Review – NHL ’07 (PS2)

Game: NHL ’07
Developer: EA Sports Vancouver
Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: 12 SEP 06

When the Playstation 2 was first released, I didn’t really want or need one, mainly due to the price as well as the lack of enticing games; I tend to wait a while for the really good games to come out for a system – as well as a price reduction or two – to invest in a system. It’s a system that has worked well for me throughout the years, even before I was buying my own systems; we got our NES two years after release, our Genesis two years after release, the SNES in ’94… the pattern, more or less, has been established, with very little deviation. I figured it would take a killer app – a game that was so good I could not resist it – that would make me take the plunge. New versions of Madden didn’t pull it off, nor could Dynasty Warriors 2. However, on a friend’s system, I ended up trying the one game that would make me take the plunge: NHL ’02. It was a game unlike what I’d ever seen before; the graphics were amazing, the control was much sharper than the PS1 version (which had been basically running the same engine since 1998), there was more commentary… everything was so amazing, I decided, after a long night of work on the ship, to ask my supervisor to take me to the EB Games at MacArthur Centre Mall in Norfolk, so I could bite the bullet and pick up my PS2. Despite hardware issues (I’m on my third system, with my second one being the disasterous “slim” model; you’d think an IT guy would know better than to get a CPU based electronic device that doesn’t have a fan…) and Sony’s reprehensible business practices, the Playstation 2 has served me well over the past five years, and it is my primary gaming system nowadays.

However, everyone knows that the Playstation 2 – and it’s rival, the XBox – are coming to the end, as companies focus their efforts on more powerful forms of hardware like the XBox 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii. While some solid games are still being released (such as Okami and Yakuza, those are going to start to patter off eventually.

As for me personally, I tend to lean towards three types of games: retro compliations, role playing games, and my top genre, sports games. Though most hardcore gamers cast a slanted eye towards sports games, I understand sports well enough to appreciate yearly releases as much more than just roster updates, as I can appreciate changes made to the gameplay to make things more realistic. My #1 sport is ice hockey, and when I say #1, I mean that between all the coaching and all the on-ice officiating I do year-round, it is not only my favourite sport, and one I have been invovled in for eighteen years now, it is also a significant source of my income. I KNOW my hockey, and even a subtile change will be appreciated by me. However, I also remember the last days of the Playstation One; development and additions to sports games of all types virtually stopped once the Playstation 2 hit the market, and every year was nothing more than a roster update with a new graphical interface… at the same prices, as before, of course. So I approached the release of NHL ’07 this year with trepidation; I had heard about the wonderful things the XBox 360 was doing with the right analogue stick, basically making it the hockey stick, a change I’ve been wanting since the right analogue stick became the norm on controllers. That would all be wonderful if not for the fact that I don’t own an XBox 360, and that fact was further obscured by the fact that a useable version of the 360 still costs $400, and that price won’t be going down anytime soon, with Microsoft in charge. So I sat, hoping, praying for two things: 1) the new NHL for the 360 would suck and fall on it’s face, and 2) they would make enough changes in the PS2/Xbox versions of the game to warrant the update.

The first words started coming in about NHL 07 for 360… and confirmed my worst fears; it was basically called the second coming of Christ, by reviewers and normal gamers alike. Uh oh. At that point, all I could do was hope that NHL ’07 for PS2 was enough of an upgrade to warrant a $30 purchase, vice a $460 purchase. Hockey games to me are like drugs for a junkie; I need my fix, or I start to twitch.

Let’s find out how it turned out.


FRANCHISE/SEASON MODE

NHL ’07 added in the Czech Elite League to it’s stable of European leagues, impressing… absolutely no one. However, one thing it did right was give people the choice to start an actual franchise mode with the European leagues. That doesn’t sound impressive until you realise that the European leagues play almost a completely different style than the NHL does. It’s good for people that are tired of screwing around with the NHL franchise after all these years. As for the NHL franchise, it is virtually identical to the system that’s been in place since NHL ’05. You still pick your team, deal with your owner’s retarded goals for you (which change depending on your GM type, the one minor change for the better; my Rangers went from “Get to the 2nd Round” to “Make the Finals” with my choice of GM), pick your GM type, and go in. Other “changes” include the fact that everyone counts against the Cap (even minor leaguers, an unbelieveably stupid move), and the fact that you can no longer change ticket prices; you’re stuck with your revenue, even if you build a “small market” team up. Also, the upgrade system has been changed to one of “trust”, which is a scale that goes up depending on how much your owner trusts you; you start with more or less trust depending on what kind of GM profile you pick, and it goes up or down depending on which style you chose; penny pinching GMs will earn trust depending on profit, while well worn GMs earn trust with hardware. However, it takes a long time to build trust, which makes upgrades VERY slow to come, and makes the process an unbelievable pain in the ass.

But on the bright side, they’ve added “owner comments” before your games! Depending on how much better/worse you are than your opponent, or if it’s an even matchup, he’ll make comments. It surely saves you the .4 seconds of looking at the rating screen when you’re selecting teams to see just how good your opponents are!

Nothing else has changed; performance is still decided more or less on upgrades, scouting is still as stupid and unrealistic as it was two years ago, the same practise system is in place for stat boosts (though it’s graphed better, to exactly show detriment and advantage), and your owner still blasts you for failing your objectives; you could win the Stanley Cup, but if your goal is the #1 pick in the draft, you’re f*cked, buddy!

Franchise/Season Mode: 3/10, for virtually no updates in two years


GRAPHICS

On the ice, NHL ’07 is still a great looking hockey game. Player models are fantastic, and the game keeps running at a great frame rate; no complaints, if anything, the old engine has worked well for a long time, and it’s been tuned to perfection.

It’s when the game isn’t playing that problems arise. For presentation shots on the ice, the screen flashes white, as if a camera was going off; it’s very distracting, and a detriment to what was around in ’06. Also, the main presentation screens are flat-out awful; there’s so much light blue that it hurts your eyes to focus on anything at one time, and the font on the management screens is too small to read, and that problem is exasperated by all the blue around. It hurts the gameplay because it makes it very hard to see what actual salary numbers are; any round number looks like a zero, which means a minimum $0.5 million dollar salary looks just like a hefty $6.5 million.

Graphics: 6/10


SOUND

Good and bad here, depending on your preferences. On-Ice sound makes a return (eliminate play by play and play with enhanced sounds as if you were on ice), and it’s great, but even failing that, if you decide on playing with play by play, the sounds are still improved a bit; the crowd is more dynamic (reminiscent of NHL ’94, with the audible oohs and aahs depending on how the home team is doing), and you can hear the linesman yell out for icings and offsides, and as a referee and linseman, that part, at least, is realistic.

That’s really the last of the improvements, though. The play by play tandem of Jim Hughson (play by play man for the Vancouver Canucks and the night games of Hockey Night in Canada) and Craig Simpson (a former player, he was a colour commentator for Edmonton games when he took over colour duty in ’04, he’s currently an assistant coach with the Oilers) returns, and say 99% of the same things they did last year. This is almost insulting, considering the XBox 360 games went with ESPN’s former tandem of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, and while I prefer Hughson, it still shows how little EA cares about the PS2 nowadays. I think if they’re going to treat the system like a joke, they might as well bring back Don Taylor, at least he’s entertaining.

Finally, the soundtrack has the same theme as last year’s did: emo, emo, and lots of emo. If you like that stuff, then this game will give you an erection, but even with my tepid response to the genre, I think the quality is a step down from last year’s soundtrack (which was very good).

Sound: 6.5/10


CONTROL/GAMEPLAY

What few actual improvements happened with this year’s release, happened in this department, which is all I really asked for. I had a few complaints about NHL ’06, namely the fact that the game was rediculously fast, there was too much emphasis on one timers and other moves that are performed almost never in a real game, yet are par for the course for even mediocre players in every game, and the fact that goaltending basically boiled down to “who can do the best pad-stack”. They addressed all three, and for that, I am very thankful.

Last year, goaltenders were easy to beat, but only by either deking them out of their shoes, or shooting one timers all the time, something that was easy to do considering the fact that it was almost physically impossible to stop passes from going across the slot, even on lower difficulty settings. The computer was just as good at it as any player, and on the highest difficulty setting, it was common to see scores of 9-7, as the computer almost seemed to have preset plays; think of the ways to score as the hockey equivalent to “money plays” in Madden. This year, EA went the other direction. They toned the speed down (though some will say it’s still too fast), and made the defense tougher to get around, as computer defenders can actually poke check now. And the goaltenders are beatable on normal shots, which is good, since they read one timers – which are less accurate than in the past – better than before.

However, all is not good in the land of ’07. For one, the defense still equates “play defense” to “hook and hold the shit out of the guy with the puck”; expect to damn near throw your controller a few times as your man gets Captain Hooked into submission, while that same guy gets a penalty because his poke check made the opponent fall. Plus, while it’s nice that you have to rotate the puck to get good passing and shooting lanes – a great improvement – NHL has never handled short passes well in the past, and this year isn’t much of an exception; expect a quick pass to the guy close to you to go all the way back to the goaltender. I miss the pressure sensitive passing from ’04; it baffles me that they got rid of that.

Plus, the goaltenders are more beatable… to the point of being sieves. Goaltenders in videogames have always had their “weak” spots, no matter who was in net, but it seems like a good portion of shots going high blocker – and just about anything aimed high glove – goes in the net. Low shots aren’t much of a problem for goaltenders, but the goalies in this game tend to try to make the outstanding, flashy glove save, while, in the middle of the animation (where the goaltender brings the glove up, and in front of him, ideally with the puck), the puck flies under his glove… where the glove was a half second ago. It’s infuriating, as shots going right into the corner will usually get swiped, but shots slightly lower – even less accurate – will go in. This happens on both sides, and even on the high difficulty setting, you will see some goals that make you scratch your head.

Speaking of difficulty, most players will want to just set it up so that the game goes to the high settings as soon as they get the game; medium difficulty is MUCH easier this year, thanks to the changes made to the game – in four games, I had two games where I had more goals than my opponent had shots – so I bumped it up to difficult. The changes really show up here, and well; I’m a very good player, and a smart hockey mind, and I’ve only had a few games at this level that weren’t competetive. It’s not as exciting as last year’s game – in five minute periods, the average shot tally is about 18-20 shots per team, vice the 45 I used to average – but it’s more realistic, and flows better. And defense is exactly the same as last year, so I don’t need to devote anymore words to that then I have to.

There was one “big” change made with the gameplay this year, and that is the skill stick… or, what EA wants you to think of it as, the SKILL STICK~. If you’re thinking that they actually took the time to put the intricate shooting system from the 360 into the PS2 version, you’re naive. Instead, the right analogue stick controlls… passing. Yep, that’s it; flick it the direction of the player, you pass. The player can now also use the R3 button to cancel shots and passes, but that’s useless if you remap your buttons. It should also be noted that you can not remap this one; I simply can not cancel shots with my control scheme. In other words, it’s a different way to do the same thing that players have been trained into doing for the past 16 years. On defense, the right analogue stick poke checks. I have tried it, and I haven’t succeded once; I got blown away every time I tried it. I went back to using the regular poke check button…

… Which was in a completely different place. EA is most likely viewing this as a “trainer” to get players used to using their shoulder buttons, for when they decide to upgrade their system. Therefore, everything is mapped to the shoulder buttons, while the “support” buttons are mapped to the face buttons. This includes the shooting buttons, which defeats the purpose; unlike the 360 version, where you want to re-learn how to play to take advantage of the new features, the first thing 99% of players will want to do is get their controls back to what they used to be in past versions of the game as fast as possible. Unfortunately, this isn’t easy; there is no “classic” scheme, and some things have gone away; there is no more “modifier” button, so you can’t do things like slashing. Therefore, you have to individually change each button so that it fits what you want it to do. This is infuriating, and shortsighted, but thankfully, when you save rosters, it stays that way in all modes.

As for minigames and extras, Free For All is back, and available online, but it’s the same as it’s been for years, and it’s getting old. They also added a shootout mode, which is… Free For All with shootout rules. They can’t even do new features right! Furthermore, the Shootout replaces NHL ’94 as an option, which is stupid on multiple levels.

All this said, NHL ’07 is still arguably the best game of hockey on the current systems, depending on how the player feels about the 2K series. It’s sad that the other problems this game has hurt the overall experience on the ice.

Gameplay/Control: 6/10


REPLAYABILITY

Franchise mode is replayable by nature, due to having multiple years, and the additions of the European franchises do help this along; European hockey might as well be a different sport, and someone tired of beating around the NHL will probably want to check them out, though they keep the same $44 million dollar salary cap that the NHL does. And the game is good enough on the ice to make people ignore the other problems to play it, so that’s a plus.

Replayability: 7.5/10


BALANCE

The difficulty – or lack thereof, at the lower levels – hurts the score here; Difficult might be too much for some to handle, but Medium is very easy, and Easy and Beginner can be dominated by parapalegics breathing on the controller. Plus, it’s really frustrating to do everything you can to keep the puck out of the net, and watch your goaltender flub a desperation wrist shot just because they shot it to the glove side. In some places, the game is great, in others, it’s bad, so therefore…

Balance: 4/10


ORIGINALITY

What happens when you release a game for the “bargain” (read: same price as last year, after the lockout) price of $30 that’s little more than a patch for last year’s game? Your originality rating goes right into the shitter.

But EA did take the time to add advertisements for Dodge all over the place, as the Dodge 3 Stars of the Game, in all the menus, and the fact that when you load up Free for All/Shootout mode, you get an unskippable advertisement for the Dodge Viper. I mean, c’mon! Let’s give credit where it’d due, that’s original!

Originality: 1/10


ADDICTIVENESS

NHL ’07 moves well enough and plays well enough to fall into “one more game, just one more, holy shit it’s 3AM” territory; if you like this game, you will play it often, plenty of times, and for a long time in one sitting. It IS an addicting game, but then again, I am a noted fanboy for this game, so I don’t know if this rating will be entirely objective.

Addictiveness: 8/10


APPEAL RATING

This one’s hard to judge; on the one hand, hockey fans that don’t own/won’t own 360s will probably grab this or should have it already. But on the other hand… let’s face it, while there are gameplay differences, there’s not enough to give this the lasting power that NHL ’06 had, and a lot of people will be turned off. Plus, getting rid of NHL ’94 as a playable game HURTS.

Appeal Rating: 5/10


MISCELLANEOUS

It shouldn’t be hard to figure out that I’m very, very angry at the way the current generation of consoles has been handled by EA; nothing has changed in just about any game that I’ve seen so far other than Madden (which costs the full $50, of course. Can’t be giving this shit away!). It happened for NASCAR, it’ll happen for Live, it’ll happen for FIFA, it’ll happen for Tiger Woods, and it’ll happen for MVP. Look, I don’t mind patches for older games on antiquated hardware, but not everyone wants to buy a $400 system (and this game runs $60 on 360), so at least show some EFFORT on this; they spent more time adding Dodge advertisements than they did on the actual gameplay! It’s an insult to the market that only Electronic Arts is capable of.

I really like this game because I really have liked the NHL games, with few exceptions, since 1992. But I feel like a dirty, used whore for buying this game, even if it was for review purposes; I feel like I wasn’t even kissed first. And let me state this again: the $30 “bargain” price is not only $10 less than the price for NHL 2K7, but it’s also the same exact price that NHL ’06 was.

Miscellaneous: 2/10

THE SCORES:
Franchise/Season: 3/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound: 6.5/10
Control/Gameplay: 6/10
Replayability: 7.5/10
Balance: 4/10
Originality: 1/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Appeal: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 2/10
Overall score: 4.9/10
FINAL SCORE: 5.0 (FAIR)

Short Attention Span Summary
NHL ’07 is nothing more than a cash-in game. The hardcore hockey fans that haven’t updated their systems will really be the only ones to notice the minor changes made to how the game plays, and even they will be angry at the excessive advertising, the horrid menus, the recycled music (I think I’ve heard some of those songs on Madden ’07, now that I think of it…), and the lack of a key feature from ’06. This game is little more than a patch for NHL ’06, and while it’s a fairly good patch, it’s a $30 patch nonetheless.

I will play, and enjoy, this game. But I am one of the very few that will be able to say that. I can’t recommend this game to 99% of the gaming world.