It's great to have the NHL back on the ice. You can bet the developer of each of the hockey video game franchises were just as ecstatic as the fans to see the lockout come to an end this past summer. Imagine if it hadn't. How do you convince hockey enthusiasts to buy your latest game? How do you justify rosters that would have been up to two years old? Do you even release a new installment at that point? Thankfully we don't need to know the answers to these questions. Hockey is back, both on and off the ice, and the virtual season kicks off with EA's NHL 06.
Last year's installment of EA's hockey franchise, NHL 05, was a bit of a disappointment. The gameplay just wasn't right. Players had a tough time skating through the neutral zone without getting knocked around like a pinball, let alone in the offensive zone, and as a result it was frustratingly difficult to set up a decent scoring chance. But all that has changed in NHL 06. Instead of hip checking you to the ice, opposing defensemen actually use other means to knock the player off the puck, such as the lost art of poke-checking. The end result is a much more realistic flow to the game and more scoring chances, which leads to more goals and more fun.
One of the great things about EA's hockey franchise is how simple the controls are. It's an easy game to pick up and play, no matter what your skill level. This season, the developer has added a couple of new twists to the control scheme in the form of left-analog deking and right-analog shooting. The left-analog deking is just as it sounds, you simply move the stick as you skate down the ice and your player will try to deke past defenders and fake out goaltenders. The right-analog shooting is your chance to create some highlights reel goals. By moving the stick as you approach the goal, the player will attempt to execute one of a few signature moves, such as the Savardian spinorama or a between-the-legs shot. Of course, the more skilled the player under your control, the better the results will be.
Unfortunately, while the gameplay has taken a step in the right direction, the dynasty mode remains in disarray. For starters, the owner goals set for you at the start of each season are both inconsistent and inconsequential. For example, I began my first season as GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins (without Sidney Crosby, might I add). The owner decided the goal for the inaugural season was to get the number one overall draft pick. I guess he figured we didn't have much of a chance, but the team proved him wrong, finishing the season fourth in the conference. Suffice to say, we made the playoffs and even won a series before being knocked out in the second round. The owner was none too pleased, threatening to fire me despite the better than expected outcome. Over the course of the next three seasons, the owner's goal remained the same, retain the first overall selection in the draft, and the team defied him every time, making it to the playoffs each season and even threatening one time to win the Stanley Cup, only to lose in the conference finals. The moral of the story: the owner goals often make no sense and whether you achieve said goals or not, it doesn't make a bit of difference.
There are other problems with the dynasty mode as well. I simulated four seasons with the PIttsburgh Penguins and not once did the game pause to warn me that one of my players was seriously injured. If you don't constantly check your e-mail, you're doomed to miss any number of important notices, ranging from letters from disgruntled players to scouting reports. On top of that, not once did I receive a trade offer from another team. In fact, over the course of the four years as GM of the Penguins, there had to be less than a dozen trades throughout the league. The AI-controlled teams simply don't initiate any action.
When you get to the off-season, you'll come across arguably the biggest gaffe with the dynasty mode because unless you know to stop the calendar on July 1st, you'll miss the entire free agency period. If you click on the "Advance to Next Season" button, the calendar is nice enough to stop and let you participate in the Entry Draft, but it'll skip right past free agency. So make sure to manually sim up to July 1st because a gold mine awaits if you do. Why's that you ask? Because there's no competition to sign free agents. You can literally sign all the best players available and not have to worry about their salaries since there's no penalty for spending an exorbitant amount of money, nor a salary cap to abide by.
Not all is lost in the dynasty mode however. The upgrade budget is back, which lets you spend cash to improve the team's coaching, scouting, and financial components. There are also a few new welcome additions. The first is the ability to play the NHL All-Star game, rather than simulating it. On the topic of simulating games, you can now interrupt a simulated game with the Sim Intervention feature. Why would you do this? To earn extra cash for your team. For example, if your team is losing by a few goals after two periods of play, you can intervene and be thrown right into the middle of the action in hopes of making a comeback. The tougher the challenge, the bigger the reward. Last but not least, if you're not one to tinker with your team's lines every time one of your players receives a minor injury or is day-to-day with the flu, you have the option of passing those coaching responsibilities to your Assistant Coach, who will then fill out the lines as the need arises.
Presentation has never been a problem for EA's NHL franchise and NHL 06 is no different. The player models have been tweaked a little to help depict height and weight differences between players and as a result, the on-ice action looks better than ever. Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson return for another season in the commentator's box and they do a good job of providing play-by-play. The same can't be said for their banter during stopages in play however. How many times does one need to hear that Player X is the only hockey player from the town of Y? And of course there's EA Trax, providing mostly rock-based tunes for you to listen to while navigating the menus.
NHL 06 supports multiplayer for both PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Last year, both versions were hampered by noticeable lag. The controls weren't responsive enough, resulting in pauses between the button presses and the onscreen action. This year the Xbox version is much smoother, but unfortunately the PlayStation 2 still suffers from this problem. If you have the ability to jump online, you'll want to do so at least to download the latest roster update. If that's not an option for you, make note that you'll be playing with dated rosters that include only a portion of the off-season moves. In either case, rookies such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovenchkin do not appear in NHL 06.
Somebody at EA needs to stick a post-it note on the producer's door that reads "Dynasty Mode." It's a mess. I recommend the developer focus most of their attention in the coming year to that aspect of the game because I can't recommend this franchise to hardcore hockey fans until they do. With that said, the gameplay in NHL 06 has improved considerably, the new NHL rules have been well implemented and the easy to pick up controls lend perfectly to casual hockey fans seeking some good quick action.