October 14, 2006

2K Games has long held a place in the hearts of hardcore gamers as the preeminent sports developer. Seen as the only really serious alternative to the EA juggernaut, gamers flock to 2K releases in droves, even when there’s not much new or different on the table. For the last generation, this dichotomy, where EA gobbled up the mainstream market and 2K cornered the hardcore market, was extremely healthy for the industry. Both companies were forced to push the most out of their respective franchises, and each ended up with healthy chunks of the market.

Over the last year or two, however, EA has grown increasingly aggressive with the sports market. The opening salvo, of course, was EA’s acquisition of exclusive rights to use the NFL trademarks, which has granted them dominance in the football market. With this year’s NHL 07 wowing just about everyone, it looks like their next stop is hockey, where 2K had remained the market leader for years. NHL 07 exceeded most peoples’ expectations for a next-generation hockey game, so how did NHL 2K7 fare this year?

Appearances have not deceived: NHL 2K7 has largely failed to mirror the big steps forward for the sport that NHL 07 hinges on. The gameplay feels like just another incremental upgrade, perhaps better suited to the last generation of consoles. 2K has failed to act on the complaints that their game is too arcade-y, and bares little resemblance to the sport its meant to portray. Even more than last year, scoring in NHL 2K7 is heavily reliant on the use of the one-timer, a maneuver that’s seldom executed with any success in the real world. Last year’s version had something of a problem where goalies were fairly easy to beat on breakaways, but that problem has been over-corrected to the point where it’s nigh impossible to put one between the pipes, even with an ace like Washington’s Ovechkin.

To 2K’s credit, the defensive end of the game actually benefits from being fast and furious, especially in comparison to NHL 07. The hitting in 2K7 is frequent and brutal, and above all extremely fun. Defensemen, particular those of the enforcer persuasion, are absolutely critical members of any team. Their ability to negate even the craftiest star players makes for a far more balanced game of hockey, especially when you’re up against human opponents. Still, big hits are only one aspect of the game, and arguably less important to a player’s sense of accomplishment than a rewarding way to score goals.

Another thing lagging in the 2K experience is the graphics. EA really went above and beyond the call of duty when developing NHL 07 this year; it’s easily one of the best looking games available for the 360 today. 2K opted instead to incrementally improve on the engine that they ported from the Xbox. Last year, this approach sufficed, if for no other reason than there was a complete lack of competition. But this year, 2K7 really is showing signs of age. While the framerate is consistently fast, a component vital to a good sports experience, the nuances of the graphics are pretty horrible. The models that are supposed to be accurate representations of players and coaches look instead like thick leather skins hung on bare skeletons. When the camera pans to the bench, the coach looks absolutely frightening with sunken, detached eyes and texture-less skin. It doesn’t look good.

At the very least, the presentation is suitable. Apparently the developers over at 2K wanted to make games more cinematic this year. The biggest change is the addition of a new low-level default camera angle. It helps you follow the on-ice action much more ably than the traditional A

Score: 2/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.