It's great to have the NHL back on the ice. With the new salary cap and rules in place, it promises to be an exciting and competitive 2005-2006 season. Off the ice, the usual roster of NHL video games have made their way onto store shelves, headlined by NHL 2K6, the follow-up to last year's virtual hockey champion, ESPN NHL 2K5. And while EA may have signed away the ESPN license during the off-season, that hasn't deterred 2K Sports from attempting to repeat last year's dominating peformance. So lace up your skates, the competition on the ice is just heating up.
ESPN NHL 2K5 was the best hockey video game last year, hands down. The main reason: gameplay. NHL 2K6 carries on in that tradition. It accurately simulates the game of hockey due in large part to a multi-layered control scheme (7 to 8 pages worth in the game's manual). This season, a new Pro Control feature has been added, allowing the player to activate a series of passing and shooting combos by clicking down on the right thumbstick, targeting a teammate, and pressing one of the buttons. While the Pro Control is active, the player also has the ability to protect the puck from defenders or dump it into the zone. Simply put, this feature enhances the ability to make passes, such as while on the power play, as well as set up one-timers. Once you get used to Pro Control, you'll wander how you ever played without it.
On-The-Fly Coaching is another new gameplay feature in NHL 2K6. It allows the player to call strategies while on the fly, both offensively and defensively. For example, if you're skating down the wing ready to take a shot on goal, you can call for your forwards to crash the net for a chance to deflect the puck or grab a loose rebound. Each of the offensive strategies has a counter defensive strategy so you're not necessarily guaranteed to get a scoring opportunity by calling a special play. It could backfire and result in an odd-man rush the other way.
Other gameplay enhancements include a new Enforcer System. Certain players are designated as enforcers on your team and when they play physically (read: dish out hard bodychecks), they can actually lower the performance ratings of their opponents. This encourages players to use the enforcers for more than just fighting and/or keeping the bench warm. Lastly, a new Maximum Goaltending feature allows the player to make spectacular saves with the goalie by tappping the right thumbstick. If you're confident enough to take control of the goalie, it's a great addition to the game. For me, it's a recipe for disaster. I just can't keep the goalie in good enough position.
New features aside, you're probably asking yourself, does NHL 2K6 incorporate the new NHL rules that were established for the 2006 season? Such rules as no two-line pass penalties; the addition of a post-overtime shootout to decide games that are tied; or the new trapezoid zone behind the net, the only place where the goaltender is allowed to play the puck behind the goal line? The answer is yes, they are all in here. However, while the referees recognize that the center red line is removed during play, the players don't seem to. They continue to hover around center ice, waiting for a pass or until the puck carrier has reached the neutral zone before skating towards the opponent's blue line. In other words, if you were hoping to take advantage of the new rule by making long, aggressive passes to create some scoring chances, you might be a little disappointed.
The only change that's not incorporated into the game is the new salary cap owners must abide by when filling out their team rosters. It's not present in the franchise mode so teams can spend a fairly exorbitant amount of money to secure players without penalty. I'll give the developers the benefit of the doubt on this one, they likely didn't have enough time to implement such a feature before the game shipped. Here's to hoping a salary cap structure finds its way into the next installment of NHL 2K, otherwise the franchise mode will no longer be representative of the new NHL.
Lack of a salary cap aside, the franchise mode hasn't changed much at all. The only new addition in that regard is a "Team Chemistry" meter that measures the chemistry for each of your lines. To achieve perfect chemistry, you're encouraged to mix and match various types of players (ie. a pure goal scorer with a grinder), but I don't know what kind of effect bad chemistry has on a player or the team as a whole. For instance, when I played with the Atlanta Thrashers for a season, my first line had terrible chemistry, yet all three forwards finished in the top 20 in the league scoring. I'm sure their stats were affected to some degree, but clearly not enough to limit their ability.
If I had to make a couple of suggestions for the developers with respect to the dynasty mode, I'd recommend they knock the entry draft down to 4 or 5 rounds. It's a pain to draft through 9 rounds, particularly when you're drafting rookies who's stats are in the low 50s. They simply aren't prospects at that point, just filler waiting to be released the following season. Also, if an AI-controlled team makes you a trade offer, you should be able to examine the players coming the other way before accepting or declining the offer so you can see their stats and skill sets. With that said, I did appreciate the amount of trade offers made by computer-controlled teams during the season, particularly around the trade deadline.
The ESPN license might be gone, but NHL 2K6's presentation is as polished as ever. Visually, the game features new animations for both players and goalies, which helps make it look less like the players are floating and more like they're skating on the ice. Canadian hockey fans will love the new additions to the commentary team. Bob Cole and Harry Neale of Hockey Night in Canada fame provide the play-by-play and although they're not quite as enthusiastic as they are on television, it's still great to hear their voices during the game. Toss in some excellent sound effects and crowd noise, and it makes for an excellent TV style presentation.
Last but not least, NHL 2K6 again offers full multiplayer support, including online leagues and stat tracking. The online interface can be a little confusing to navigate but then again, so is the offline menu system. If you have online capabilities, you'll want to make sure to download the latest roster update. If that's not an option for you, make note that you'll be playing with rosters that are a little dated to be sure.
As the final horn sounds, the NHL 2K series continues to play like a champion. The new additions to NHL 2K6 more than make up for the loss of the ESPN license and the new NHL rules are well implemented, with the exception of the salary cap, or lack thereof. With sharp gameplay, polished game modes, a great presentation, and a price tag of only $20 USD, hardcore fans need look no further for their hockey fix.