NHL 2K7 Review
2K Sports continues to provide gamers with some truly high-quality experiences, and although they don't quite attain the lofty label of "perfect simulator," they remain polished, accessible, and ultimately entertaining. The latest NHL installment is no exception, but what has changed? We always look to see the new advancements and enhancements in those successful sports franchises, even though there's only so many changes one can make in a video game governed by the restricting rules of reality.
The first thing one might notice about NHL 2K7 is the fact that the PS2 version is lacking in visual clarity and quality, especially in direct comparison to the Xbox 360 version. However, that's hardly a fair comparison to make, and in general, the graphics are solid, if not great. Player animations are smooth and refined, there's a lot of detail in the stadiums and player uniforms, and you won't be finding imperfections. Still, it's a little less than what we might expect from a sports simulator (even for the PS2), and that frame rate is still inconsistent.
The game does boast a nice variety of rock and alternative soundtracks (indie-bands that actually kick ass...what?), which are complimented nicely by the crisp and surprisingly realistic commentator voiceover and sound effects. The crowd will increase in volume on any breakaway, the announcer will mark the event with a good bit of urgent emotion, and the ensuing slapshot resounds with a satisfying crack. But there does appear to be a balance issue between effects, commentator, and music, despite the existence of the traditional sliders. All in all, the sound isn't quite spectacular, but it works to immerse you into the experience.
But of course, the technicals tend to take a back seat to the gameplay and control, and thankfully, NHL 2K7 delivers the fluid, well-designed system fans are familiar with. Every feature from last year's installment is back in full effect, including crease control, on-the-fly play-calling, icon passing, enforcer, and the very effective pressure control scheme. By holding down the L2 button and using the right analog, you can target a particularly irritating opponent and then set the level of pressure with extra taps of the L2 button. Your teammates will step up and take care of business by checking that sucker into the wall.
Combining pressure control with the other numerous features gives the gamer a deep and diverse palette of entertainment options, which makes the game almost more cerebral than it has a right to be. Nothing has really changed in the gameplay format, but the strategy, multiple gameplay modes, and nearly flawless control is still around, so "no change" isn't necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, there is a downside, in that the basic style - a style that anybody who has played a hockey game in the last decade would recognize - is a detriment to a supposed simulator.
But man, look at those features and options. You've got the crazy-fun Party Mode, which has returned with a slew of cool mini-games, such as mini-rink and pond-hockey. Then there's the Skybox, which holds all sorts of secrets, statistics, unlockables, and a bunch of other stuff. Franchise is back, and while it appears very similar to last year's, there have been a couple new additions, and a few more we would've liked to see. A hard salary cap for all teams is evident this time around, for example, but there has yet to be a realistic contract system. You can't sign two-way deals, there's no signing that indicates sending a player to the minors or releasing them from the team, etc.
But one of the enhancements in the game is actually quite cool: the rivalry system has grown to truly effective proportions; in <2K7, you get statistical bonuses and takeaways depending on how players perform versus rival teams. The NHL basically thrives on rivalry (don't kid yourselves, it's true), so this system brings that factor to life, and hockey fans should adore this greatly emphasized feature. Other small tweaks to the standard list of features include messages from the team owner, which directly impact your player's attributes. If one of them nails down an energy drink sponsorship, their stats go up for a few games, but if you get a message saying they look tired, they'll perform poorly. It's up to the gamer to decide if they wish to accept these calls...it's a definite gamble. Kinda bizarre, but still intriguing.
Online play is basically what it has been; two to eight players can come together for basic competition on varying difficulty levels, and the Party games are also available. But perhaps best of all, online league play has returned for tournaments or full seasons that can include anywhere from four to thirty teams, and with the comprehensive stat-tracking provided by the 2K Sports website, you've got everything you could want right at your fingertips. Again, they haven't updated with fantasy drafts, free-agent pools, or anything like that, but it's hardly a crippling issue.
All in all, the control and gameplay are as solid as ever. It's just unfortunate that they decided not to tackle any large additions or changes, thereby leaving a very similar - and now year-old - experience. If they could've kept the fluidity and accessibility of player control on the ice, which sports true-to-life physics and effects, and added something outside of the standard features, it would've been an exceptional title. The pressure control and enforcer options are darn sweet, and those owner messages add a little pizzazz, but...well, it just feels kinda "meh" compared to what it could've been.
But in the end, NHL 2K7 is probably worth the price of admission for you hockey fans who don't yet own a 360. The game has a comely $19.99 price tag, and when you compare that to the $59.99 price of the 360 version, what you're missing is suddenly not so terrible. And you still get that perfectly good foundation common to the 2K7 titles, new rosters, and all in all, a good hockey game to play by yourself or with a few puck-slidin' aficionados.
10/17/2006 Ben Dutka