NHL 07 is the first time I can honestly say that EA has made a concerted effort to shuck their conservative image as the company that releases rehashes upon rehashes upon rehashes of popular franchises. This year, the company has decided to take a big risk and upgrade the NHL franchise, arguably its most consistent in terms of raw quality, turning it into a completely new game worthy of the next-generation label. And while I heartily support this fresh approach to sports franchises, the new engine suffers from a cadre of rookie mistakes that fail to lift it above the competition.
The big push with NHL 07 is the new control scheme, which is an obvious departure from the hockey games we’ve been playing for the past decade. In the past, hockey games have been played primarily with the face buttons, giving the game a twitchy arcade-like feeling. The games never really looked or played like the actual game of hockey, because most people scored goals by using one-timers or exploits of the simplistic goalie AI. Nonetheless, they were fun games and their quick, light-hearted approach to the sport made them much more accessible to new players.
This year EA went back to the drawing board, and came away with a control scheme that seems almost alien next to established convention. The developers essentially abandoned the face buttons altogether, putting the majority of the controls on the triggers, the bumpers, and the right control stick. Essentially, the right stick acts as a proxy for your hockey stick. Wherever you move the stick on the controller, the player on screen moves his stick on the ice. If you want to do a side-to-side deke, you move the stick from the left to the right. If you want to fire off quick wrist shot, you flick the stick forward. It sounds intuitive, but it takes a good long time to get used to, especially if you’ve played any other hockey game in the past five years.
Curiously, the defensive controls have been shifted to the control stick also, but they don’t work nearly as well as the offense. EA has said that it was going to try and tone down the hitting in this year’s version to make the game more realistic, but all that’s really done is neuter defenders’ ability to prevent breakaways and odd-man rushes. Though the computer sometimes seems to have a superhuman capacity to poke away the puck, you’ll be hard-pressed to do the same, and though the notion of pressing the control stick in the direction you want to check seems intuitive, it rarely works how it’s supposed to.
The other major overhaul the series has undergone is in the graphics department. Unlike the competition over at 2K Sports, EA opted to scrap the old engine entirely and start from the ground up. This approach has done wonders, and the game is far and away the best-looking most true to life sports experience I have yet to see grace a home console. Players are instantly recognizable, the arenas have a lively and realistic ambiance, and the game moves along at a decent clip. The only real complaints in this respect come from flaws in the gameplay itself. The animations have a habit of transitioning quickly from one to another, seemingly missing frames in between. A player can go from sprawled out on the ice to his feet in a split second, or skating one direction one second, then suddenly be in the middle of checking somebody in the opposite direction the next. Still, NHL 07 is several steps above the competition, and is undoubtedly one of the prettier games on the 360 right now.
The variety of gameplay features is pretty standard, though the amount of online options is pretty glaringly weak. Unlike NHL 2K7, EA’s game offers next to no in-depth online play. Online tournaments and leagues should be a given at this point, but EA seems unwilling to really embrace Xbox Live fully as an online platform. The company included some other minor online perks, like the ability to track real sports scores as well as friends’ online presence in a ticker at the bottom of certain menus, but such niceties don’t compensate for the fact that all you can really do online is exhibition.
EA has gone on record promising that its focus next year will be on the defensive and online aspects of the franchise. Promises, however well intentioned, do not a good game make. And the fact of the matter is that NHL 07 just plain isn’t fun unless you have the puck and are about to stick to a friend in overtime. So while NHL 07 completely nails certain facets of the game, it definitely isn’t the complete package. This franchise certainly has the appearance of going places, but it may be another year or two before it finally proves itself as the best game on the market.