Gretzky NHL '06 Review (PS2)
It was only two years ago that the NHL was throwing around the buzzword “contraction.” The popular theory at the time was that the NHL was seriously considering folding a handful of its franchises due to market strength, the team’s ability to draw, the inability to be competitive financially, and, perhaps most importantly, the watering down of the league’s talent pool from the too much expansion. Basically, they were telling us that less hockey would be better than the system that was in place. Two years and a “work stoppage” later, the league remains at 30 teams and the level of talent and interest in the sport is still to be determined.
For years, there was only one major team in the sports gaming world in terms of hockey. EA Sports was the Detroit Red Wings of the virtual hockey world. They just reloaded year after year with a solid hockey product. The folks at Visual Concepts entered the fray and became the Colorado Avalanche. The bitter rival. Just as much talent, maybe even a little bit more finesse, but primed and ready to challenge for the Cup.
Then there is that team. The Tampa Bay Lightning. A great mix of youth and veteran talent. Flying completely under the radar all season and ready to pounce on the competition come playoff time. In our story, the Lightning are being played by the Gretzky NHL series from Sony. A quiet buzz has floated around this title since last year’s solid effort. With the release of Gretzky NHL 06, are they ready to make a run at the Cup? Is it a “Great One”?
Out of the box, what are you going to find in Gretzky NHL 06 that you won’t find in other NHL games? Well, for starters, besides being fully licensed by the NHL with all of the current players and arenas, the developers also procured the rights to all 30 AHL teams as well as the name and likeness of every coach in the NHL. Oh yeah, and of course, it’s the only game where you’ll find “The Great One” himself, Wayne Gretzky. Nice additions for certain, but you want to know how it plays.
The best word I can use to describe the gameplay in Gretzky NHL 06 is fast. The game seems to play excessively faster than the competition. That may be an intentional attempt to simulate the new NHL rules and style, but it definitely gives it a more arcade feel. That’s not a bad thing; I think there is a place for that in the market, but if you’re looking for a sim hockey experience, you’ll probably come away disappointed. This game is about speed. It plays a very fast-break style with very suspect goalie AI that, naturally, results in a lot of goals. I don’t know how much input Gretzky actually had on the design of the game, but it definitely harkens back to the early days of #99’s career - when it actually took 200 points to lead the league in scoring. Some of the young hockey fans out there may not remember some of those seasons in the early 80’s, but the old-timers like me remember a day when 92 goals was a season, not a career!
The game modes feature your standard Exhibition and Practice modes, but I want to touch on the two modes where I spent some time. Franchise and the new Wayne vs. Wayne mode.
Franchise mode is basically what you’ve come to expect from today’s sports titles. Not only are you putting forth your best effort on the ice, but you're also responsible for managing the club off the ice. Manage the personnel, try to keep your team in the black, and try to balance your team chemistry in an attempt to keep your unit happy and playing well. Overall, the management system in Gretzky NHL 06 is all there on a basic level, but in today’s competitive sports gaming industry, you need to give a little more than plain vanilla. The franchise mode lacks a certain amount of depth that I would like to see enhanced in future versions.
As gimmicky as it may be, the mode that I enjoyed the most was Wayne vs. Wayne mode. You’re basically playing a standard game not unlike standard exhibition mode. Only now, you are accumulating what is called “99 Time” by performing certain moves or doing things on the ice. When you’ve racked up enough “99 Time”, “The Great One” will join you on the ice for a period of time. There are five different versions of Wayne and, if you can earn enough “99 Time” you can actually have a team made up completely of Wayne Gretzkys. Goalies excluded, of course - even Wayne couldn’t do everything! I know it sounds a little cheesy, and maybe it is. But, it’s a ton of arcade fun and I spent a lot quality gameplay time trying to achieve the Gretzky "Fab 5".
So, yes, the gameplay is certainly slanted towards the arcade end of the spectrum. But that's not is a bad thing when it's done well.
GRAPHICS & AUDIO
It’s fair to say that I do the majority of my gaming on the Xbox. I love my PS2, but I’ve always thought there was just a little less polish to the look on PS2 sports titles. I stand corrected.
Gretzky NHL 06 may be the best-looking sports game that the PS2 has seen to date. The player models look and move smooth as silk with very few exceptions, even at the fast pace of this title. The graphics have a very clean, natural look that border on photo-realistic at times. The arenas and crowds are as good as you will see in any sports titles on this generation. And the camera angles and views flow very realistically during gameplay to give a solid TV-style presentation. All that, and the sound isn’t bad either!
The feel of the game is enhanced with clean effects that are not overly done despite the arcade style. Far too often, titles that use a more fast-paced style, hurt their finished product by dropping in far too many “Looney Tunes-esque” sounds and noises. Instead, they use a nice combination of soundtrack, crowd, and game sounds to help create and intensify the feeling of speed that the NHL has been trying to sell for decades.
You know the age-old question, “If a tree fell in a forest and no one was around, would it make a noise?” Well, welcome to the online world of Gretzky NHL 06. Online capabilities are there. Almost all of the important modes that you’ll usually find online are there. The game plays very smooth and mostly lag-free online. Unfortunately, nobody is playing it! In the half-dozen games I managed to play online while writing this review, I think played the same guy five times on five different days.
What you may have more luck (and fun) with is playing with buddies at home. Wayne vs. Wayne mode is a blast and should provide a ton of fun with a friend.
The worst part of writing any review is, inevitably, you have to settle on a final score. My feelings about Gretzky NHL 06 should be very clear in the sections above. You’re going to get a solid arcade hockey game, wrapped in a fun title. I personally prefer games that are more of a simulation. Maybe I’m a little bit more Gordie Howe than Wayne Gretzky, but that doesn’t change the fact that I did enjoy a lot of the time I spent with this game.
If you’re a hockey purist looking for a game of X’s and O’s on the rink, you may come away disappointed. The AI is not great, and you’ll probably lose interest in the Franchise mode pretty quickly.
If what attracts you to hockey or, perhaps more importantly, gaming, is the speed and the fun, you should take a look at Gretzky NHL 06. It’s a good title from a great developer with worlds of potential.
The gap is narrowing.