Got around to renting EA Sports' NHL 07 for Playstation2 this past weekend. I haven't played it a ton yet, probably 10 hours, but as with most EA NHL games, that's just about long enough to find every single bug and gripe and problem with it (and wail my annual cries of "How did they miss that?!" and "Don't they test this?!").
However, I'm pleased to say that I'm actually enjoying it a lot so far. For the video hockey obsessed like me who rent or buy every yearly NHL game, I'd describe it as the good parts of NHL 2004 (Dynasty Mode), the graphics of NHL 2005 and 2006 (not much has changed there, course this is not "next-gen" we're talking about, although Sundin no longer appears as a giant fat man (I didn't see Lindros, since I released his virtual-ass to free agency but quick.) If you've never seen NHL 2006, Lindros and Sundin are very very wide men for some reason. Yeah, screenshot would be nice I guess. Picture the fattest hockey player ever to lace 'em up...then double it.
So, let's get to the details. The menus are good again, no longer have that f'ing horrible tenth-of-a-second delay when you move up or down (since 2005, there was always a slight delay on any button press in every menu), unless it's loading a player's stats or whatever. Plus if you hold up and down, you can scroll quickly through your team's roster...this makes a huge difference for us hardcore "Dynasty Mode" fans, since we probably spend more time in the menus than on the ice.
GRAPHICS: Improved all around, the menus are nicer looking than before, easier to read and quicker to get through. There's more in-game cut-scenes, but honestly, I end up skipping a lot of those. The goalie's seem to have better animations this year. Still too big of reflections on the ice...video game companies doesn't seem to think hockey is played on ice so much as it is white coloured glass. Although it does get marked up with skate cuts, etc, on my aging current-gen machine I'd much rather have a higher frame rate. I mean don't waste precious triangles on reflections.
All the old-skool jerseys are here and looking good, and the real coaches are once again behind the bench.
Widescreen...no support this again year in current-gen systems. I don't really expect it, since they want me to buy an XBox360, but the fact that all the player photos are anamorphic (why the long face?) just adds salt to the wound. Last year in 2K6, you could flip into widescreen progressive on the PS2, but the gameplay was still 4:3 (albeit stretched). Oh well, another year or two, we'll get there.
SOUND: This game sounds great, once you turn down the (personal judgement) awful garage rock box set that comes built-in. I apprieciate EA not wasting a ton of money on "big name" songs, and there's a lot of songs (Betcha can't hate just one!)...like last year, off goes the Menu Music slider. Ahh, that's better, now I can focus on my line combinations...Steen, Peca, Stajan...but who will play with Sundin? The best option would be to add your own music (or podcasts...?), but PS2 don't play that way.
Actually, one of the better features this year, although it's not new, just improved, is the "On-Ice" sound. This is where you turn off the recycled Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson commentary, in favour of hearing actual yells and chatter from the players on the ice. I really like this feature, it just adds a big piece of realism that was always missing, if you ask me. I think what's new about this year, and is really cool, is now you can hear the refs and linesmen! It's actually helpful, if you're playing with delayed-offsides, and you dump the puck in when you have a guy trapped, you'll hear the linesman yell "Offside, Offside!". If you clear the zone, then he yells "Go!" or "You're clear!". Good show, EA. Like a character in an aging Archie comic would remark, I dig it the Most.
Other audio goodies include the player's whining for penalties when they get tripped or highsticked, etc. "Come on, ref", "There's two teams out here!", stuff like that. I'm sure there's lots more too, I just haven't played enough yet, looking forward to hearing more, but I really like hearing the officials...maybe it's my hockey-nerdiness shining, but don't knock it til you're heard it. Again, this isn't a new feature, it's a few years old at least, but it's been perfected this year.
GAMEPLAY: EA's marketing this year, understandably, has been focused around the next-gen XBox360 version. So it's hard to find PS2 specific information and reviews...when I did, they were mostly pissed at all the stuff that's missing compared to the 360 version (like what did you think would happen!). Anyway, now that I have the game on-hand, I was pleased to find that some of the much-hyped "analogue skill stick" stuff is available on the PS2, but it's been improved 200% over last year's garbage-stick.
Basically, you skate your player around with the left stick, and use the right stick to make passes. This is a really cool feature once you get the hang of it, and it totally transforms the game from one of constant button mashing, to one of constant stick-flicking, which is much more fun, and is more satisfying when you score a one-timer.
I read a review saying one-timers are all but extinct this year. Couldn't disagree more, that's how I get 80% of my goals, it's both fun and endlessly satisfying, like any good video hockey game should be. I'm playing on Medium, since the computer just cheats on Difficult...same as previous years. LOL. I also like using the stick to win faceoffs, feels more real vs mashing buttons. The CPU seems to always score on his first or second shot, which is suspicious, but I'll reserve judgement on that until I actually learn how to defend. :)
Shooting is R1 and R2 shoulder buttons, which takes time to get used to, since R1 used to be Speed Skate...I'm often shooting the puck when I meant to turn on the jets.
The Dynasty or Franchise Mode seems to be about the same as it always is, which is fine: If it ain't broke, don't break it. New this year is the long awaited salary cap, which actually makes Dynasty Mode worth playing, since you can no longer have $6 million dollar guys at every position, you actually have to think. Not sure what happens when you go over, in real life you're not allowed to play until you get back under (I'm looking at you, New Jersey). I'm $10 million under after blowing out Lindros, Allison and Belfour, so I probably won't find out soon...not until my rookies mature and want more money!
You still earn points you can trade for unlockables by winning games, this year it's called "Trust Level"...something to do with how much the owner trusts you to run his team...I dunno about trust, but it's pretty funny to see the word "Faithless" on the screen, just struck me as weird.
Your players can lose their sticks and then go pick them up. That's a neat little thing to have, and mercifully it doesn't happen too often, so far so good. Dunno if sticks break yet, wouldn't mind seeing that sometime. Oh, and I've only seen the glass break once so far, another too-often event in previous years.
ODDS N' ENDS: As with all EA games, there's a few graphical/AI glitches here and there...like I said, I've only played about 10 hours so far, but I've already seen Tellvqist stop the puck on the goal line, then turn immediately around 180 degrees so not only is the crossbar now reamed through his chest, but he deposits the puck in his own net! I've only seen that once so far, but I know what I saw, and it sucked (I was holding my own in the game until that point...then all bets were off!)
Another odd thing is that when the computer wins a faceoff in his defensive zone back to the D-man, this dude immediately spins around and charges directly towards his own net!! I mean, directly! WTF?! Only by the grace of God does the puck not go in, even when it looks like the puck is firmly planted between the goalie's legs. This happens a lot! It is my belief that EA saw this bug, and instead of being able to fix the AI, instead threw some code in to magically keep the puck out. As dumb as it is, I am glad they seem to have addressed it, cause own-goals might happen in soccer, but I've maybe seen two in my life of hockey watching. And never from the D rushing his own goalie.
SUMMARY: I'll go out on a limb here and give EA's NHL 07 for PS2 an 8 out of 10. Feels weird to rank it so highly after the previous two years of hyper-active, padstacking action, but with the new skill stick moves, Dynasty improvements and enhanced audio, "07" seems like a good bet for my video game hockey needs this season. Bottom line, it looks good, sounds good, and above all, it's fun. Course, I haven't played 2KSports' NHL 2k7 yet, so we'll see. Til then, this is a good purchase, way to go EA, may your anti-competitive monopoly never cease...err, something like that.