphics: 9/10

Audio/Commentary: 8/10

Replay value: 10/10

Final verdict: With its shortcomings overlooked, this game is absolutely awesome! 9/10

 

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