NHL 07 Review (Xbox 360)
Rewind to fall of 2005.
The National Hockey League was set to drop the puck again after a one-year hiatus, with some new rules, a new look, and a lot of familiar faces in new places. The Xbox 360 released less than two months later, but missing from the array of launch titles was a face we’re all too familiar with, a hockey title from Electronic Arts.
Fast forward to fall of 2006.
Electronic Arts has finally made its hockey debut on the Xbox 360. With a lot of new faces on the production team, and a year of hard work, NHL 07 hits the ice boasting a unique control system, with hopes of bringing the respect back to the series that has been missing since the 1990's.
From the first drop of the puck, you’ll notice that the look of NHL 07 is a refreshing change from what we’ve experienced in the past. Featuring stellar player models, the game definitely has that next-gen feel to it. Unfortunately, once these player models are put into motion, that’s where the game takes a major hit in the graphics department. The sport of hockey generally displays end-to-end, non-stop action. With that said, NHL 07 is chugging along at 30 frames per second, and it was never more obvious in a game than it is this one. While there are no dips in framerate, the action on the ice still manages to look choppy, due to the absence of some transition animations that are crucial to the game’s overall look. It has a negative effect on the way the game plays, giving NHL 07 a herky-jerky feel. Furthermore, the camera angles either put you too close, or too far away from the action. A zoom slider would make them much more manageable to work with.
Speaking of the core gameplay, I’m sure everyone is curious about how well NHL 07 plays. We’ve all heard of the "Skill Stick" by now. Here’s a brief rundown of how it works. The concept of this new control system gives the human player absolute control of the players they are controlling on the ice. Executed with the right analog stick, moving it in certain directions will force your player to deke, or unleash a shot on goal. Moving the stick left or right dekes backhand or forehand. A slight flick up on the analog stick will fire off a wrister, and you can pull back, then press up, to initiate a slapshot. There are some other moves you can pull off that require a little more skill. Rotating the stick a half turn clockwise from the right will execute a spin. With that in mind, rotating it a half turn counter-clockwise from the left will execute a spin in the opposite direction. Another deke that is rather simple to pull off is the toe drag. Depending on whether your player left-handed or right-handed, a quarter turn of the stick down from the direction of their shot will perform the toe drag.
The use of the right analog stick doesn’t stop there. On defense, it’s used to throw a body check into your opponent. If used with the right shoulder button, your player will attempt to poke check in the player you are directing him to. The Skill Stick takes some time getting used to, but the rewarding feeling you get from deking a goalie out of his shorts, and beating him through the five-hole is well worth the time and effort. While we’re on gameplay controls, passing the puck is executed with the right trigger. I know what you’re thinking, “What are the face buttons used for?”. Well, unless you’re fighting, the face buttons rarely come into play. For those that don’t favor the new control system, NHL 07 offers the classic controls as an alternative.
Moving on to the actual gameplay, there appears to be more miss than hit. Let’s start with the positive. The Skill Stick is brilliant; pure genius. I know some liken it to the "Shot Stick" we’ve seen in basketball games, but it’s better suited for the sport of hockey. It's easily one of the best and most innovative features in a sports title ever. The animations are strung together nicely, and this feature appears to be executed perfectly. Another bright spot in NHL 07 are the goaltenders. I’ve witnessed more save animations in 10 minutes of playing a shootout than I’ve seen in years from any other hockey title. Couple that with the realistic puck physics, and you’ll get plenty of use out of the instant replay option. However, not all is good with the goalies. You’ll witness goalies accidentally pulling the puck into their own goal while attempting to poke check it away from the offensive player. It happens a little too often. Once you see your net-minder stack the pads when your opponent dekes backhand, or make a butterfly save with his glove protecting the five hole from behind, all of the quirks are easily forgotten. The crowd interaction is superb as well. They react appropriately to the action on the ice, and are incredibly loud during the last minute of play, if the game's outcome is in doubt.
As with the Electronic Arts' NHL games of the past, the AI leaves a lot to be desired. You’ll find your AI-controlled defensemen out of position quite often, leaving two forwards from the opposing team in front of your goalie to clean up any rebounds. This is incredibly stressful when trying to kill off a powerplay, as the penalty-killing unit is constantly caught out of position, rather than setting up in a box or diamond defense to clog passing and shooting lanes. When the AI offense is on the attack, you’ll rarely see more than one or two passes strung together in the offensive end, and you’ll often see shots thrown at the net from some awkward angles. The lack of puck cycling from the computer is the main culprit for NHL 07's frantic pace.
Though I enjoy the new controls in NHL 07, I’d still like to see the skill set expanded upon next year, perhaps by adding a modifier button. You lose to complete control of your player when attempting to poke check, and with the success rate being so low, it’s rendered useless. You’ll find that the most effective, and easiest way to take your opponent off the puck is to throw a body check. Sure, that probably holds true in real life, but since there are no other options in NHL 07, the amount of body checks you’ll accumulate during the course of a game only adds to the arcade feel. There’s also no proven way to dump the puck. Also, for some odd reason, whenever you try to bank a pass off of the boards, the puck sticks to the boards like a magnet, and runs down the ice. Aside from the deking provided by the Skill Stick, there are plenty of reasons why I don’t feel like I have enough control of what happens on the ice, which can result in some frustrating stretches of play.
There aren’t many gameplay options to choose from in NHL 07. Exhibition matches, Dynasty Mode, World Tournaments, Shootout, and online play via Xbox Live. That’s it. The game will throw you into a shootout the first time you fire it up, to help you get acquainted with the new controls. It’s basically the same experience we had with the demo Electronic Arts released on the Xbox Live Marketplace. The World Tournaments allow you to take your favorite hockey nation up against the best around the globe. However, with any sports title, the Dynasty and Online modes are likely to see the most amount of playing time. The Dynasty Mode allows you to take complete control of your favorite franchise, and lead them to Stanley Cup glory. There is, unfortunately, a small bug that takes some enjoyment out of your first dynasty season. At the end of that year, no contracts expire. This means that any players that were set to have their contracts expire after that season never become free agents. As for online play, once again, there are no league or tournament options available.
Overall, NHL 07 makes an impressive debut on the Xbox 360. While I’d still like to see more options on and off the ice, such as being able to increase the playing time by individual minutes rather than increments of five, the series appears to finally be heading in the right direction. Finally, I fear being too aggressive in the neutral zone, allowing players like Alexander Ovechkin and Jaromir Jagr to spring loose on a breakaway. They make you pay. The Skill Stick alone is reason enough to at least give this game a rental. While the complete package could use a little more polish, the foundation appears to be solid for Electronic Arts to build upon for years to come.