Developer: Page 44 Studios
Release Date: September 20, 2005
The day Gary Bettman declared that there would not be an NHL season for 2004-2005, my heart broke. Hockey, more than any other sport, is my sport. I am terrible at skating, and there isn't much difference between my slapshot and my wrist shot, but by God, I love this game. Today I can say my heart is mending quite well – the season is back, the game is more fresh and exciting than ever. The Rangers are actually winning and look like they want to play hockey more than collect paychecks. NHL 06 and NHL 2K6 are back with competent outings each, but a third hockey game, Gretzky NHL 2006, emerged, and not only does it not involve lumberjacks fighting auto-mechanics, but it's also sponsored by The Great One himself.
For a long time EA Sports had the only hockey video game in town. Since then, Kush Games has been hard at work on NHL 2K6 as a competitor, and for the past few years, the games have dissected the market neatly between those who want fast and flashy gameplay with stylistic television-style presentation, while the other offered a more spartan feel but a decidedly more simulated and authentic hockey experience. So where is there room for a newcomer if it's not NHL Hitz or some other "extreme" hockey sham? There's only enough room for a skilled skater to split the D and put a sneaky little backhander in the top corner. Can The Great One's greatness transpose its RNA into your console? Well, it's difficult to say.
First thing's first, Gretzky 2006 is trying to be a real hockey game and is meant to be played as such. There isn't anyone skating around with skates on fire or any nonsense like that, which to my mind, is a good thing. There is a franchise mode in addition to a Wayne mode, which allows you to play all of the teams that Wayne played with during the many years of his storied career. Every licensed NHL and AHL team is present and accounted for, which means that you can bring up or send down players to the minors, a feature that every real hockey game should have fully licensed and fleshed out. There is a practice mode for getting your break-outs and power-plays down, again something every real hockey game ought to have. The best feature in all of Gretzky 2006 may seem like a gimmick and a minor feature in the game's list, but I think it's the best idea implemented in a hockey game for some time: Team Chemistry.
Team Chemistry is gained by linking together good plays, from good defensive stands to penalty kills and passing in the offensive zone. Racking up assists for your boys will get them to "know" each other better and ostensibly get them to play better together. Team Chemistry manifests itself as a bonus or penalty to player stats. The reason I mark this out as a crucial feature is that hockey is a game where Team Chemistry will determine a team's overall success. Say what you will about the Pittsburg Penguins of the early '90s, The Detroit Redwings of the mid-'90s, the New Jersey Devils of the late '90s, or the Tampa Bay Lightning of last season, but they all won because they were teams and not because they relied on the skates and sticks of a few select players. Everyone not only played well, but played well together, and Gretzky 2006 attempts to replicate this aspect of hockey, which is something I have not seen done to date.
Everything about Gretzky 2006 would suggest a competent hockey game. In the PS2 version, you can use the Eyetoy to map your own face onto your created player and design your own team, if you'd like. The menus are well crafted and meaningful. The on-ice graphics are not up to the same standard as EA Sports, and the in-game commentary is decidedly lacking, but overall, the game looks comparable to NHL 06 and NHL 2K6. As soon as the puck drops, however, it all falls apart.
No matter how many features or innovations Gretzky 2006 boasts, it is a fundamentally flawed game in the sense that the players don't skate and move realistically. No matter what game speed you select, the skaters move and glide at nearly identical speeds, which means odd-man rushes are nigh impossible and break-out passes barely break anything.
It's difficult to predict how your skater will react while carrying the puck, as the skater will glide and slide across the ice in ways and directions real skaters cannot. In NHL 06 and NHL 2K6, your skaters may want to try and turn 90 degrees while skating backwards, but they can't. They loop in as tight a circle in the direction they want to go as much as their skating ability warrants. Not so in Gretzky 2006. Physics has no home on this ice, which makes for a decidedly unrealistic feel to the game and cheapens the whole experience.
Anything else that the game might have gotten right (passing, goal tending, AI, etc.) no longer matters because the players don't skate or move the way they ought to. NHL 93 on Sega Genesis provides a better skating experience than Gretzky 2006, and that is tragic, as Gretzky 2006 could've seen itself instantly among the top two hockey games, had it only gotten the basics down.
There are other features worth mentioning. There is an expanded stat-tracking ability with a new Rivalry Mode, and you can play online with anyone else who is still playing this game five days after having bought it. There is also an ultimate gimmick, "99 Time," which saddened me almost as much as the game's core physics. In "99 Time," if you achieve certain goals or feats (i.e., killing a two-man penalty, scoring a hat-trick), you get your very own Wayne to play alongside to make things an instant 6-on-5 situation. I know this is Wayne's game, but honestly, I could've totally done without this feature. Even if Gretzky 2006 had nailed the gameplay, this is a feature I would've wanted off all the time, as it disrupts the nature of the title, which, as I said, is striving to be a real hockey game.
As harsh as I am being on Gretzky NHL 2006, I still see a future in this franchise. The franchise mode with the major and minor league teams is a great asset, and building on the Team Chemistry concept will revolutionize the genre. I think you'll see this feature toyed with in next year's NHL 07, but I think NHL 2K7 is too math-oriented to tinker with such an abstract concept. SCEA's Gretzky team needs to go to skating camp and really work on building a hockey game from the ice up. Until then, they will be left with a lame game, no matter what sort of bells and whistles they tack onto the box.