NHL 06 Review (Xbox)

I imagine it must have been an interesting spring in the development offices of EA Sports' NHL 06. With the lockout continuing, who knew if a game based on a league that hadn't been seen for a full season could even be released? Then the lockout ended, and the trigger was pulled: NHL 06 was a definite release. Fans excited about the NHL's return would be clamoring for NHL action: could EA provide it?

On the ice, NHL 06 is a heck of a fun game. The action is fast and furious, and offense is at the fore. The game is filled with crisp passes, stylish moves and up-tempo play. Unfortunately for the sim fans, it doesn't bear much resemblance to the actual NHL. This is an idealized version of hockey that emphasizes control and fun over sim elements. One of the new features of this year's game is the "Skill Stick", where a flick of the right stick gives you access to all kinds of trickery. Like an early preview of the seemingly inevitable NHL Street, the opening movie emphasizes fancy stickwork as if the NHL was sponsored by the "And 1" tour.

One of the complaints about last year's games was the excessive hits: players often felt that they were completely unable to maintain any flow between the bonecrushing body checks. That's been addressed this year, but the pendulum has swung too far. Though the NHL has implemented some rules changes to bring about a more open, flowing game, EA's version of the game is probably beyond expectation. There's a minimum of hits from the CPU opponents, and little pinning against the boards. This is the type of wide-open hockey seen in international play, but feels unnatural on an NHL rink. It neglects the basic rules of physics ("two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time”): Though the players are tightly bunched, they somehow avoid contact.

On lower difficulty levels, the AI is effectively lobotomized. It's quite simple to close out a 1-goal game by simply taking control of the puck in your defensive zone, and letting go of the controller. The AI will sit and watch you run the clock out without making the slightest attempt to get after the puck. Though the AI gets better at higher difficulty levels, it's always spotty. One major issue is what seems to be a complete lack of situational awareness: Teams will continue to push the puck up the ice to attack even in the waning seconds of a game where they hold a 2 goal advantage, and they will often keep from going all-out even when on the flip side of that situation. Goalies seldom trap the puck, physical play is a rarity, and the CPU seems to have forgotten that pinning a player against the boards is legal. The AI is also depressingly uniform, which I think will be the thing that kills the shelf life of the game, at least for offline play. Each team plays about the same style, with only talent and jerseys providing anydifferentiation.

When beginning a new Dynasty, the owner will present you with certain goals. Though this has become common in many games recently, NHL presents a new goal that just makes no sense: getting the top pick. Though I suppose you could fulfill this goal through some crafty (read "abusive”) trading with the AI, the easiest way to accomplish it is, of course, to tank your season. It's an odd videogame that encourages players to lose miserably.

A nice feature for "Dynasty Mode" players comes when simming games. You'll see the game play out in the boxscore, and if your team's in trouble, you can hop into the game at that exact point. This has been available in other sports games for a few years now, but the twist here is that you'll actually be given a financial reward for doing so. Since you're constantly analyzing finances as the GM, and the money can go to good use buying upgrades for the team, it's a smart mechanic to promote leaping in to alter the course of your season. It's a mystery to me, however, why the reverse is not possible. Though you can jump from sim to live action, you cannot bow out of a blowout, and allow the CPU to sim to the end of the game.

An error that will surely vex franchise players is the complete lack of changing schedules. Though the first season of your franchise will match the NHL's announced schedule for the 2005-2006 season .. so will your second season. And your third. And your fourth. It’s another of the small errors in the game that indicate it didn’t see the development time it needed, as it rushed to marked after the end of the lockout.

In what seems a continuing directive for EA Sports, NHL 06 has some minigames designed for quick multiplayer trash-talk: "The EA Sports Free For All”. You’ll take your favorite NHL player and compete in simple skill contests. It seems like it was an afterthought to the production team, and will be an afterthought to the player, as well. There’s not much here, and with normal games going so quickly, there’s not much need for something like this.

Roster downloads appear to be supported through the online interface (though there's no dedicated section for it, just automatic updates upon login), and the scramble to get the game to shelves after the end of the lockout means that's almost a necessity. Not only are some players like Penguins phenom Sidney Crosby missing completely, but a number of goalies who have moved teams still sport their masks from their previous stint. Though Nikolai Khabibulin is in net for the Blackhawks this season, he still wears his Lightning mask, and Curtis Joseph still shows his Red Wing pride. It's a minor issue, but is just another sign that this was rushed to market somewhat unexpectedly for the development team.

Graphics are excellent, and the animation is even better. The players are well modeled, with minute distinctions in size that have a gameplay function, giving a visual clue about player power when trying for big hits. The commentary is detailed and fun, but it's unrelenting intensity makes it feel more like an over-the-top arcade game than a sim. There's none of the conversational banter that better games use to replicate the feeling of watching a broadcast. One welcome thing is the awareness of the announcers in "Dynasty Mode", where they will comment on winning streaks and the like.

The menus are one of the areas that give that whiff of "thrown together when the deal got signed", as they are mainly functional, but nothing more. They are clunky and unappealing, and simple things like being able to start a game from the "Calendar" area in "Dynasty Mode" are missing.

One final part of presentation is the manual. Unless EA is doing it's part to save the trees, this manual is criminally skimpy. It's so lightweight as to be almost useless, and there's no in-game tutorial, either. Controls like "Open Ice Support", "Open Ice Control" and "Bruise Control" are completely unexplained anywhere, leaving it up to the user to figure it out through experimentation.

The by-now familiar suite of EA online options are available through Xbox Live, including Optimatch, Quick Match and Lobbies. The "Free For All” game modes aren’t available online, which seems an odd omission, as they’re designed from the start to be multiplayer games. The performance online is acceptable, but not great. The game speed gets ramped up, and even excellent connections will see some issues. Instead of the slow-motion lag often seen in other games, what you often get in NHL 06 online is framerate drops. The speed stays the same, but animations are removed to meet that speed – and when that animation that’s removed is the puck crossing the ice before a one-timer that quickly becomes a serious gameplay issue. Those bouts of framerate drops are few and far between on a good connection, but make the game almost unplayable when they do occur. Emailed wrap-ups are available, but contain the bare minimum of info: the score. Literally, you’ll receive an email whose entire text is as follows: "NHL06 xxHOKYxx 2 at fossen 1”. The emailed reports in other EA games have at least provided some stats if you wanted to analyze your weaknesses, but these are so sparse as to be nothing more than a gimmick.

When a default game out of the box turns off basic NHL rules like offsides and icing, you know the game isn't aiming for the sim market. From commentary to default rules to overall play, it's clear that EA's aiming to deliver a fun game that concentrates on action. And in that, they've succeeded. While it has some legs for solo play, it's really best enjoyed with friends, pizza, and a cold age-appropriate beverage of your choice.

Adjust the score you see below according to your preferences, but I think that the developers of NHL 06 accomplished their intent. NHL 06 is almost the perfection of the "simcade” philosophy EA Sports is both praised and derided for. The title is sure to horrify the hardcore, while providing hours and hours of fun for those who are looking for more action and less strategy. Some sloppiness in the execution is what really holds the title back, even for fans of arcade-flavored gameplay.

NHL 06 Score
out of 10