Ice Hockey games are one of the most traditional sub-genres within our somewhat niche pastime, and have always served as a bastion of couch-bound fun amongst real-life friends, rather than the somewhat soulless push towards network play as an all-conquering facet of multiplayer. 2K sports NHL2K series has taken the mantle firmly away from EA’s grasp in the last few years, primarily due to some slick and intuitive controls, and developing a superb sense of inertia and weight to the on-ice protagonists. Whilst we’ve yet to see a truly next-generation remake of the series, 2K7 adds more than enough new content and a surprisingly original take on the sport to warrant more than a casual glance. One thing’s for sure; we’ve come a hell of a long way since NHLPA Hockey ’93 on the Sega Megadrive, and that’s no bad thing.
NHL2K7 on the Playstation 3 is largely the same beast as the title released on the Xbox 360 all those months ago. That is to say; a graphically accomplished and supremely slick representation of the sport, with a myriad of single-player and multiplayer game modes all wrapped up in the usual abomination of a 2K Sports menu system. I’ll keep complaining about this until the day I die no doubt, but seriously, it makes you wonder if the development team have even taken a cursory glance at any of the EA sports titles over the last few years. An attractive front-end can make all the difference for casual and new players to any franchise, and some serious work needs to be undertaken in that respect for next years version.
Navigating through the menu in question, all of the usual single-player franchise, exhibition and other modes are present and correct, as well as the standard, and by this point, highly-optimised network play. There addictive range of mini-games make a popular return, and it can be easy to lose hours in this mode rather than playing the game outright. There are no major surprises in the structural choices here, and in that respect 2K7 leaves all of it’s major innovation to gameplay elements, and largely gets things right.
Chief amongst the noticeable changes this year is the inclusion of a suite of graphical and audio elements entitled ‘Cinemotion’. The overall effect of this set of features is to attempt to recreate the atmosphere of any number of sports-themed movies from down the years, which in practice is not as bad an idea as it may initially sound.
Prior to each match, players are treated to a dressing-room cutscene showing off the relationship dynamic between the coach and the squad, followed by the camera swooping behind the team as they make the journey out to the rink. Once onto the ice, the dramatic camera movement continues, with a new default viewpoint that glides across the rink to give you the best view of the action. At first glance this won’t seem too much different to the standard 2/3 height vertical camera used in pretty much every ice hockey game since the 16-bit era, but with practice the new system works a charm, subtlety zooming in to create a much better sense of action and dynamism to the proceedings.
Not content with just upgrading the visual elements, 2K has also included a fully dynamic and Hollywood-style musical score to accompany all of the peaks and troughs that a tough encounter will generate. Score a goal to take the lead for example, and the music will subtlety alter to a more rousing and joyous tone, whilst conceding a goal will deliver a more sombre and gloomy accompaniment. There are a whole bunch of variations for any given situation, and mounting a comeback against a previously insurmountable lead is all the more fun when the music adapts to your mood in the process. It may sound like a silly idea but in practice it works wonderfully well, giving each heated encounter a suitably charged atmosphere, providing you can get into the spirit of the occasion.
Whether or not this proves to be a lasting feature is up in the air at the moment, but as it stands the ‘Cinemotion’ suite of effects have to rank as one of the more innovative features to be added to any sports game in recent history, and you have to give credit to the developers for even attempting it.
In a more traditional sense, NHL2K7 continues to deliver a solid and refined hockey experience. The key to any simulation of this type has always been tied into the ability to convey a sense of weight and motion (something that the EA series got correct right from the start), and in this respect the 2K developed game is the pick of the bunch.
Players sway convincingly when skating around the ice, and changing direction brings a subtle alteration of balance and footing into the equation. Body swerving past an opponent with the puck is a genuine challenge now, relying as it does on good timing and some deceptive tactics. Catching a player with a big hit is also more satisfying than ever in the PS3 version, with the ability to thrust the controller in the general direction of the opposition to take them out, whilst goaltending receives similar treatment. Passing and shooting are both slickly handled and straight-forward, with perhaps the only criticism being that the AI tends to shunt players towards easier one-time goals more often than not, leading to an over-reliance on cutting the puck back across goal for a team-mate to lash into the net from close range.
Whilst it generally manages to play a fair game, the computer AI tends to over-exploit the above tactic at times, and it definitely shows that the developers wanted to concentrate firmly on a passing game this time around. Although the lack of ‘Hollywood’ goals can put a bit of a dampener on multiplayer at times, with enough practice they can be achieved a little easier, although I’m still not quite sure why it takes so long to charge up for a slap shot. Overall though, with another friend on the couch and bit of experience between the two of you, NHL2K7 is a multiplayer dream, offering up some superbly tense action and a genuine lean towards skilled play rather than fortuitous rebounding. Not that it’ll stop you from accusing your mates all the same.
Having played both the 2K and EA hockey titles extensively this year, there is no doubt in my mind that 2K7 pips NHL’07 to the post as the title of choice again. The EA effort is no slouch mind, with some solid innovation in the form of the right-analogue driven ‘Total Stick Control’, and if you prefer a more instantly gratifying and visually pleasing game then it may be worth a look. If however, you want a hockey game to last the distance until the next holiday season, then look no further than 2K7. Just be sure not to get too carried away with the cinematic elements, it isn’t real you know.