Review: Analog thumbsticks seem to be all the rage with many other games these days, so how does NHL 07 fare with them as the primary control scheme?
For the past few years, videogame hockey has had EA Sports as its face, but the 2K series has really been the soul (read: where the gameplay is at). Many of EA's recent hockey efforts have failed to hit the mark because the games in question never played like real hockey. EA Sports' post-2000 era games have always delivered quality presentation (visually and aurally), as well as great features and modes, but the simulation aspects of hockey never felt right. But there's always time to innovate, and EA Sports has done so in a way that's so basic in principle, yet it manages to change the way someone plays (and even thinks) about videogame hockey. 2K still has a good engine, but EA has definitely dropped the gloves and shown that there's plenty of innovation left for this great sport.
In looking at how they wanted to change their hockey title, EA Sports clearly saw the proliferation of one-timer gameplay in both their own as well as their competitors' products. Until now, most goals in hockey games were scored by one-timers or by abusing certain exploits or deke moves that make the goalie fall over, get unfairly out of position, etc. Sure, the odd bit of net crashing would result in some goals, and you could always score on some slapshots, but everything just kind of sifted down to those one-timers. 2K Sports' games certainly rely on one-timers for the bulk of their goals, but to their credit, the passing system is so good in that series that it almost guarantees that result.
But what EA has managed to do is to simply remove the face buttons from the equation. By removing the digital nature of shooting and passing, offensive tactics take on a whole new look. Essentially, the left thumbstick moves your player as always, but the right stick will now handle dekes, wrist shots, slap shots, pass aiming, dump ins, spin-o-ramas and just about everything else to do with a player's stick. By using the right analog stick for this, as well as the analog right trigger for actually passing the puck (and switching players), the flow and pace of EA's game changes quite dramatically. Now you can protect the puck while looking for the optimal receiver or you can direct your passes more specifically and realistically. Shots can be taken by snapping the right stick forward (or pulling back and then forward for a slapper), with player skill and ice position also factoring into accuracy and power. You can even execute toe drags and spin moves by rolling the stick slightly back to each side (think of Fight Night 3's uppercuts, etc.), and this is great for breakaways, 1-on-1 situations, and shootouts.
In fact, a big part of this control change was to benefit the shooter-goalie showdown within a hockey game. Now these duels plays out beautifully, as the shooter has so many moves contained all within his right thumbstick. There's no need fumble with some button and the right stick to awkwardly deke and then mash the X button to throw in some shot; this can all be done gracefully and realistically by manipulating the right stick in order to pull off triple dekes, cute backhands through the five-hole or even some last-minute pull backs. The fact that the goalies now animate really well helps these moments, as the netminders will properly position themselves and not go down as early as has been seen before. A big reason for this improved goaltending style is because Florida Panther Alex Auld did the mo-cap animation. Auld's stand-up style and great positioning reflect in how the goalies in NHL 07 move laterally, as well as how they handle the puck in the crease.
But the Skill Stick, as EA has called it, does really make such an impact on the game. It honestly takes a while to get used to, but it gets quite familiar after some invested time, and it may even become your preference once the intricacies of the system reveal themselves (you can still use the button controls, if you like). The innovation almost seems inspired by past EA Sports hockey games, in particular NHL '94 and NHL '96. Both games featured impressive deke controls for their time, and there was a certain elegance to the simplicity in the way the shooters controlled ? much of the same can be said for what has been done here for NHL 07.
The passing itself fares reasonably well, but you may find yourself a little perplexed (even after a while) having to switch players with the right trigger. The passes can still be saucer style if you hold the trigger down longer, and the pass strength and accuracy will depend on skill and positioning. Some frustration does occur when selecting whom to pass to, as EA still uses little diamonds above the player heads to indicate who will receive the puck. Skilled players may find that they are often a bit too quick for the game, as it doesn't register a change in the desired passer as you've already hit the button. Instances like these can result in some annoying icings and offsides, but it does help with the realism of the game, if nothing else.
In terms of that elusive realism, most of the rest of the game does quite a good job of creating a simulation experience that's worth getting behind. The Skill Stick does its share to enhance this, but the simulation feel also comes from the accurate number of penalties, missed or ?posted? shots, and the lack of a speed boost. EA actually decided to remove the speed burst, and this actually works quite well. Your player will speed up, but this will be automated; he will skate harder when he has open ice in front of him. This may annoy some players who are used to what 2K has offered (and EA, previously), but this change is actually for the better and greatly adds to the pacing and feel. No longer will someone have A.C.M.E. rocket skates to power their breakaway ? they will have to earn it.
The variance in goal types is enhanced by all of the aforementioned changes. You'll be able to score one-timers if you're good, but you'll see plenty of goals that are beautiful dekes or nice five-hole shots. There will be slapshots and wristers as well, but there will also be plenty of rebounds and ?garbage? goals. There are a few stinkers to be found where the goalie hits it in his own net or juggles it in (in a fairly unrealistic way), but these goals still manage to give the game a much more raw feel than previous EA efforts. EA has said that the puck actually moves independently now and is not tied down to some sort of animation system; in other words, you won't see the puck magnetize to a goalie's pad or end up in his trapper when it had no business being there. Honestly, the way the goals are scored in this game is quite refreshing.
If there's one rough spot for NHL 07's game, it's in the defence. Hitting is actually handled by using the right stick as well, but this still could use some love for next year and beyond. You'll certainly line up some fools for some hard hits, but the timing of it still seems too assisted and doesn't give enough control when compared to the freedom of motion in the Skill Stick. Poke checks can be executed by pressing the right bumper, and you can dive/shot block as well, but each of these moves is a bit hit or miss. The shot blocking actually works pretty well, but sometimes a player is wallowing on the ice and just impeding a guy but not getting a penalty (this wouldn't happen). The poke checking works occasionally, but something akin to 2K's stick sweeping might be better in the future. The defence is functional, if nothing else, but you can tell it didn't really get much love from the developers. Oh, and fighting, it pretty much doesn't exist in hockey these days, and that pretty much reflects its status in NHL 07. If you're ?lucky? enough to have one take place, you'll be able to bop your foe with the right thumbstick (kind of like Fight Night 3), but these tussles are usually over before they get started.
The CPU does a pretty respectable job of matching up against you in NHL 07, and you'll be able to find some good challenges at the higher difficulty settings. Scores will be appropriately low when you play harder competition, and you'll likely have to mix up your attacks in order to have any measure of success. In general, the AI isn't as passive on defence as in previous years, and they will be reasonably adept at using the Skill Stick when going in on your goalie.
This entry isn't as feature-rich as some of the previous EA hockey offerings, and you'll notice this when booting up the game. There are the basic exhibition variants, as well as the Dodge Shootout (thanks for that lame ad, EA), Dynasty mode, and a world tournament mode. The shootout works the same as the current NHL variant (three shooters), and this really does a good job of showcasing the game's good looks and great shot control. The Dynasty mode will likely get the majority of your single-player playtime, and it does a fairly good job of getting you invested into your team, but also into the machination of being the GM/coach. You can do the usual things like managing your lines, bringing up farm hands, and changing strategies, but you also have to do the GM tasks of signing free agents, deciding on one or two-way deals, and also haggling with the recently added NHL salary cap. There are some odd issues here and there in the Dynasty, including one problem where you can sign free agents and not have it affect your cap properly, but the mode generally encapsulates all you would expect for something like this. The interface is fairly standard for the Dynasty mode, but the calendar system and notifications work reasonably well.
Online offerings are also present for NHL 07, but not in the fully featured way that 2K Sports has provided. You won't find any leagues or custom tournaments, but you will be able to track your stats throughout your online career and compare them via online leaderboards. The games online play fairly smooth, and they are ? more or less ? comparable to the ones found with 2K (that is to say, generally lag free). There will be some connection issues now and again (and that same, stupid faceoff reset glitch), but most opponents should prove for smooth competition. The lack of leagues hurts somewhat, but it's also very puzzling as to why the heavily touted Dodge Shootout wasn't included as a stand-alone mode for online ? you'd think EA Sports would want that to be something for people to get into, especially with the Skill Stick working so well.
Everything is almost always presented well in EA hockey games, and NHL 07 is no exception. The player models looks incredibly lifelike and they move well, and the faces are some of the best yet. The cloth on the jerseys and the sheen on the helmets really bring home the detail, and the ice surface looks fantastic (watch those replays). The animations are quite good, though some variance in the hit animations would've been nice. As said earlier, the goalies animate extremely well, and it's nice to finally see goalies that make the proper save/move in the right situations. The crowds are well detailed, as are the arenas they populate. This is an area that the high-definition visuals of the Xbox 360 really help, as you'll get a great sense of scope and raucousness from the throngs on hand. The framerate isn't perfect, but it's hardly anything to get bent out of shape about, especially since the pacing is actually much more ?simulation? than 2K now ? didn't expect to say that anytime soon.
The audio follows suit with some excellent material. The play-by-play is uniformly good from ESPN's Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, and the duo manages to keep the action interesting with their quips and comments. These two were always good in the 2K series, and they're used properly, here. The crowds sound fantastic ? once again ? and they deliver such atmosphere late in the game that you can't help but get excited. Just listen to how the crowd reacts late in the game or when your team is not playing well ? it's almost perfect. The effects do a great job as well, with posts, boards, pad saves, and arena-specific horns being standouts. There's a smattering of arena music throughout the game, and this is generated by the usual selection of EA hockey rock.
As for Xbox 360 achievements, you'll find a pretty good mix for NHL 07. There's the usual stuff like scoring hat tricks, wining 10 games in a row, and hoisting Lord Stanley's mug, but you'll also be rewarded for winning the various season trophies, playing in online matches, and winning a shootout while only using two shooters. None of the achievements are staggeringly hard, but many will require some substantial time.
Based on the merits of the Skill Stick alone, EA Sports' NHL 07 is worth checking out. Sure, the defensive side of the game could use some work next year, and the online offerings should also be much more robust, but the people in EA's Canadian studios have finally crafted a game that harkens back to what they did so well for many years in the 90s. If you want a game that innovates and plays true to the sport, you won't go wrong with NHL 07.