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Xbox 360 Review - 'NHL '07'

by Nicolus Baslock on Oct. 27, 2006 @ 1:06 a.m. PDT

NHL 07 puts you in total command with a revolutionary new Skill Stick system. Never take your hands off the analog sticks as you take complete control of all skating on the left, and - for the first time in a hockey videogame - passing will use an intuitive motion on the right analog stick to execute with precision.

Genre: Sports
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: September 12, 2006

Let me preface this by saying I have not played a hockey game of any kind since the 2002 version of this franchise. Hockey itself has slowly become the Cleveland Browns of sports leagues: Every year, you expect something to happen, and then it just doesn't. Before the work stoppage even occurred, I had been slowly distancing myself anyway, even with the knowledge that great digital hockey existed somewhere. I decided to bring myself back into the fold with NHL '07, which allowed full hockey immersion, without any of the actual ice.

The first X360 iteration attempts to alter hockey games as we know them and succeeds in the same way it fails. This year's upgrade is the Skill Stick, which is hyped as being revolutionary, and it truly is. The right thumbstick allows for full control over the speed at which you shoot, pass, check, and basically any other movement, with or without a puck, giving the entire experience a far more realistic feel than ever before.

The fluidity is incredible as you move with the left thumbstick and control actions with the right; it feels far more natural than any hockey game before. The face buttons are all but eliminated, which leads to some early problems as you attempt to get a feel for the controls, but it's not too difficult to get accustomed to it. What makes this new scheme even better is that as you progress and play, it feels more and more like you're actually controlling the puck rather than haphazardly slapping it across the ice.

With the offense working so well, it's a shame that defense leaves something to be desired. With the exception of the goalie, which has been completely overhauled (more on that later), the other players seem to be lacking intensity. I realize it's a strange statement when talking about video game characters, but it's fairly accurate in describing the powder puff hits that they execute. Whether they occur on open ice or when slamming into walls, body checks are bone-jarring collisions in real-life hockey, but they appear rather meek in NHL '07. Occasionally, you will manage to check another player fairly roughly, but when he falls down, the animation isn't particularly realistic. In real life, smaller guys who lack strength would get pummeled, but in the game, they'll absorb a hit and keep moving, sometimes managing to keep the puck while huge defensemen enjoy a game of patty cake.

NHL '07 showers lots of attention on goalies, and it shows in their improved animations and A.I. No longer are goalies one solid mass of pads, as in previous iterations. Years of watching digital goalies use their entire bodies to block shots are forgotten, as they use their gloves and pads far more effectively. At points, it's amazing to watch a goalie toss up a glove just to have the puck barely skim over, as they are a split second too slow. Moments such as these are what next-generation gaming is all about. The goalie is also far more willing to leave the goal, move around, and just generally play better than ever before.

Graphically, NHL '07 looks like an X360 title, with smooth models and great animations, but it should be mentioned that most of the players look identical. Having not watched a hockey game in some time, perhaps that's how it is these days, with diehard fans unsure of the difference between John LeClair and Sidney Crosby, and having to use binoculars in order to cheer. More than likely, however, more emphasis was placed on the Skill Stick and goalies, rather than on replicating the players' appearances. Even stranger still, the referees also resemble the players. But I'd like to interject that this year's hockey offering is missing the broken teeth and caps, which real players sport. If anything screams next-generation, it's toothless hockey players.

The crowd is far more realistic than in any current-generation title, and that really helps, as they become a huge part of the game's sound. Similar to the X360 version of Madden, crowds react as you play; their cheers swell during crunch time and die as the opposing team makes a major play. It's a good thing, too, as the title's audio is lacking in every other respect.

The announcers are stale and tired, with the team sounding as if they regretted signing these contracts. While there are two commentators, the "color guy" barely speaks and only chimes in occasionally. Comments seem to be repeated as well, with some statements being used multiple times per match. There is almost no dynamic to their speech, which, when combined with everything else, makes you wish there was no announcing at all. The on-ice sounds are also sub-par, with the "dink" of the poles the only distinct noise you'll hear at any point. The players are quiet, and coaches are non-existent, so the fans pretty much carry the sound, and they do an admirable job.

I am not entirely sure what fighting was like in last year's iteration, but it's mighty enjoyable in NHL '07. As players fight, there is a Fight Night-like control scheme that is employed, making each hit more about timing and control than simple button-mashing. This addition to the lost art of knocking in another player's teeth really stood out for me, as I was always the fan rooting for this to occur. Sure, the rules are stricter since the strike, but hey, it's a video game!

Online play is also available, running as smoothly as ever over Xbox Live. It is getting to the point where that shouldn't even need to be mentioned, but for the sake of those who were wondering, online play is here, and it's just as good as any of EA's other recent online outings.

With a lot of emphasis on the shootout, Skill Stick offense, and goalie play, NHL '07 brings back a lot of glory to a somewhat-fading franchise. The gameplay experience is great and gets you really revved up for next year's iteration. The excitement might be a bit premature, as the pansy defensive players, coupled with the sound issues, really detract from the game. However, the new fighting system makes you more excited than anything currently going on in the actual NHL. Overall, NHL '07 is a strong effort; there's definitely some room for improvement, but there's enough going on here to make it a worthwhile play for any hockey fan.

Score: 8.0/10

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