Summary: The two major hockey franchises got updates across the board and Jakub reviews Xbox 360 versions of both. It's ugly, it's messy, it's a beatdown of double proportions.
EA held off on releasing a few of its sports games for the Xbox 360 in the first year, in order to create them from scratch rather than building on new technology. Madden and NCAA Football are already out, and now so is NHL 07. The newest version of the NHL franchise has brand-new animations and generally new gameplay, though we can still see a few hold-overs like immovable goalies.
First, letís cover the good Ė and this will be painfully brief. NHL 07 plays more like hockey than any other hockey game out there. Itís not nearly perfect, but itís good. The removal of speed boost, improved defensive AI, and totally re-worked goalies have done wonders for the title. In NHL 2K6 and 2K7, no matter what the difficulty level, I take a forward, streak up the wing, and either set up a centering pass for a one-timer or fake the defender out of the way and try to maneuver for a shot from the slot. NHL 07ís defense is much more aggressive and better about rubbing the player off the puck. In fact, thatís not the only reason why itís hard to get a good shot off in NHL. Previous games from both series, moreso in 2K than EA, allowed skaters to shoot through defenders. That doesnít mean that they didnít block pucks, but if a defender was off your left and you were a left-handed shot, your stick could travel through him. In NHL 07 itís difficult to hold onto the puck when in reaching distance of a defender, never mind shoot.
The NHL 07 defense does an excellent job of blocking passing lanes and collapsing upon the net. Though their per-game ďHitsĒ are remarkably low, AI defenders present a competent and worthy challenge. There are exploits to be used against them, but fewer than in previous titles and none that Iíve found so far are nearly as consistently effective. The goalie, especially, is quite believable. Goalies tend to give up more garbage goals than before, despite being so close, and theyíre excellent at stopping long, clear shots. No longer will you wonder why your Martin Brodeur is letting in wristers from the blue line like Garth Snow. It happens, of course, but with nowhere near the same consistency.
NHL 07ís graphics are good but they have some of that EverQuest II plastic doll feel to them. The 3D faces are quite reminiscent of most players, but the animations on them are somewhat odd. When they yell in celebration after scoring a goal, the mouths move in an unrealistic manner, straight down with little change in the rest of the face. Otherwise, however, the artwork is clearly half a generation ahead of NHL 2K7. Character models are highly detailed and the animations are quite varied and complex. Goalies especially have received an overhaul from their weak predecessors, now surpassing the NHL 2K series.
The management options in NHL 07 are atrocious in general, and weíll get to that later, but one area where the game succeeds in is in evaluating the worth of its players. NHL 2K7 will trade Alexander Ovechkin for a good older player and a couple of draft picks, depending on difficulty. NHL 07 wonít give him up for anything, as far as I can tell. In 2K7, by seasonís end, I tend to be amazed if a non-player roster is still half what it was at in October. Though NHL 07 is perhaps somewhat conservative on the trades, it is far more realistic in this respect than NHL 2K7.
NHL 07 offers the player the choice to play with the cap or without it. Unlike NHL 2K, the cap is in real dollar figures and so are the salaries. So you inherit Alexei Yashin and his ridiculous contract, rather than a moderate abstraction, which is what NHL 2K7 offers.
Finally, thereís the much-touted Shot Stick. NHL 07 offers the player the option of controlling his shots with the right stick instead of buttons. A slapshot is pulling down and then pushing up on the stick, a wrister is pushing up. Aiming of the shot is done with the left stick, the same one used for skating, and the right trigger passes. Of course, you can continue to use the buttons to shoot. Initially, the stick feels weird and itís too easy to make a mistake with it. The aggressive defensive AI makes it difficult to get off the kinds of shots you want, especially if you try to aim. It gets better as you practice, but many people seem to prefer to stick with the buttons rather than the shot stick, if our online experiences and discussions on forums are to be trusted.
Take, for instance, line changes. This is a basic, routine function of any hockey game. Players get injured, acquired, and promoted from the minors. In NHL 2K7, when I edit lines, the game shows me a handy list of all the lines, highlighting all the ones with missing players in red, and showing the ones on which the selected player is playing in orange. Thus, in an instant I can know which lines are missing a player, or I can scroll through my list of players (who can be organized by categories such as skater, goalie, forward, center, right winger, left winger, and defender). As I scroll through, it tells me what lines the player is present on, making the task of trying to keeping a player off multiple lines easy.
Changing lines in NHL 07, on the other hand, is a ďprocessĒ. First, you select the line and player you want to change. Then, you get to pick from a list of players available to take his place Ė but you cannot sort them by even forward/defense categories, never mind specific positions. If the person you want to replace him with is in the minors, you might as well scratch your player now, then back out of the line change menu, then back out into the main menu, then go into the GM menu, then manage your rosters. There, you can call players up to the majors, or send them down to the minors Ė but only if theyíre already scratched. If you forgot to scratch your player, you have to go back to the GM menu, then the main menu, then head into the coach menu, choose to edit lines, select someone on a line as if youíre going to replace him, but really use that just to get your list of players, then scratch the guy you want to send down to the minorsÖ and then go all the way back to your GM again. Scratching a player or sending him to the minors in NHL 2K7, by contrast, can be done from almost anywhere.
Did I forget to mention that if you sim, the AI will automatically call up and scratch players to fill a need if your players were injured, but once healed, it leaves the job up to you to put them back into position? Also, like previous NHL series games, the simulation AI isnít smart enough to rotate goalies into the starter position, so that your main goalie gets rests every now and then. No, that would make sense if youíre simming a few months, wouldnít it? Fortunately, the simulation process is unbearably slow Ė a month takes about a minute to sim Ė so you have plenty of time to press the ďStop simulationĒ button a few dozen times as it gets ignored for a few sim-games.
On the bright side, Michael Peca (among many) will no longer break all of Wayne Gretzkyís single-season scoring records during a sim-season. It seems EA has decided that an average score of 7-5 is no longer needed to excite players.
I praised NHL 07ís graphics and the new animations, but there are some issues with them. The animations are herky-jerky and when players collide, especially with a goalie and go flying, it really looks like stop-motion animation. You know what Iím talking about if youíve ever seen the old Sinbad films, Jason and the Argonauts, or the original King Kong. Even now, Iím not certain if itís just a bad framerate during certain animations, or if the animations are just not smooth enough. Honestly, at times it looks like EA did draw them by hand rather than using motion capture.
The animations, skating controls and shot stick combine to create some problems though. If youíre racing up the wing, sometimes the game doesnít register your desire to turn quickly enough Ė youíll take a stride or two after your character tries to change directions. This may be an animation loop issue or unresponsive control inputs. Regardless, it sometimes feels as if something similar goes on with the shot stick. Slap shots donít fire or come off as wrist shots, or the game ignores your choice of a fore- or back-hand shot and fires a regular wrist shot. It could be a matter of practice, but itís very difficult to tell during a hectic match.
Finally, EAís scouting and rating of players is quite off. Even better-known hockey players like Ryan Smyth are rated in ways which totally donít reflect their gameplay. In the game, Smyth is a Cam Neely type of player: fast, hell of a shot, accurate, tough to get off the puck. In real life, heís not that fast, his shot is a marshmallow, and he gets most of his goals by tip-ins and screening the goalie. As you can imagine, lesser-known players suffer from poor representation as well.
If only the resemblances to NHL 2K6 were merely graphical. However, NHL 2K7 differs in virtually no significant way. The gameplay is pretty much the same, and goalies have about the same weaknesses as they did before. You can designate opposing players to shadow or hit when youíre on defense, but thatís about it. Players skate the same, pass the same, react the same. AI is little if at all different. The goalies still flub the same kinds of shots and the same strategies work.
The front end interface has had a visual overhaul, but is effectively unmodified. New are opportunity calls from your owner, which work sort of like barrels in Diablo Ė they can either hold goodies or explode in your face. You never know until you answer the phone. If youíre into hardcore simming, the constant emails are obnoxious as ever, and thereís no way to mark them as read en masse. Even if you play game by game, the emails do add up and often not for very good reasons. Do I really need to know the players of the week when Iím 50 games into a season? It rather loses its novelty.
The lack of changes on the front end is mostly good, especially when compared with the disaster that is the NHL 07 management interface. Lines, player status and contracts are all easily fixed and negotiated. You have control over who you scout, and though it can be somewhat tedious to do it by hand, the basics can get done in 5 minutes Ė unlike the constant scouting and recruiting of College Hoops 2K6.
One area where we wish NHL 2K7 had made improvements on the management side is with player salaries, the salary cap, and trades. The salaries are not based on the real world at all and neither is the cap. Effectively, the salary system hasnít changed since at least 2001 and this is really a shame, since the new NHL collective bargaining agreement provided an excellent opportunity to do it over.
The lack of improvement in the 2K franchise is depressing for a number of reasons. First, the fact that MLB 2K6 is years ahead in graphics and gameplay, despite being older, is a sad statement on the importance of hockey sims. Secondly, EAís plans for a big NHL 07 update were known well in advance and 2K Sports still didnít respect them enough (and with NHL 07ís front interface, who can blame them)? Finally, after a crippling bug in NHL 2K6 last year on the 360, where the game would lock up after using up its cache on the hard drive, fans of the series deserve much more than 2K Sports offered. There still isnít a patch for NHL 2K6, while a similar MLB 2K6 bug got fixed.
2K7ís evaluations of players arenít as bad as NHL 07ís, but theyíre not great either. However, itís clear that 2K Sports does a better job scouting the talent than EA does. EAís emphasis seems to be on matching point and goal production. 2K Sports is somewhat more refined.
NHL 07 Pros
NHL 07 Cons
NHL 2K7 Pros
NHL 2K7 Cons
Ultimately, both games are failures in their own ways. 2K Sports failed to respond to the anticipated EA challenge. The improvements in 2K7 are so minimal we wonder just how small the development staff really was. Meanwhile, EA, for all its upgrades on the ice, somehow made the game worse when youíre off it. Honestly, just how incredibly stupid do you have to be to design an interface that is worse than the one everyone hated before? And the best part is, this terrible GUI is at the core of all of EAís new sports games, apparently Ė certainly NCAA Football, Madden, and NHL.
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