Ice Ice Baby
Ok. You'll have to forgive me for the obvious above line but it's a Monday and I'm freezing my collective self off. Why you might ask, or might not of course. I've been hammering at EA's new Ice Hockey title: NHL 06' for the Playstation 2.
The Rocky Road to recovery
One of my Ice Hockey obsessed friends explained to me, that there's been a bit of a slump recently for a while regarding the real sport. A few feathers got ruffled and a lot of angry words, various troubles and so forth happened. This also caused a knock on effect and stunted the game industry side of the sport as well.
EA's last NHL 05' didn't quite hit the mark and the company obviously has taken a long hard and telling look at the previous games, settling on what made an old classic of theirs fun for all. I'm talking of course about NHL 94' which I am really pleased to see EA actually put in the game, accessible off the menu.
But EA are back in the game, and this one feels a lot better than the previous title.
Usually I prefer the comedy smack-stick of the NHL Hitz series but I really have to admit, there's something about this one that appeals to me. I think it's because the developers have re-evaluated their last title or two and decided to put things like deking on the left analogue stick and with just a little tap to the left or right you can perform these moves like a pro: by throwing the defence off their guard or by duping the goalie with a feint here and there.
There's also less constant checking in this game, so you can get a good offensive drive forwards without suddenly being stopped every five seconds. I'm glad they did this since that kind of thing really does belong in the previously mentioned smack-stick series and not in a proper simulation Ice Hockey game.
They have also included 'Star' players (identified by a, wait for it...star around their feet) and these players can do a variety of special moves, Star moves oddly enough. These are simply enough to perform and are mapped to the right analogue stick; give it a tap and the whole thing works perfectly. Checking the manual in these cases is also advisable as it has a list of all the moves, buttons you'll need to know to play the game and master it.
A great addition to this series and I have been waiting for something like this for a while, is the inclusion of a target bulls-eye when taking a goal, gone are the days of hoping that your shot hits the back of the net, you can now place precisely where you'd like the puck to go and hope that the goalie doesn't intercept it. Hold down the button and the aforementioned bulls-eye appears: you're good to go.
For those of you that get het up and just want to brawl, well, the fight option is still there and the controls are as simple as usual.
If you want to dive into far more than just an exhibition match you can go for Dynasty Mode and experience what it's like to manage and build a team of Superstars. In DM you can manage your financial side going as far as concession stand markup prices and so forth. This will appeal to fans of the more management based games, while allowing you to jump in to any simulated game and try and turn the tide at any time. The later you leave it, the bigger the payoff will be if you win.
You'll get emails as you go along and these will keep you up to date, ease the pressure of being a manager and help you out considerably as you progress.
You can also create Player likenesses by using the new Player Creation Zone option, sculpting various features and adding things like black eyes, bruises and broken noses. Use the analogue facial sculpting to create the ultimate YOU and then put them in the game. Those people that love additions like this will go a bundle on the new Creation options and spend more time in the editor than in the game.
It should be mentioned right here and now that while there are several difficulty settings in the game, the AI has been souped up considerably and the goalies especially are reluctant to let any kind of shot in, let alone cheap ones. You're going to need your entire button and stick skills to get the puck past them at the higher difficulty levels, while defending your own goal from the ruthless assault of the CPU players, who will use every trick in the book to nail your goal at every opportunity.
All in all: aggressive and ruthless AI offering a challenge at all difficulty levels.
The physics of Control
There are two camps in sports games, those that like the feel of realistic bouncing physics for the poor puck or ball, and those that prefer the object to be glued or stuck to the stick or foot. I don't mind which to be honest as long as the game plays well or is good fun. I can say though for NHL 06' if you're in the glue camp, then you probably won't like the fact it features:
R.P.M Physics: I love it when game developers put in acronyms like this, they make my day. Real Puck Momentum physics conjures up all sorts of ideas, most of them to do with Shakespeare in my case. The puck takes on a physical force of its own and can stun goalies if it strikes their face mask or knock water bottles off the top of the net if you slam a good shot in. It's a fancy word for giving the object a set of laws to adhere to and works really well, making it feel far more realistic.
The game also has Momentum based skating, to add to the realism, which will throw a lot of players off that prefer the puck to be glued to their stick. It takes some getting used to and provides a nice element of difficulty to master in the control of the player; once you get used to it you'll be gliding around the ice like a professional skater without all the fancy twirls and tutus.
You'll also notice that the puck slides ahead of you as well; this is all part of the new additional physics and I happen to like bells and whistles of this kind. So the more and more that I play it, the more and more I am drawn towards the realism side of the fence.
It has to be noted that the only drawback is that it won't feel as dynamic as other games of the genre and players can feel laggy to control, inertial playing an integral part now in the control system and game.
NHL 06' is a nice looking game and shows that there's life in the Playstation 2 yet. It isn't quite as impressive as the Xbox version however but still features improved player models and textures, with more polygons and visual features over the previous game.
The ice deforms as the game progresses and it sprays off the side of the blades as the players move about, tracks becoming almost Mandelbrot-like in their complexity as the seconds tick off the clock.
EA have never stinted on the animations in any game and NHL 06' is no exception, there are scowls and various facial motions galore and it lends an incredible personality to the game models. The ambient animations are also very nice, the water bottle slamming upwards as a powerful shot strikes home and the whole smooth motion of the players as they perform moves, checking, deking and so on is a solid and competent job.
It flows nicely and has plenty of side-comments and interesting remarks as the match progresses. The commentators are obviously enjoying their job and put the same amount of enthusiasm into the game as they would do a real match.
There are plenty of nice effects in the game, from the swish of skates on the crackling-crunching ice to the oof as players connect. Again EA have done the genre proud in the audio department and they don't stint at all.
EA's own TRAX feature heavily in their games, especially on the PS2 which doesn't feature custom soundtracks. So you're treated to their list of rock tunes with which to enjoy the match, all well and good if you happen to like their tune-list but if you don't then you'll probably turn off the music.
Net & Multi-Play
For those of you with a PS2 broadband adapter, you can enjoy the game online as well. Sadly I don't have one of those so I can't really cover the online side of the game, but expect furious competition from human players and a wealth of Ice Hockey gameplay to be had.
Otherwise you'll need to invest in a multi-tap or two, gather some friends and enjoy the cold of the Ice from your own front room.
After the vaguely disappointing NHL 05' EA are back on track and in the zone with NHL 06'. If they can keep this up for the NHL 07' then they'll be on to a sure fire winner. The game feels as though it has finally matured and all the visual and control, gameplay kinks have been mostly ironed out. There are still a few lessons to be learned and they'll come in time, until then it certainly is one of the best EA Ice Hockey games to date and with the inclusion of NHL 94' you can relive the simpler glory days as an added bonus.