EA Canada
Electronic Arts
Sports
1-4
09.12.06

NHL 07 (Xbox 360)


Hockey video games are unlike any other sport video game. It’s a precise balance between graceful control-handling and precise button-mashing. The pace of the game never slows down or speeds up, and offense and defense are at times interchangeable, leaving a player with one controller for two sides of the same game (where baseball and football games have different control settings for offense and defense). It’s faster than basketball, as strategy-oriented as football, and if a developer doesn’t understand the fundamentals of the game, it can be as tedious as baseball. There is nothing more annoying than a poorly put together hockey game.

Hockey’s arrival to the Xbox 360 was as inevitable as it was anticipated; “Next-Gen” is synonymous with “unprecedented attention to detail” and “realistic graphics”. EA Sports’ newest hockey title, NHL 07, attempts to steal the puck away from rival title NHL2K with its innovative control schemes, “as if you were really there” graphics and state-of-the-art physics system. But it’s not the size of your stick, it’s how you use it.

Gameplay

Before doing anything, you’re going to want to play a “Just Testing” game; a game where you just get a feel for the game’s mechanics (like when you first got Street Fighter II and you promised your little brother you would let him figure out the controls before you Haduken’d him flat on his ass). EA has done away with the “A button does this, X button does that” control schematic that they so heavily relied on in previous consoles. All passing, shooting, and puck-handling is done via the two thumbsticks on the controller. Left handles the skating, and right handles your stick (the difference between a slapshot and a wrist shot will be in how you handle that right stick). Smooth and innovative, although it does take some getting used to.

The mastery of the two stick system is also necessary for defense. In previous hockey games, as long as your defensemen was touching the guy with the puck, one push of the “check” button would send him into next week. In NHL 07, you have to be dead-on with the right thumbstick when on defense; unless your timing is perfect, you’ll just get in the guy’s way. Thankfully, poke checking is available for when you can’t get up in his grill, and blocking can be a non-violent alternative. Defense, once a button-mashing fiasco, is a precise, graceful affair, like offense and ballroom dancing.

The game’s Dynasty Mode, while a generic “season mode”, isn’t as cookie cutter as in the game’s predecessors. A new feature to the game is the minor league system, which helps you manage prospective talent and keep your players playing even if they aren’t cutting the muster on the ice. The game features a system of player development and progress tracking. When you aren’t playing, you can read reports where the game will give you props (or dis you) on your team’s offense, defense, powerplay/penalty kill, etc. This is a There is also the training feature which allows your players to increase their prowess on the fundamentals of the game (shooting, hand eye, etc). Reports help you track where your players need to progress. It’s a nice addition, but nothing distracts you from the fact that you’re playing out a practice. Although armed with new features, the Dynasty Mode lacks a certain Je ne sais quoi; playing the Dynasty Mode, you’ll get the feeling that there should be more involved, but all you’re getting is the same old season mode with the option of drilling yourself to sheer boredom to get that “perfect team” (that you could’ve just gotten by trading away your team in the previous games).

While NHL 07 requires knowledge of hockey strategy, don’t expect it from the AI; although the goalies have been upgraded, everyone else has the common sense of a bowl of fried rice. They check harder and skate faster, but still have no idea where the hell they are. They aren’t where you need them to be for a one-timer shot, they don’t always cover a potential pass receiver, and sometimes they even cost you face-offs, skating past the puck after a clean possession. Such occurrences are rare, but are maddening regardless. A dimwitted AI is forgivable in sports games where there is a prominent multiplayer option, but NEVER should a teammate cause you more problems than your opponent.

Speaking of frustration, NHL 07 uses a very advanced physics system for the game. On the plus side, it provides more realism to the game (because you can’t get enough of that, can you?) although it can cause a lot of heartbreak; the puck is no longer magnetized to the player’s stick. The puck sometimes bounces off a player’s stick during a pass, or bounce off the wall the post in sometimes unpredictable directions. This adds a lot of spontaneity to the game, but there is no bigger turn-off for gamers than that game-tying one-timer going awry because the puck suddenly got a mind of its own.

NHL 07 offers a variety of game modes outside of Dynasty, including World Tournament (where you play a World Cup-esque international tournament), Dodge Shootouts (which is highly addictive), and Online play. While the Online play features nothing more or less than any hockey game before it, it still allows you to play jabronis from around the world, check them into the boards, and dis their mamas. After all, what other reason is there to play sports on a video game system?

Graphics

NHL 07’s graphics are what all Xbox 360 games should be about. The arenas in the game resemble their real-life counterparts in the minutest of details. Paying attention closely, you can see wear of the stick, the scratches on the ice and the tape used to secure the player’s pads. Animations are fluid and plentiful (a byproduct of the new control scheme no doubt), and the cut-scenes are as good as the real thing. A lot of time went into making sure big names’ faces were recognizable, and the audience is actually three-dimensional (and actually possess more than three character models). The best graphics of any EA hockey game before it, and easily the best feature of this game.

Sound

Repetitive commentary aside (point out a sports game that doesn’t have that), NHL 07 features crisp, clear sound effects. Coaches yell, fans cheer, and the puck bounces off of things in a realistic fashion. Gamers who actually go to hockey games will appreciate the often gritty realness of the sound effects. Gamers who don’t will think it’s really pretty.

Replay Value

Dynasty Mode gets old quick. Having to actually practice with your team and having to watch report after report of your shortcomings can really ruin it for you. And you’ll probably want to quit playing the first time a member of your own team costs you a face-off. Online play will easily give you days, perhaps even weeks, of fresh, challenging gameplay. And if Online play doesn’t do it for you, certainly your nearest EB Games or GameCrazy will be hosting an NHL tournament within the year. The fact that NHL 07 doesn't allow for more than two players to face off in its online mode when NHL 2K7 allows for EIGHT player isn't just disappointing...it's actually a little sad.

Bottom Line:

Ambitious and innovative on one hand, while repetitive and inexcusably frustrating on the other. Beautiful graphics and crisp sound effects shadow an underachieving AI and simple and gratuitous “season mode”. All the emphasis in the game went to a control schematic that you might even find alienating. A decent hockey game, and a good step in the right direction for EA Sports. However, if you’re only going to buy one hockey game for the 2007 year, this shouldn’t be it, unless you’re one of those people who never skips the cut-scenes or turns down the volume so you can listen to your iPod.

Related Links:

Official Website for NHL 07

-Jimi Robertson




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