Publisher: 2K Sports
Developer: Visual Concepts
Release Date: September 6, 2005
All right sports fans, here we go again with another hockey simulation. This time around, it’s Sega’s interpretation of the freshly reborn contact sport in NHL 2K6. By now, most hockey fans have had the fortune to tune in to hockey once again in its recently revived state. The game has been back with a vengeance, with thrilling shootout finishes, hard hits and a completely offensive-minded rule set. New faces and old are in new places around the league, and for the first time, it seems like there is real parity in the midst of the NHL. With all this in mind, fans should be chomping at the bit to get their hands on a piece of the action to throw in their Xbox at home, and if you do intend to buy a hockey sim in the near future, I urge you to do so because there is definitely a perfect one out there. Unfortunately, it is not titled NHL 2K6.
Now anyone who is familiar with the NHL 2K franchise will be outraged by my above comment, and honestly had I not played the current installment, I too would be hard-pressed to read any further into this review. As a huge fan of the NHL 2K series, however, I was by far the most disappointed person in the world upon playing this title. The primary reasoning for this comes from one thing and one thing only -- the fact that I own and play NHL 2K5 relatively frequently. You’re probably saying, "What does that have to do with this year’s game?" The answer: Everything, because they’re the same game, minus the ESPN license that made 2K5 so appealing.
Everything about NHL 2K6 reminds me of NHL 2K5, from the loading screen, which bears the same options whether it be the Exhibition, Season, or Franchise modes, or the Hit the Ice talent drill games. Everything that was in 2K5 is in 2K6, and there's not much else. New for this year seems to be the Party Mode, which allows players to engage in as many mini-games as they choose, all of which were present in last year's game, so hopefully you've had lots of practice. In retrospect, the mini-games, although they are a part of All-Star Weekend and are fun to watch on television, aren’t particularly entertaining in their in-game form here. Weird controls, combined with a downright strange learning curve, make most of the mini-games an exercise in patience rather than one in entertainment.
The Quick Game mode allows you to immediately select your team and hit the ice. This feature is nice if you don’t want to be bothered with setting your lines or deciding on match-ups or jersey color, all of which can be accessed by opting to play an Exhibition game instead. The players hit the ice and check, skate, and puck handle the way they are supposed to, but instead of skating, the players seem to float down the ice, and the skating dynamics seem decidedly weak. The character models, while somewhat improved from last year, are basically the same and offer no particularly thrilling enhancements in the form of new checking animations or cooler dekes and jukes. In addition, the players look just a little bit too big in this game. It’s almost as if you’re controlling jersey-toting gorillas with sticks that are flying just above a glossy surface. Obviously, the designers at 2K Sports did not take heed to the many criticisms of their somewhat over-bulky characters that graced the ice in last year's edition.
Gone from the game are the relatively on-point commentators of last year supplied by ESPN support. New for this installment are relatively boring and often bland-sounding announcers who sound like they know just how disappointed hockey fans will be at having invested their 20 bones on this title. In addition to the lackluster announcing, the moves that you can use to beat the goalie this year are just not very impressive. In a year in hockey which will be dominated by thrilling open-ice offense, NHL 2K6 completely misses the boat on enhanced offensive player abilities, settling instead for allowing the same one-timer goal combinations which were so easily executed in previous iterations of the game.
On a positive note, while you play through the Franchise mode, the soundtrack to this year's NHL 2K offering is a solid mix of hard-hitting rock, which is entirely appropriate to thump to as you guide your mullet-sporting ice bruisers through their season. Team Chemistry is a solid feature that is increased or decreased by player performance. If a line is doing particularly well, their passes to each other will become more accurate and more likely to be received. You’ll find them in better positions to score, and the line will fatigue a little less quickly. If the overall team chemistry is kept high, then your team will be noticeably more effective during Season play, which is a welcome change from useless team chemistry monitors in other sports games. The Franchise mode allows you to control every aspect of the team, from marketing and finance to on-ice strategy and line changes, which is nice and appropriate in today’s ever-more-realistic management modes, but still, the awards in the Skybox just don’t seem to gleam and glisten with any real meaning this year.
The controls for this year's offering remain largely unchanged. The options on offense to pass, turbo boost, dump and shoot remain essentially the same from last year. On defense, the normal poke check, body check, and kneel/block shot options are still available. Honestly, the game would be much more exciting if you could decide what type of check you were trying to throw. The hip check in the open ice is probably the most exciting thing that this game offers, as it is both extremely smooth to watch and also quite effective at stopping oncoming opponents. You’ll be more than inclined to pause the game and go back to admire your work whenever your player blesses you with a well-executed hip check, and you'll probably be more inclined to watch that moment over and over than you will to actually finish playing the period of hockey that you were previously engaged in.
The gameplay in NHL 2K6 is really not that bad. The game is certainly fun to play with friends if they’re available, or you can always make new ones via the ever-addictive Xbox Live. The online availability of tournaments and multiplayer games is certainly a positive feature, since playing the computer AI rapidly becomes an exercise in running up football scores on all but the highest difficulty setting. Even then, the goalies seem eager to be faked out by your lame posturing moves and the ever-popular cross-crease one timer.
Oh how the mighty have fallen. I never would have predicted that NHL 2K6 would get checked over the boards and onto the bench in such a grandiose fashion. The NHL 2K series, which in my opinion had a stranglehold on NHL games for so long, seems to have been done in by the loss of ESPN sponsorship as well as a completely inexplicable complacency in the department of upgrading and redesigning the game. Apparently, 2K Sports was completely content to rest on their laurels during the NHL off-season. It almost seems as if they were not expecting to make an NHL game this year, and once the NHL announced its return, they slapped a new badge on an old game and presented it like the new kid on the block. They might have gotten away with it too, had not EA Sports gone to work and produced what is probably the best hockey simulation since Sega's NHL '95. At its core, NHL 2K6 is not a bad game, but with such a great game sitting next to it in most video game stores, I’d be hard-pressed to spend even the lowered $20 price of admission to this year's NHL 2K6 rink. The NHL is definitely back and more fun than ever, and I’ll be buying my season tickets through EA Sports' NHL 06.
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