Hands-On Preview: Ah, video game hockey? you'll never leave me.
Since the NHL has yet to sort things out with the NHLPA (although, as of this writing, a deal seems like it's on the horizon), fans of the sport are forced to head to the virtual world to find respite from real-life squabbles. Luckily, there have usually been some solid hockey game choices in recent years, and one of the most consistent has been the brand created by 2K Sports. Culminating in last year's release of NHL 2K5, the 2K Sports brand of hockey has provided an increasingly addictive online component, realistic animations and physics, strong presentation, and just straight-up simulation
hockey gameplay. It seems the progression of quality will continue with this year's release of NHL 2K6, which will arrive on both the Xbox and Xbox 360.
With both versions shipping for Microsoft's consoles later this year, you can expect to see improved visuals, animations, and gameplay for both renditions. I had the chance to play both versions at E3 this year, and, obviously, the Xbox 360 version does look quite good, but the current-gen Xbox version is no slouch, either. In particular with the 360 version, you have extremely good reflection effects off the ice surface and player helmets, sharp detail on the goalie pads and player jerseys, and some much-improved crowd and player models. One thing you won't see in any version of the game is the use of ESPN overlays, statistics, and presentation, as 2K Sports no longer has the right to use that ?branding.? While I always felt this affiliation with ESPN added some credibility and value to the 2K Sports label, it doesn't really detract from the game now that it's gone. Sure, it would be nice to have it for the professional look and feel, but they seem to have gone with a straight-up 2K Sports style of overlay and statistic system and, from what I saw, it looked fairly solid.
The biggest improvement I noticed while playing the game was the accurate sense of pace, thanks in large part to the refined gameplay and even slicker looking animations. Now, last year's game was certainly no small potatoes, as it represented pretty large in the gameplay area, but this year looks as if some of the small nags ? cheap goals, wacky goalie AI, some silly animations ? have been eliminated, toned down or changed. When I was playing, the game just seemed much more fluid and smooth than last year's already great game engine, and the types of goals, hits, and moves on display featured more variety and dramatic flair.
As said, some of the best looking stuff involved the goal scorers and goaltenders. Last year, a complaint that could be levied against the game was that there wasn't a huge variance in the types of goals that you could score. Sure, there was one-timers and ?swoop? breakaways, but slapshots, mad scrambles, open ice shots, and clean wristers didn't quite light the lamp enough, at least for my tastes. Upon playing a few games on the show floor, I was pleasantly surprised to see wrist shots cleanly beating goalies above the shoulder (although, the animation on the goalie looked sweet as he tried to reach for it), five-hole dekes, and even a slapper or two from the hash marks that beat the keeper. Honestly, there were a few too many goals going in, but this was obviously related to the difficulty level being set to low. Either way, it was nice to see a change in the way you could put the biscuit in the basket. Of course, while the goalies did look somewhat hapless, much of the way they moved and animated had been drastically improved. Netminders would now stand in better position to the play, react differently to varied shots, and generally just seem more cognisant of what is going on around them. The increased detail on their clothing and how they move was excellent, as well.
One new element to the game ? well at least an element that seems to have been fleshed out quite a bit ? is the use of on-the-fly play calling. In other sports games, this sort of feature has been refining and improving for years now, but hockey has usually only featured rudimentary play calling and strategy set-ups. With NHL 2K6, you'll be able to call formations, set pressure, and enact specific play styles to react to whatever zone your in and whatever the other team is doing. This will be extremely useful for defending against teams who are pinching up their defenders in order to crash the net, as you'll be able to call for breakout passes and counterattacks that should provide breakaways. This should also be a godsend for the power play, as you'll be able to readily make changes to cycle the puck or crash the net for a deflection.
The franchise mode will also undergo some refinements, specifically as relates to team training and team chemistry. If you want to try out new coaching strategies or iron out some kinks in your attack, you can schedule drills and practices (much like in NFL 2K5) where you will coach your players and work on the Xs and Os. Additionally, the use of a team chemistry system will allow you to attempt to build cohesive lines and effective team play within your squad, which can generate peak performance from certain players, if done right. In concert with improved elements of last year's scouting system, the next franchise mode for NHL 2K6 is shaping up to be very solid.
Online play will also make its return, and you can expect the usual leaderboards, VIP profile stat-tracking, and integrated league play to all be supported. Obviously, the whole setup for Xbox 360 will be much smoother thanks to its ?Guide? interface, but the current-gen Xbox should still perform online quite well. As a throw-in for myself, I hope they decide to bring back the party mode for this year's game, as I enjoyed that quite a bit (online) last year; all they need is to add true four-player support and that would definitely contribute to some extended value for the title.
NHL 2K6 looks to be shaping up very well for both the Xbox and Xbox 360. The gameplay has received some serious TLC, and the franchise mode and online component appear to have been given the necessary nips and tucks that were needed for a more refined experience. There may be no more ESPN for the 2K brand, but this title seems to be moving on quite well without it.