Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: September 12, 2006
It's a weird time when transitioning between console generations. Some developers are more interested in focusing their resources on the future, making their newest version for the newest console on the block, while others stick to the huge installed user base of the previous generation. When there's not much available for a new system, it can be easier to make a good showing, though the same game on last-gen systems wouldn't hold much water. Such is the case with NHL 07 on the PS2: it's hockey, but it doesn't even accomplish what prior entries in this series have, let alone other series.
Much the way NHL 07 is just here for appearances' sake, so are many of the features. Some may gripe that Dynasty Mode doesn't have the depth that it's had previously, where you manage every last detail down to the prices of tickets and hot dogs. About as close to being an accounting sim that this iteration gets is enforcing a salary cap so you can't build a dream team and breeze through the season. Seeing it short-changed and simplified will probably annoy fans who play with a controller in one hand and a spreadsheet in the other.
About all you do here is pick the type of manager you want, which affects how trusting he is and how quickly he earns more trust, how he spends, and how high his expectations are for the team this season. The faster he earns trust, the more points you get to spend on training facilities, better coaching staff, better PR and marketing, etc., but it's all determined by a dice roll behind the scenes. That, coupled with the glacial rate at which you seem to earn trust and points for these stats, made it easy to forget I was doing much beyond playing a drawn out one-team season.
I'm all about plain ol' Season mode play anyway, and here you can pick any number of teams to play as throughout the season, and the length of said season, from only a handful of games up through a full 82-game stretch with each team. One thing I miss that Fox NHL Championship did seven years ago was let you scroll through the day's games, and you could play any match for one of your teams that's active that day.
There are a lot of other things that can't be tweaked mid-season in NHL 07, like difficulty, period length, how ties are broken, and so on, that many other games let you fiddle with at your leisure. Better know your abbreviations and flags before touching the game, too, since stat and menu pages use them rampantly without any indication elsewhere as to what they represent. That's more than an oversight, since it could have just shown up at the bottom of the screen somewhere.
In virtually every mode, you can choose from the NHL, or several international leagues like Elitserien, Del, Tipsport Extraliga, and SM-Liiga, making for yet another example of the breadth of content here, but lacking depth. They'd have done better to pare down the leagues and make the gameplay for a single league a bit better.
I've never been huge on EA's brand of arcadey hockey, mainly because of the gameplay. The sights and sounds are generally as good as can be, but too many things about the playability still leave me wanting in this version. The Skill Stick — which apparently had much more functionality in previous chapters — is reduced now to passing and poke checking, which is a nice idea, but still doesn't work as well as it should. Is that guy Up from me, or Up-Left? Let's try Up-Left … nope, turnover, pass and I'm scored on. Wonderful. Using it to poke check isn't bad, but still feels clumsier than just hitting X and swinging the analog stick in NHL 2K3, largely due to the jittery skating and inability to accelerate while poking.
Limited off-screen indicators and not knowing whether your target is a sniper or power forward or what makes offense a lot of guesswork. The Open Ice Control tries to get around the previous foible, allowing you to dish to an AI player while you head for the net, but most of the time leaving the puck in their hands ends up in a turnover while you're posting up beautifully for nothing. It's less about strategy and more about just winding up and ripping it at the net. It's still EA's flavor of hockey, and I still don't like it.
Other games have already gotten a handle on this sort of awareness and puck movement years ago. Sony's Face-off series died an unfortunate but justified death, but did it have to take Icon Passing and Icon Player Selection with it? It's still the best way to pick your pass recipient and get to the guy you want on defense in a hurry, and it's been gone for too damn long. Going back to Fox's one-hit-wonder hockey game again, at any time, whichever character you were playing as had arrows around him pointing to where your other players were on the ice. It gave a much better sense of offensive and defensive team awareness, and the pace — along with the balance of one-timers to slap shot success — was just about perfect.
The gameplay deterrents don't end there for NHL 07. For some reason, every time I want to use speed boost, I lose control of the puck and get it stripped off me. These are supposedly pro players and will shoot heinously wide of the net from three feet away. The control for everything — even in-game menus — is laggy, making it so you have to think two steps ahead. Then, instead of processing all input in the order you put it in, if you try to pass, get checked, and shoot for the guy by the post who was supposed to fire it in behind the net-minder, the game will skip the pass and have you shoot from an obviously bad angle. Grrr. Add to that 20+ posts hit in a game that should have been goals, and it's clear there's something going on in the background to keep the score artificially close, despite it being obnoxiously high already (most games end up close to 10 goals per side).
The computer can routinely complete perfect passes as you're smashing them to the wall, when the same is impossible for you. Far too often, I saw players skating away from a loose puck rather than going after it. I couldn't find a camera angle that I liked, largely due to the lack of zooming options available in pretty much every other hockey game. Pressure sensitivity is absent from the buttons, making replays less fluid. You can lose a team hot streak and morale boost even though you haven't lost a game or performed particularly badly in any way. Stuff like this makes NHL 07 hard to enjoy, and don't look to the manual for any clarity or explanation. The only thing I found it useful for was which firewall ports to open for online play, but I could have found that out on the Internet anyway.
The visuals are pretty good up close, showing probably the most realistic and accurate player faces on this generation of consoles. Ice and visors reflect light, glass shatters, manual aiming targets pop up inside the net (even if the shots go nowhere near them), and the highlight reels at the end of each period are pretty spiffy. The immediate after-goal replays can be hit or miss, sometimes capturing everything, and sometimes lagging behind and missing everything important about the play. When you bump out to the fixed zooms for each camera angle, the visual luster is lost a bit since everyone and everything becomes so small, making it feel like you're playing on a PSP screen instead of a full-sized TV. The puck halo not being visible through the boards makes for trouble in the corners.
The variety of modes gives NHL 07 legs, even if the playability doesn't. We've already touched on Dynasty and Season; Exhibition has you pick two teams, set a few options, and drop the puck, while World Tournament lets you pick among NHL teams or several international teams and race through the bracket for the trophy. You can also take the North American All-Stars, Conference All-Stars, and other arrangements of the NHL's finest.
Shootout Mini-Game has you pick a player and choose how many shots/goals you want to go up to versus an AI goalie; it's simple, quick, not terribly exciting. Free For All mode lets you pick a player from a limited selection per team, choose how many defensemen you want in your face, and then try to score goals against the AI goalie and defense by yourself, up to a certain number or time limit, with friends or solo. It had a very NBA Jam feel to it, which is a good thing — running around like crazy, fighting for the puck, checking like mad with no fear for penalties, and just going for offense, offense, offense! It's the distilled essence of EA hockey without all the other stuff bogging it down. Now, this I can enjoy.
Online play requires a few minutes of setup and goes a little faster if you already have an EA username. Despite invites and hosting a game and waiting, I only got to play one game against a guy who'd already mastered the quirks and cheap stuff in the game, making it not much fun. I didn't feel terribly compelled to get back online, though I'm not terribly compelled to play against strangers anyway. I'd rather have friends over to whale on.
There are a lot of other little things that annoy me about NHL 07. The Skill Stick and controls gain a meager amount of precision if you fight your way through learning the advanced setup. The game-wide input lag further cripples the advanced control scheme, not to mention floaty and occasionally awkward player movements and animations, and some texture flickering. Goalies are actually dumb enough to pass it backwards into your own net if you're not careful, and I didn't dare try to manually control the goalie, given the other control problems. Other players will often still stand around when they should be breaking out, or park themselves exactly in your way so even you can't do anything but pass and pray. All teams' ratings range only between about 82 and 95, making it hard to find any significant differences from one team to another. Winning a face-off by flicking the right analog stick tries to feel more authentic, but all you really have to do to beat the computer on every draw is just nudge the stick as quickly as you can, a la the days of Track and Field. Forget about timing, and be ready to buy a new controller soon when the stick wears out. Hits are more subdued this time around, nerfing the Big Hit effect they birthed a few years back. Nobody goes sprawling, and there's no close-up of the collision. Both players usually just slow down a little, or if one falls down, he gets right back up and can usually beat you to the puck he just lost. Nonsense.
In the audio department, I think it's no secret by now that the EA Trax thing is here to stay, like it or not. They usually find at least a few tracks I can listen to again and again, but this time I can only tip my hat to Quiet Drive's "Rise From The Ashes." Good work there, fellas. At least you can turn off all the other songs in the Options screen.
Since there's no music during the actual hockey, something needed to fill it up. The play-by-play and color commentary was probably about as good as it's ever going to get with video game sports, though it's still not remarkable in any way. It's perpetually a little behind the action and not terribly exciting. However, the on-ice sound option was really useful and really helped the gameplay. Hearing a player holler for the pass from the boards or point, or let you know you've got time to clear it out is handy, and makes you feel more on the ice than the unhelpful camera did. Crowd noise also ratchets up and down appropriately for what's happening in the game, though it was a bit silly to me that they would boo audibly when I'd pause the game. Get over it! It’s not as if they're going to miss a Matlock marathon just because I paused. The arena announcer must be making minimum wage, since that's all the more he does his job. Usually there wouldn't even be a two-minute warning at the end of a period or game, making for a few surprise endings. The announcements about contest winners and cars with their headlights on in the parking lot from the 2K hockey games added some levity and realism to being in the actual arena.
Maybe the NHL series will always toil in mediocrity, trying to be the best of the arcade scene while infusing just enough realism to spoil the arcade silliness (think Rock the Rink and Mutant League Hockey), but not enough that it'll ever feel as good to strip the puck off a player and sneak one past the goalie in the game, as it did for me at the rink last weekend. Those who have never laced up and assisted on a one-timer in real life might be able to look past all the faults of NHL 07, but you'd have to be blind to ignore them all. With any luck, this franchise will move on to the PS3 and improve, and never look back.
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