NHL hockey is back and so is EA’s NHL series. EA’s NHL hockey series has come a long way since its first release in the early 90’s. Not only have the graphics and sounds improved, but so has the realism. Lately, it seems as though the improvements have come a little more slowly than years ago. In fact, telling the last few instalments apart is a difficult task and only small peripheral features set them apart. It’s one of the reasons (along with some good competition from the 2k games) why EA has decided to mix things up and give the game an overhaul this year. Whether this overhaul was planned to coincide with the beginning of a new era in the NHL or whether it was purely coincidental is unknown but if you’re like me and miss the simplistic approach to sports games like NHLPA and NHL ’94 then you will enjoy the changes EA has made to the series. NHL ’06 is somewhat of a throwback to the early nineties without the crude graphics and presentation.
Before we start, I would like to talk about the rosters. Anyone following the NHL knows, that because of the new collective bargaining agreement the financial environment in the NHL has changed drastically and dramatically. What does this mean? Players have been moving all over the place, from this team to that team, and this is still ongoing. One of my first fears about NHL ’06 was about the rosters and just how out of date they may be. Luckily this doesn’t seem to be a problem. In fact, they seem to have all transactions, up until about three weeks ago (at release) in place. The roster update mode is available on the start-up menu, and using it is a snap. By pressing the L and R buttons you can select two different teams and then swap players or send them to the free agency pool. If you’re a fanatic, updating rosters will take you about an hour but not too much longer. Now to the game.
NHL 2006 offers several modes of gameplay. Besides the standard exhibition mode, there’s a vs’ mode and season mode. Each but the most interesting mode is the dynasty mode, which gives you full control of your hockey team as a general manager. You make all the moves from drafting to financial transactions to playing the games. Your ultimate goal, win the Stanley Cup. The last mode is a player creation mode, also known as the Sidney Crosby creator, just kidding. Creating a player, which you can use in your dynasty and season games is done through a graphic menu system. Select everything from your player’s number and height to the size of their nose. It’s extremely deep for a sports game and rivals some MMORPG character creators.
Over time hockey games and sports games, in general, have become complicated. Long gone are the days of 3 button control schemes and multi-functional buttons. Now we have buttons for wrist shots, slap shots, dekes, blocking shots, punk dumps, poke checks, body checks etc. But this is where EA’s biggest modification to NHL takes place.
You’ve seen the advertisements where EA compares ’06 to NHL’94. Now don’t worry, the game looks nothing like that, but where the similarities occur are in the games control scheme. EA hasn’t copied the ’94 controls, they have used them as an inspiration to simplify how the game feels and plays Overall the changes are successful and make the game a pleasure to play. What’s great is the ability for someone who has never played the game to hop in and have fun.
You still have two shots, a regular/slap shot and a wrist shot. Dekeing is now controlled, completely, with the d-pad. This is the biggest reversion to NHL ’94 and simplifies moving the puck through traffic and faking out the goalie. The special deke button is still there for those 1on1 moments but other than that, controlling your players will be done using the d-pad. Certain players considered stars can do special moves including spin dekes and quick with the right analogue stick. Checking remains similar to last years version and big body checks are performed using speed bursts.
Another notable change to the gameplay is player movement with the puck. The puck is no longer glued to the player when they are moving. Now, when a player is skating up the ice, the puck will move loosely in front of the player. Speed bursts lessen control and the puck will be harder to keep near you. It makes puck handling slightly more difficult but more importantly, makes it easier for defenders to steal a puck without levelling the player or using big body checks that were all to common in prior versions. Last years version was almost comical and more NHL Hitz like with it’s constant hitting.
Shooting is performed with two buttons. The Y button is a wrist shot, a quickly released fast shot, effective in close while B is the tradition shot which you’ll be using for slap shots. The longer you hold down the button, the harder the shot. The best new feature in the game is the new targeting system. When you’re taking a slap shot a small target will appear in the opposing players net which can be moved while the shot is being performed. Shots are no longer a matter of chance. This is a great feature that should have been implemented years ago.
Overall EA’s attempts to make game more fun through its control have been successful. Unlike EA’s past few hockey games, ’06 is easy to play and just complicated enough to keep veterans happy but simple enough for those new to the game to pick up and play.
Graphically, NHL2006 looks good.. There are only slight improvements over last years instalment but that was a solid looking game, to begin with. I don’t think the NHL games are the best looking EA games but they aren’t the worst either. In fact, it seems like EA has left most of the visuals alone, instead of spending time on the control and gameplay. The models look good and we’re finally at a point where players, at close-up, look somewhat normal. Like every year EA has added a bunch of new animations. Spread throughout the game, they add a little realism and amusement for fans who recognize the nuances of the game.
A commentary is now a standard and it’s here in NHL ’06. There’s nothing new here, just some mild conversation, game calling and the occasional anecdote, all of which become repetitious after about 20 games. This feels like an aspect of NHL that just hasn’t changed much over the last few years so don’t expect anything new.
While NHL ’06 may not be the addictive, just plain fun game that NHL ’04 was, it may be the best EA hockey game since. Don’t look for any new features or groundbreaking additions to the genre but fans will appreciate the refinements EA has made to the series. Those interested may also like to know the game is available for $30.00 which one can only assume is in direct response to the NHL2k series. Game on!