NHL 2K7 Review
Despite the lessened popularity surrounding the sport of hockey in the U.S., hockey video games still sell pretty darn well, and 2K Sports has a very solid NHL franchise. Their last few installments have felt a little too similar to one another, but we had heard a great deal about 2K7 before its release on the PS3. And after diving in and flying around on the ice for quite a while, we've concluded it's well worth the money for any ardent hockey fan. They still didn't offer any vast changes or improvements over last year's edition, but at the same time, the enhancements are significant in many aspects of both the gameplay and presentation. And in the end, it's just about everything you could want from a realistic yet accessible NHL simulator.
The graphics have seen a nice overhaul for the next generation, featuring a lot of top-notch player animations, beautiful ice rinks, and plenty of great shading and color. It's not the amazing visual production we'll probably be seeing in the coming years on the PS3, but then again, there's almost nothing to get in a twist about. However, we would've liked to have seen more refinement in the textures and detailing, especially when up close and personal with the action. There just seems to be a general lack of clarity, although the drawback is a minor one. Overall, the graphics on display in NHL 2K7 work extremely well, and are more than satisfactory; no hockey fan should be disappointed.
The sound gets a huge boost from the new "Cinemotion" option in the gameplay, which allows you to listen to music during games rather than commentators. The best part? The scores are "mood-based," so if you're falling behind, you'll start hearing some slower, deeper, more somber tracks. If you're catching up or the game is tied, the tracks are more upbeat and driving, thereby giving the player a fantastic sense of urgency and even immersion. No, it's not realistic, but it works wonderfully, and as a unique option not found in any other sports title, it's an excellent feature. The sound effects are great as well, but they tend to override the tracks and commentator speech (if you go that route). The announcing, by the way, is a little too generic and underplayed, but that's just an excuse to choose Cinemotion.
The gameplay revolves around a solid physics engine and the sheer amount of depth regarding on-ice options and various game modes. When controlling a player, everything feels just about right; he has weight and momentum, he can change directions easier when moving slower, he responds quickly and effectively to commands, and the AI is quite good for the medium difficulty levels. Several of the features have returned, including crease control, enforcer, icon passing, and on-the-fly play-calling, and they're essentially identical to what we saw in 2k6. Still, it's always good to have them, especially because these features allow you to play at your own pace, with your own style. Being able to control the flow of the game, as well as your team's progress, is a huge benefit, and one that should appeal to any hardcore hockey fan.
There are a few new things to check out, too. For example, we've got the new drop pass, which lets you send a pass back through your legs to a teammate simply by pressing the R1 button. It's a little flashy and therefore, not all that realistic or useful, but at least we can't call it a cheap gimmick. Then there's the newly revamped pressure control system, which really lets you take control of your team and use intimidation tactics to gain the edge. Say there's one particular opponent who's giving you fits up and down the ice, checking you into the wall, covering you like a blanket, etc. Well, tell your teammates about it, and let them do some dirty work. By hitting the L1 button you can assign a certain level of "pressure" - there are three levels of "aggressiveness" - to that pesky opponent. Three taps, and they'll be lining up to check that sucker through the glass.
There are also five different difficulty modes, but remember it starts out on the lowest (Amateur) as the default setting. The game offers a pretty stiff challenge on the middle difficulty levels, so don't start thinking you're some kind of master because the default is (for some reason) set to ultra-easy. Regardless of difficulty, though, you're bound to get a kick out of the surprisingly engrossing Rivalry system. Depending on how well you perform against your sworn enemies on the ice, you will receive either bonuses or hindrances, and that will greatly influence your potential for success. Much like the Cinemotion, it may not scream "simulation," but it's a good feature that can add loads of attitude and flavor to an otherwise straightforward sports title.
We do have a small problem with the camera, despite its borderline revolutionary top-down vertical angle. Savvy and observant players will notice how this very diverse camera will assimilate to your position on the ice, only in the most subtle of ways. For example, if you're pinned in the corner, you might not even notice how the camera changes to fit the situation. But at the same time, the top part of the ice always seems too distant in comparison to the south side of the rink, which means you may find yourself playing differently depending on which goal you're attacking. It's one of those little hiccups that doesn't seem to have a solution, because unless you go with the old-school horizontal setup, it might be unavoidable.
The PS3 version also sports the extra use of motion sensitivity in the Sixaxis controller. You can grab control of your goalie (press R3; i.e., the right analog) and angle the controller to get in the correct position, and you can even line up a massive check by tilting the Sixaxis in a certain way. However, both techniques are a bit tricky to learn and even trickier to master, which means you'll probably end up using the traditional control format. It's an intriguing option to have, certainly, but it simply doesn't enhance the gameplay to another level due to the inherent complexity. It just kinda takes you out of the experience rather than bringing you in; after all, this isn't Wii Sports. When it's not the default form of interaction, many times, motion sensitivity options tend to act as nothing more than superfluous - albeit mildly amusing - bonus features.
The online play is fairly robust, with plenty of things to do, and plenty of modes to tackle. The only real issue revolves around getting the right people to play with; hockey is indeed a team sport, and unless you just want to go all-out in some quick games, serious play requires seriously skilled players, familiar with all the gameplay features. Of course, if you don't want to jump online for multiplayer fun, the game does support up to four players without the benefit of the Internet, so hook up and get gamin' with a few ice-lovin' buddies. Even if you're not a fan of hockey simulators, this one is accessible enough so even old Blades of Steel fans might have a blast playing multiplayer.
Lastly, just about everything you could ask for in terms of depth is available. You've got the Party games (back and better than ever!), mini-rink, the Skybox that holds all the player challenges, trophies, statistics, and unlockables, and of course, the requisite Hit the Ice! (quick play), Season, and Franchise modes. Each mode has its own reason for existence, as you'll probably sample all of them, and the Season and Franchise modes are fully fleshed out. Franchise sees a few small changes, like the addition of a hard salary cap for all teams, but trades and contracts are still unrealistic and cumbersome. You just don't have the options (no two-player deals, for example) most general managers or owners would normally have when making moves from the head office.
But that's a mostly minor complaint. In fact, while they are numerous, all our complaints our minor. This is a much better version than the already-decent PS2 version, and is mostly identical to the Xbox 360 version (the only difference being the addition of those Sixaxis motion sensing gameplay controls), so if you've been looking for a great NHL title to slake your appetite, look no further. Sure, improvements can still be made, and it may not be a super-elite sports franchise just yet, but 2K Sports has something good, here. NHL 2K7 has several small drawbacks, but none of them can cripple the gameplay or experience, so unless you're a major stickler for the little details, this one should be on your watch list. Football season is over, there aren't any truly great basketball games out there, and baseball doesn't start for a few months yet. Hence, you might just want to give this one a shot.
2/8/2007 Ben Dutka